My late brother worked as a guide at the U.S. Pavilion at the Ocean Expo in Okinawa in 1975. While there he typed up many pages of observations about people, places, and words of interest there. I scanned and edited the pages, added Japanese kanji for some of the words, and publish them here as a series.
TAKETOMI [竹富] island has a population of three hundred and a half, but still claims over twenty MINSHUKU [民宿] guest houses in service. These are mostly “private houses that provide lodging for transient guests,” as MINSHUKU are defined, but if this island thrives on tourism, it also suffers from KASO [過疎] or depopulation, with many of the young people finding their call elsewhere. But one old priest on that little isle has not left that beloved pile of dirt in the sea but once in his life, and that to go to KYUUSHUU [九州] to make a special presentation of 25 of his 2700 display items in his TAKETOMI museum. In his early sixties now & with a moist cough (TANSEKI [痰咳]) and small frail body that betray the poor condition of his health, he explained any and all exhibits that we dared to glance at, and many that we didn’t eye at all.
I had for some, time been wondering about the symbolism of tattoos (IREZUMI [入れ墨]) in the RYUUKYUU [琉球] islands, and he was the first to initiate me into the mysteries they hold. On the fingers are YA [矢] or arrows, it being the nature of an arrow to go towards its destination and never return, and therefore meant that the woman on whose hand the IREZUMI [入れ墨] was put, once married, was to stay that way. EIKYUU NI TOMARE [永久に泊まれる] ‘stay forever’ was the audio version of this visual reminder. Then on the knuckles are MASU [升], or ‘rice-measuring square-shaped wooden box’, which were meant to guard against hunger, the skin mutilation being like an offering to the gods in hope of plenty to eat.
On that part that everyone knows so well, the back of the hand, an ENMAN [円満], or ‘completeness, perfection, harmony’ is etched in a tattooed full-orb ink moon, signifying a peaceful and harmonious household. What more could one want? Still yet there is another symbol on the TEKUBI [手首], or ‘wrist’, which is an ITOGURUMA [糸車] or ITOMAKI [糸巻] in preference, which means a ‘spool, reel, or bobbin’. It was important for a wife to be able to handle threads. Actually, the expression ITOSABAKI GA UMAI [糸捌きが上手い], or ‘is good at handling threads’, means to ‘be skilled at playing a stringed instrument’. This goes further in the saying ITOTAKE [糸竹], or literally, ‘threads-bamboo’ but means strings and winds, or music. More of this later.
This priest had been collecting items for over half a century, beginning even in his early teens to sort and store his childhood playthings. Among these were OSHOUGATSU NO MARI [お正月の毬], or ‘New Year’s balls’ usually made by the mother and given to the children at that festive time of year. They are very colorful, and the priest was proud to tell us that all the colors were homemade dyes right from that island. The ball itself was of tightly wound SOTETSU NO KE KARA DEKITA [蘇鉄の毛から出来た], or ‘made of the leaves of the SOTETSU cycad palm’, which is all over the RYUUKYUU islands. The SO [蘇] part means YOMIGAERU, or ‘be resuscitated’ while the TETSU [鉄] is familiar ‘steel’. This interests me because the first time I heard of this thick stumpy looking palm was when an old cleaning woman told me they used to extract the starch (C6H10O5x), or DENPUN [澱粉] out of SOTETSU and eat it during the war.