Shisa! Shisa! Things I learned about Okinawa’s icon

Fair and temperate Okinawa: what beast, pray tell,  is this? Be it friend or foe?

huge stone shisa

You talkin’ to me, punk?

Spend any time on Okinawa, and you’ll see pairs of these creatures on rooftops, or perched at the entrance to most homes and buildings.

Coral Lagoon shisa

Coral lagoon shisa closer

“Whee hee hee! I just loves my bouncy ball!”

Like the guards of the palace, she maintained her stoic gaze into the distance, even as I snapped my photo.

They’re called shisa, and they’re everywhere. Okinawa’s icon, for sure. When you think of Okinawa, think of shisa. Just like when you think of garbage, think of Akeem:


Not to be confused with shisha (though I’ve heard people say this too), which refers to the hosed water pipe more commonly known as a hookah (the caterpillar smokes one in Alice and Wonderland). In the West, shisha is also the name of the moist tobacco you smoke with it.

Wear a fez and point to the camera, like a boss.

What animals are these? I heard that they were a cross between a lion and a dog, like the hybrid mythical beasts of yore. However, I’ve come to find out that that’s not entirely accurate (proof that Wikipedia isn’t always correct!). Most of these figures you see on island are lions, usually sitting on their haunches, with long, thick tails.



But then there are also “shi shi dogs,” positioned lying down and with more poofy tails. These are much more rare to find.

Good try, but no.

Nice try, but no.

Easy, boy.

That’s a good shi shi dog. Easy, boy.

The shisa are believed to be protectors. The female shisa, always placed on the left, has her mouth almost closed, to keep the good spirits within the home or building. The male shisa, on the right, has his mouth open, to scare away all the bad spirits. They’re spirit-guards, instead of bodyguards, if you will. Here’s a picture of my shisa by the front door, guarding some different kinds of spirits:

my shisa


The Okinawan equivalent to gargoyles, shisa were brought to the islands by way of China. Okinawa has had much more cultural influence from China than the rest of Japan, so you won’t find shisa all over mainland like you do here.


Am I the only one who thinks there’s something really wrong about this? I’m supposed to laugh, but will feel bad if I do.

Originally, shisa were made from broken pieces of roof tiles (waste not, want not, right?!). They were set permanently on roofs, and each roof builder had a signature style of shisa.

roof tile shisa

If I were a spirit, this would scare me, too.

However, when the World’s Fair Expo of ’75 came along, the organizers decided to have lots of clay shisa made, as souvenirs for all the visitors. Most shisa are made this way these days–smaller and portable for a more transient society. The cheaper ones are made from molds and may even come from China (!), while there are still workshops on island that craft them by hand.

"Come and get me."

“Come and get me.”

Is it just me, or do these guys look a little confused?

Is it just me, or do these guys look a little surprised and confused?

The beliefs about shisa, superstitions really, are cultural, not religious, even though you will find shisa guarding temples and other important religious or royal buildings, like Shuri Castle.

And guarding the sinks, in Shuri Castle's bathrooms.

And guarding important sinks, like in Shuri Castle’s bathrooms.

It’s good luck to receive a pair of shisa as a gift, and it’s also good luck, if you ever see a performance of dancing shisa, to be “bit” by one:


On the other hand, it’s considered really bad luck to reverse the shisa, so that the open-mouthed male is on the left, and the closed-mouth female is on the right. And here lies the irony in these pictures:


Wait a tic–something’s not quite right here.


Is that the closed mouth shisa. . .



This is in front of a hospital on one of Okinawa’s U.S. military bases. Apparently the local contractor tasked with making sure the shisa were placed properly was gone that day. Interestingly, the military families who go here (including myself) have stories of bad or misinformed diagnoses (or none at all when there should be one), issues with appointments, being prescribed lots of Tylenol for more serious problems, the list goes on. We chalk it up to budget cuts and bureaucracy, but many of the locals have a different theory entirely.

Not my fault. Don't look at me.

Don’t look at me. Not my fault.

My favorite shisa are the really goofy, random, or kawaii ones:

roadside shisa

Makes me want to stick my head inside, like a lion tamer.

police shisa 3

“Move along. Nothing to see here.”


"Shisa real beaut', ain't she?"

“Shisa real beaut’, ain’t she?”

"This construction work is for the dogs."

“This construction work is for the dogs.”

Pick a color, any color.

Would you like the house or Shisa salad?

Okinawa's version of Brussels' "Mannequin Pis." I know, it's ridonkulous.

Okinawa’s version of Brussels’ “Mannequin Pis.” I know, it’s ridonkulous.

Origami shisa? That's so Japanese-y!

Origami shisa? That’s so Japanese-y!

Here are my all-time favorite shisa (displayed at the Ben-imo/Purple Potato factory–more on that later), that make my heart smile every time I look at them. What’s not to love? They’re colorful and silly. I don’t generally like to collect a lot of random knick knacks or “tchotchkes,” but I can’t help wanting all of these (hint! hint!):

Happy! Happy! Joy! Joy!

Happy! Happy! Joy! Joy!

What souvenirs or collectible items do you have that make you smile?