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Photo: KANO Tatsuhiko

Praying to Gods and Buddhas. In Okinawa, it does not only take place before household altars and in front of graves. From time to time, one sees a kaminchu, who preside over the divine in the local districts, and yuta, believed to be psychics, offering ugwan at places of worship. These sacred sites are referred to as “ugan” in the Shuri dialect, and putting one’s hands together in prayer is called “ugwan.” The distinction between the two words is in the pronunciation but today, utaki is commonly said when speaking of ugan

Compared to mainland Japan, the relationship between the Okinawans and their gods seems to be closer. There are still many families who put their hands together in the kitchen to worship the “god of fire” on the first and fifteenth of every month of the lunar calendar and there are also some households left who even do yashiki ugwan (a ritual praying to the gods in the four corners of the house, before the gate and the bathroom for the family’s prosperity, performed in the 3rd (or 2nd in some places), 8th, and 12th month of the lunar calendar).
 When one experiences repeated misfortunes or mistakes, people in Okinawa suspect that they are being punished by the gods for ugan busuku1. Old locals say the lives on Earth are kept alive by fire (and rays of the sun), water, and wind (air and climate). Thus gods worry that the people are becoming too self-centered, forgetting their humility. Ugwan seems important for keeping human arrogance in check. 
 One cannot just ask the gods and Buddha for favors; so we also prepare some offerings. For convenience, I will call them ugwan goods and introduce them one by one. 

Photo: KANO Tatsuhiko

◯ Incense

In Okinawa, incense called “hira-ukō” is often used. Six thin incense sticks are tied together. The bundle is flat, hence the name (hira). There are no rules concerning how many sticks should be used for an ugwan, but twelve plus three sticks form the usual set. In other words, two sheets of “hira-ukō” and one that is broken in half are used. According to one theory, the twelve sticks represent the twelve months and the other three represent the harmony of heaven, earth, and humankind. 


Paper money also called “kabijin.” During ugwan, a set of three sheets is generally used. These represent the money to be used in the “world beyond.” We send these out by burning them after the prayer so the ancestors won’t have trouble buying whatever they need in the afterworld. Is money necessary in the other world? Do the gods (not ancestors, but the gods of fire, water, and earth worshipped in Okinawa) use money? Not many care about such small details.


Half sheets of paper used for calligraphy divided into eighths. Three of these are folded in half again to form a set. After the prayer is over, they are burned together with the uchikabi. These are said to become the clothing (fabric) one wears in the other world. In this case also, we just burn them, without paying much attention to unanswerable questions like, do they need to change clothes over there? or do gods also wear clothes?


About one 2.


This is ordinary uncooked rice, but the character “hana” (flower) is placed before the word when offered to the gods.

◯ Offering

Called “usanmi,” the formal offerings are mochi, pork, and nishime3 of such ingredients as kombu. Recently, however, it has become more lenient and fruits or confectionery sweets can also be offered.

There is a wooden box called a “binshī,” about the size of an encyclopedia, to keep all the ugwan goods, and is a necessity for the yuta who perform ugwan regularly. As one might expect, few ordinary families own one of these. 

Editor’s Note:

  1. Lack of ugwan.
  2. Approximately 180 ml.
  3. A Japanese dish in which ingredients are boiled with soy sauce.