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Photo: TARUMI Kengo

Ishigantō is an amulet placed on house walls to ward off evil spirits. The word “石敢當” or “石敢当,” both reading “ishigantō,” is engraved on nameplate resembling stone slabs and are fixed in the corner of a forked road or at the head of a T-shaped intersection. As you can recognize by its characters, it is of Chinese origin but they can be found anywhere throughout Okinawa. The reason behind these placements is interesting. It is believed that evil spirits are bad at making turns; if the spirit finds a house at such intersections, they come straight into the house. Since such uninvited guests are inconvenient, the ishigantō serves to block evil spirits. Now, does it mean that the demons crumble to pieces when they hit (當/当) the stone (石) deliberately (敢)?

Basically, an ishigantō is only set up at each end of the road so they should not be particularly noticeable. Yet, you cannot walk around without seeing one of these. In Okinawa, every road is either winding, branching out, or has dead ends. Right-angle crossings are much less seen. In Naha, you easily get lost when walking around unfamiliar routes as the streets themselves are somewhat curved. After many slightly angled three-way junctions, surprised, you find yourself coming out to unexpected places. Hence the need to install so many ishigantō. If it was a grid-structured town, just like Sapporo or Kyoto, there would be nowhere to set them up.

Recently, I turned a corner in Tsuboya and found nearly a dozen ishigantō lined up in front of me. It was a sight so overwhelming that if I were an evil spirit, surely, I would turn around and run away as fast as possible. Thinking it is unnecessary to have so many of them, I looked again only to find that it was a shop selling ishigantō and nameplates. One alone functioned as the amulet — the rest were for sale.