I was chatting with a Chinese friend of mine who runs a popular Chinese restaurant in Naha, when she mentioned that the first time she came to Japan, the thing that shocked her the most was that “Japanese houses are strange. You go in the entryway and there’s the toilet, right there. Unthinkable.” When she was looking for an apartment to rent, the first place she was shown had that layout.
“It would be inconceivable in China. The toilet is always to the rear of the house.”
Hearing this, I felt a sense of kinship with her. That’s because Okinawans feel the same way. We also have a lot of elderly people who hold to the old ways of design: “Houses should be built facing east or south.” “The kitchen should be in the northwest.” It’s believed that the gods reside in the very land we use for houses, as well as the houses themselves, so residences should be built in accordance. However, now most people feel those teachings are all superstition, so they set up houses any old way they like.
One of the methods of bringing luck that has fallen by the wayside in the modern age is funshī, better known in English as feng shui. Funshī was originally treated as a serious branch of scholarship, originating in Ante Christum Natum (BC) China. It was not a form of fortune-telling or a means of improving luck but rather a method of valuation intended to scientifically ascertain the inherent fortune of the land. The best land traditionally protected inhabitants from the wind (fun or feng) and provided them water (shī or shui).
It’s a well-known fact that modern-day Shuri Castle’s location was chosen based on its funshī, but many other settlements were also moved on the advice of the Shuri monarchy’s official funshī masters. In Okinawa, Saion is a famous funshī practitioner who learned his skills in China, where funshī originated. According to the Kyūyō, an official history of the Ryukyu Dynasty, Saion traveled to Fuzhou in 1708 where he studied and worked at the Ryukyu embassy, and over the course of two years, he obtained his knowledge of funshī. Upon his return to Okinawa, he began to actively apply his know-how to the land policies of the Ryukyu Dynasty. These practices in turn spread to the populace, and they began using funshī in the choosing of places for residences and graveyards.
The funshī that Saion spread as a means of land fortune valuation and the funshī that spread via folk belief gradually jumbled together as the long years passed. On the southern part of the main island, the god of the household came to be called Funshī. There are many older residences where, in one corner of the walls surrounding the property, you can find a little shrine for worshipping Funshī. In the northern parts of the main island some villages refer to graves as funshī.
Unlike the age of the Ryukyu Dynasty, in contemporary Okinawa there are no longer funshī masters for hire. However, when people are buying land or moving, there are still those who consult The Book of Divination or who hire a yuta, a traditional spiritualist, for guidance.
Long ago, The Book of Divination met out advice based on knowledge of divination studies, while yuta were defined as those who told the fortunes of the land by consulting spirits, but now there are Books of Divination that purport to sell the means to sense the beyond, and there are yuta who work through divination, so there’s no longer such a clear dividing line as there once was.
Now, do these judgments pan out in reality? I’m sure there are yuta whose extrasensory perceptions are weaker, and there are Books of Divination that give only a shallow understanding of the practice, so that means I cannot say for certain one way or the other. The answer probably changes as well, based on if the person seeking a consultation believes or not.
However, personally, I’m interested in the funshī traditions of the ancients, and I do believe in them. I’ve seen numerous examples in which the physiognomy of a house has various correspondences to the health and happiness of those who reside there. In fact, my father was spiritually sensitive and able to ascertain the physiognomies of the houses he entered. I’ve summed up his stories in my book Kamigwa, so if you have any interest, please do give it a read.