Ancestor Worship in Okinawa, Japan

A gathering at the family tomb for Shimi

During the month of April, each year, a Sunday gathering takes place at the family tomb (Ohaka). The occasion, known as Shimi, resembles a family reunion and picnic combined. Throughout the month, every Sunday, the roads may appear to have more traffic and many vehicles will be seen parked alongside the roads close to family tombs.

Vegetation surrounding the Ohaka is trimmed and the grounds are cleaned up by men, usually the week prior. The family agrees on a date whereby maximum attendance is achieved. Women prepare foods for the assembly, days in advance.

My family planned Shimi for Sunday the 17th of April 2011. It rained.

Flowers and drinks were placed at the entrance to the tomb as offerings. Incense was burned and prayers were offered. The food that was prepared and placed in front of the Ohaka, as an offering to the ancestor’s spirts, had to be removed quickly when the rain came pouring down. Everyone offered their prayers and left the tomb. That doesn’t stop Shimi.

Everything that was prepared for the event at the Ohaka was carried to the home of the eldest surviving son in the family. An altar called a Butsudan is another place in Okinawa where ancestor worship takes place. Food and drinks were placed on the altar. Incense, resembling charcoal sticks, was lighted.

Paper money, known as Uchikabi, was burned…

The family gathered around the table of foods and drinks, offered to the spirits and prayed.

One item from each type of food offered was placed along with the burned paper money for the ancestral spirits to take with them back to the spiritual world.

Children frolic, play and swing from the rafters and adults joke, chat and banter until the eldest woman present announces it’s time to eat.

Shimi, the ancestral worship ceremony, is not a sad occasion in Okinawa. It is a time to be happy and the spirits, who are always watching, enjoy seeing the family celebrating together.

Are there any joyous celebrations for the deceased in your culture?

Photography copyright: Mikesryukyugallery
Photographer: Rusty Robertson (Apprentice)

Read more:
Dia de los muertos in the USA
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An Okinawan wedding

About the author

Michael Lynch
Mike is a freelance photographer and writer who has been living in Okinawa, Japan for over 30 years.
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  • I find ancestor worship very interesting. Enjoyed this article and learning more about the celebrations in Okinawa. The photos really add to the story, too.

  • Cathy,
    I’m glad to hear that you enjoyed the information and photos, too.

  • It resembles a bit of a Polish tradition during which we visit tombs of our ancestors. We gather on 1st November at the tombs. The difference is that we do not bring food or drink. Instead we bring flowers (chrysanthemums) and light candles. Since it’s a holiday in Poland we do not go to work or school, but we travel to the ancestors’ tombs even long distance. It’s important for families to be at the tombs and reminisce about the dead.