Onari or unai means “sisters.” We might say that the onarigami is a belief in the spiritual power of sisters – that is to say, the spiritual power of older and younger sisters that protects their brothers. For a man, sisters are regarded as both human and the divine. When a man goes out to sea or to war, he brings his sister’s tisaji1 or a bit of hair from his sister as an amulet or charm. There is a tale of a sister who transformed herself into a white bird and flew to her brother’s aid when he was in trouble in a remote place. The belief in onarigami is found in all areas of Okinawa except for Miyako Island and has had a great influence on the Okinawan social structures.
If we consider the onarigami as a power that extends beyond that which is for their brothers but instead is a spiritual power that all women possess, we see a form of dual power in which men govern the profane and women govern the sacred. The Nīgan (root deity) is an onari and protector of the nītchu (root human, i.e., the oldest family head in the village) who serves as the spiritual leader of the world governed by the nītchu.
In the same vein, in each territory where the powerful clans of the aji governed, there was a noro, a priestess. During the Shō Dynasty, when Ryukyu was already united and governed by the Shō kings, the profane matters were dealt with by the king and his administrators while spiritual authority belonged to the Kikoeōgimi, the high priestess and the priestesses under her.
A similar system existed in ancient Japan as illustrated in Kojiki2 and other ancient texts. The theory that Himiko was a priestess may also have some connection with the onarigami belief. While military power was wielded by men in post-medieval Japanese society, female spiritual power remained important in Okinawa, as in the saying “inaguya ikusanu sachibai” (women take the lead in war), where it is said that women stood on the front lines and used their magical powers to overwhelm the enemy.
Even today, many Okinawans genuinely believe in the spiritual power of women. The fact that the noro and yuta possess significant spiritual power and influence even now is indicated by the many entries related to them in this encyclopedia. If you would like to discover more about Okinawan beliefs on how a woman’s spiritual power affects a male relative who works on the perilous sea, I recommend reading Umi no Muribushi3, a novel by Tanigawa Kenichi. In the field of folklore and anthropology, Onarigami no Shima4 by Iha Fuyu, and Imouto no Chikara5 by Yanagita Kunio are indispensable readings.
- A hand towel-sized piece of cloth
- Japanese Ancient Chronicle
- The Starry Sea
- The Island of Onarigami (currently not translated into English)
- The Power of Sisters