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Photo: KANO Tatsuhiko

The Izaihō is a divine ritual that takes place on Kudaka Island, a sacred place from the old Ryukyu Kingdom. It is held once every twelve years in the year of the Horse according to the lunar calendar. The ritual is held for women between the ages of 30 and 41, and they must be born on the island to qualify as a member of the island’s sacred women. Among the great variety of rituals and festivals in Okinawa, this one has been attracting particular interest. The main ritual begins on the full moon in the 11th month of the lunar calendar and lasts for four days. During this time, the women, known as nanchu, are initiated as sacred women and inherit the sacred names of their grandmothers. These names are so sacred that they are not to be told even to their husbands. Through the Izaihō, they receive new spiritual powers and become “sister gods,” or Onarigami, who protect their brothers and pray for the prosperity and safety of houses and villages.

I visited the island to witness the Izaihō for the first time in 1966. Since then, I have witnessed both the pride of the women who participate in this divine ritual as well as the heavy burden that ties them down to the island their whole lives. There are very strict conditions that women must adhere to. Those who have been married before or who have married a man who is not from the island may not participate. Women who become nanchu are obliged to hold about thirty communal and home rituals a year until they have their retirement ceremony at the age of seventy. In 1966, there were twenty-five nanchu, but this number had decreased to eight members by 1978. In 1990, no official Izaihō was held. The last ceremony was sombre. There were only a handful of the descendants of the sacred Shimu Clan – descendants of Ititigurū, who was the mythical originator of this divine ritual – to conduct the ritual of Nanatsu-bashi Watari (The Crossing of the Seven Bridges).

I can still vividly remember seeing them; the women dressed in white robes glowing in the darkness of the night cutting through the wind with wet hair. Under the direction of a nuru, the highest-ranking priestess on the island, the utchigami (her assistants), Ititigurū, and the elder sacred women called the hata gami, the group runs at full speed across the Nanatsu-bashi, which is the border between this world and the other. This sacred crossing of the bridge is the test that determines whether the candidate is suited to be a nanchu. It is believed that those who are not qualified will fall and die. After the women go through a further series of rituals in a retreat house and a sacred garden, they become the new sacred women of the island.

On Kudaka Island, the people who serve the gods through prayer are also, in turn, worshipped. With the Izaihō ceremony, the women not only serve to represent the gods but also become gods themselves, revered by men.
 These women, who cherish the sacred ritual places called Utaki and the Niraikanai, the land beyond the ocean in their hearts, are truly beautiful.