Shiimi: A time to remember and honor the dead in Okinawa
April marks the beginning of one of Okinawa’s most important and sacred religious ceremonies, known locally as shiimi. This particular ceremony takes place exclusively in Okinawa Prefecture and thus isn’t found anywhere else in Japan. Thousands of families across the prefecture take a pause from everyday life to honor their ancestors while also praying for the health and happiness of those still among the living. The gathering known as munchu is considered one of the luckiest days on the lunar calendar.
Okinawans believe that during shiimi the spirits of their ancestors return to their earthly homes for only a brief time. Beginning on April 4th this year in solar calendar, the annual festival runs for several weeks. While most of shiimi events take place on the weekend, families have the freedom to choose whichever date is most convenient to join together to prepare food and clean the family tomb where feast called kwatchi will be served, complete with a variety of traditional foods and toasts made with beer or locally produced awamori. Afterwards, the party will be relocated to the home of a family member where the festivities will continue long into the night.
Although the belief in ancestor worship has faded in recent years, there remains a strong emphasis on the customs and rituals for honoring the dead in modern day Okinawa. So if you’re out and about in the next few weeks and happen to witness large gatherings at homes and family tombs, you are most likely stumbling across one of the most sacred and long-standing traditions in Okinawa.