Okinawan tombs

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The Ginowan-udun tomb in Sueyoshi Park, in Naha

Burial practices in Okinawa developed along a separate lineage from those of mainland Japan; though still closely tied to Buddhism, Okinawan graves and the practices surrounding them bear much more in common with customs from certain parts of southern China.

Burial in pots laid in natural caves or under rock outcroppings was once standard, but was later replaced by more elaborate stone tombs. Stone tombs in the form of houses, called hafû baka ("roofed graves"), are one of two chief forms these take; the royal mausoleum of Tamaudun is the most prominent example of this style. The Ginowan-udun tomb in Sueyoshi Park, in Naha, is a famous example of the other, particularly distinctive, Okinawan style of tomb, which is said to resemble a turtle shell. Such tombs are called kaami nu kuu baka ("tortoise shell graves") in Okinawan.[1] The practice of constructing tombs in this "tortoise-shell" style first spread to Okinawa from southeastern China in the 17th century, and became popular among the scholar-aristocrat elites, and then among the broader population by the end of the 18th century.[2] This spread of Chinese-style tombs coincided with the spread of popularity of feng shui, and with a sinification more broadly of many aspects of Ryukyuan culture in the 18th century.[3]

Mound tombs remained quite common in Okinawa into the early modern period, and today it is quite standard among Okinawan people to have the whole family buried in a common family tomb. Unlike in mainland Japan, where graves are typically located on the grounds of Buddhist temples, Okinawan tombs are located on hills or in urban cemeteries, separate from any larger institution (such as a temple).[4] While Japanese families may also share a family tomb, with the cremated remains of family members being interred under a common tombstone, Okinawan tombs are small stone structures unto themselves, with several chambers under a single roof. Though Okinawan tombs can take a variety of forms, all share the same basic structure, insofar as they feature a space for burials, a space for the washing of bones (senkotsu), a space for gatherings and ceremonies, and a roof. The chief difference is only in the shape or style of the tomb.[5] When a family member passes away, their body is placed within the central chamber to be simply "exposed" (fuso)[6], and some time later the bones are washed in a ritual known as senkotsu (lit. "washing bones"), and placed in a ceramic or stone urn, which is then interred alongside the urns of other family members in one of the tomb's side chambers. Living family members gather and picnic in a small stone-paved area immediately in front of the tomb on shiimiisai, a grave-cleaning festival related to the Qingming Festival observed in China. This small paved area may have been conceived of as a space for collecting and storing qi, in accordance with feng shui philosophies.[3]

Funerary Rituals

Though Okinawans traditionally do not bury their dead in coffins, coffins were used in traditional funerary processions. In many communities, the coffin was placed in a special palanquin or carrying box known as a gan (龕), which was typically kept in its own dedicated shed on the outskirts of the town. The procession also included silk parasols called tingee, and several types of banners.[7]


  1. "Shuri ma~i" 首里ま~い. Pamphlet. Naha City Board of Education Cultural Properties Division 那覇市教育委員会文化財課, 1989.
  2. Plaque at Izena dunchi tomb, Shintoshin, Naha.[1]
  3. 3.0 3.1 Akamine Mamoru, Lina Terrell (trans.), Robert Huey (ed.), The Ryukyu Kingdom: Cornerstone of East Asia, University of Hawaii Press (2017), 90-91.
  4. Aike Rots, "Strangers in the Sacred Grove: The Changing Meanings of Okinawan Utaki," Religions 10:298 (2019), 1.
  5. Gallery labels, Okinawa Prefectural Museum.[2]
  6. Gallery labels, Okinawa Prefectural Museum.[3]
  7. Gallery labels, Okinawa Prefectural Museum.[4]