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Photo: KANO Tatsuhiko

We often hear people say, “It’s hectic during the Bon festival because we have the tōtōmē at home.” Tōtōmē is the ihai1 in Japan, though this is not all of what it means. The importance of tōtōmē in Okinawa is very different from that of mainland Japan.

In Okinawa, the tōtōmē is deemed extremely important as a subject of ancestral worship. It has a rectangular frame where wooden tags scribed with the names of the deceased are arranged in two rows, which is something you don’t see in Japan. I have heard that some old families have large tōtōmē as wide as 60cm. 

A family owning a tōtōmē is obliged to welcome great numbers of relatives at every annual event, such as the Bon festival or New Year’s Day. Due to such a heavy workload for housewives and the financial burden it causes, young women in Okinawa turn away from men with a tōtōmē.

The oldest son inherits the tōtōmē. If absent, it’s passed on to a male relative. There are complicated rules which decide who is a suitable heir and who is not. I will not go into all the specifics of the conditions, but there was once a startling case when the inheritance rules handed down the tōtōmē to an immigrant family in Brazil. The whole family decided to move back to the island; no matter how far away you live or your social status, the tōtōmē has the magnetic power to pull you back to Okinawa.

The tōtōmē cannot be passed on to women. As a matter of course, some argue that this is an example of sexual discrimination. In 1980, a series of articles in Ryukyu Shimpo reporting the tōtōmē inheritance problem set fire to this dispute. Telephones rang off the hook and a flood of letters was sent to the newspaper office, revealing how deeply rooted the issue is. 

Another complicating factor of the tōtōmē issues is properties. The one who inherits the tōtōmē also inherits the land property, and thus, it also involves quarrels over assets. Some may suggest separating the tōtōmē from the properties, but in such a case, it would undermine the nature of this tradition. Within ancestral worship is embedded the appreciation to the deity of the land for allowing the family to live long. Our ancestors could not exist without land; thus, they cannot be separated.

As such, the tōtōmē, which seems like simple pieces of wood, is much more than that. They are like the hinges that connect the people: albeit its many social problems, the Uchinā society would fall apart if it were lost. It is indeed a very difficult matter. 

Editor’s Note:

  1. Symbolic nameplate of the deceased