Clay in Okinawa
Every culture has its own history of art and tool development. One of the most interesting things about Japan, is that it has such a long and isolated history. The fact that for much of Japan’s history it was culturally isolated, means we can find answers to some of today’s questions in the relics of the past.
There are many questions, but if you travel through Okinawa Prefecture, you might find yourself wondering about the red roofs, the shisa lions, and the many pottery shops. Its true, Okinawa has its own history and culture, separate yet intertwined with mainland Japan, yet like many of Japan’s questions, the answer lies clearly in history.
Where Clay Comes From
The Okinawan Islands, like Japan, are volcanic. Most of them were created by tectonic movements around the Eurasian, Pacific, Filipino, and North American Plates. In Okinawa, the islands were mostly volcanic sea mounts that built up coral lacing before being thrust out of the water by more geologic forces. This is why there is a proliferation of white coral rocks throughout Okinawa. But what about the fine red clay?
Like many aspects of Okinawan and even Japanese culture, clay comes from China. Vast swaths of China, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan* are desert. Storms and wind suck the fine particles of dust into the atmosphere where prevailing winds take hold and send it over Japan. Over the centuries the slow accumulation of these fine particles of dust have led to large quantities of clay on the Okinawan Islands.
It’s no wonder that humans put such an easily sculpt-able material to use. With the most basic tools, clay can be used for anything from housing to food containers. At most major castle ruin sites there are ample examples of past clay usage.
Pottery is perhaps most useful as a container, since simple trays and plates are easy enough to form from wood, or even from beating metal. The convenient curves make the containers useful for rice, sake, water, and other materials. Where creating waterproof metal is difficult, clay is simple and plentiful in Okinawa. At the Katsuren Castle Ruins, there is a museum that shows the remains of clay pottery used for grain storage, eating, and decoration.
In other places in Okinawa, clay pots were used to hold the dead when cremation was unavailable. Since remains were usually stored in ohaka, clay pottery provided a convenient vessel. These remains are from the Yajiyagama Caves on Kume Island. Its unknown where these remains came from, but it is certain that they are very old. It is supposed they are the remains of war or famine and were placed in the caves since no ohaka was available or large enough.
There are many other uses for clay though. In Okinawa, where strong fall storms demand strong housing, many traditional buildings and houses are roofed with tiled clay set in a white paste concrete over a wood frame. The white and red housing has become a symbol of Okinawa, with a unique aesthetic appeal. The style perhaps has its roots in China, which makes sense due to the large amount of economic and cultural trade between the old Ryukyu Kingdom and China.
Another item made of clay seen throughout Okinawa are the shisa lion protectors. These little statues are placed outside Okinawan buildings to protect them from evil spirits. Usually they are paired, with the male on the left with open mouth, and the female on the right with closed mouth. There are many variations in shisa, and I’ll do a more in-depth post later.
Today clay is still widely available and used for shisa, farming, roofing (though not as often), and decorative tableware. If you stroll through any tourist area in Okinawa, you’ll likely find artisan galleries with interesting cups, hashi holders, plates, jugs, bowls, and more. These artisans produce interesting and useful wares that harken back to traditional Okinawa.
Where many westerners pride symmetry and perfection, the innate imperfections in handmade pottery often appeal to the Japanese aesthetic, making each piece unique and beautiful in its own right. If you visit or live in Okinawa, take the time to find a few pottery shops and find something unique you can use every day.
On Kumejima, you can even take classes to make your own shisa!