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Kami Asagi


Photo: KANO Tatsuhiko

In general, a building where the noro (priestess) performs religious festivals in shimas (villages) of the northern part of Okinawa Island, and Amami Oshima. In Okinawan houses, the mēnuya (front house), built on the east side of the front garden of the main house as a drawing room or for other purposes, was originally called asagi. To distinguish the religious building from the mēnuya, the former is called kami asagi or kami ashagi (god’s asagi.)
 There are two types of kami asagi. One is a floorless hut with eight pillars—four in the corners and four in the middle of each side—to support the thatched roof, or sometimes with a floor and simple walls shaped with pillars and wood. This type can be seen in the Kakeroma Jima or the Amami Oshima. The other in the north of Okinawa Island or Izena Island has no flooring but an earthen floor and can be distinguished by its extremely low eaves that people have to almost crawl to get inside. Thus, the difference between these two types is the height of the eaves. The low height may be an idea to prevent the rituals of the noro to be seen from the outside during festivals, yet, this does not explain the height of kami asagi on the Amami Oshima. 
 Kami asagi are built in specific locations, often on the plaza of the shima. A place to store farming tools on ordinary days becomes a holy space of celebration during the religious festivals of the village, where the beautifully dressed noro holds their designated seat, chants the song for the gods called umui, and drinks the miki1 as a ritual.

The noro’s religious celebration welcomes and celebrates the gods who descend from far beyond the sea or the utaki, the center of faith for the villagers. During such celebrations, the place the noro holds is regarded to be important. If the noro is absent, then a grass-made crown, kaburi-kazura, or the religious garment of the noro is placed there to conduct the event. A tamotogi, a log as a back support for the noro, is situated in the kami asagi. People worship this empty seat when the noro is missing. In some shima, such worship is called the tamoto-ogami.
 Kami asagi is a sacred site for the noro’s celebrations, as well as a spiritual and religious center for the villagers, along with the utaki, the protector of the village. However, as the waves of modernization reached the villages, wood-made roof-thatched kami asagi disappeared to be taken over by tiled-roof concrete-made buildings. What is even more severe is the shortage of successors of noro, the essential lead in the rituals conducted in the kami asagi. For this reason, many shima has suspended the event or maintained it but on a much-reduced scale with only two or three noro, which is very lonesome to hear.  

Editor’s Note:

  1. A fermented drink made with rice powder cooked in a pot until it becomes like porridge, mixed with thinly cut sweet potatoes.