“There’s a festival for shark Jizo [a bodhisattva who protects children], will ya come over an’ play? He’s a bit of a unique Jizo; he even appears in Japanese Folktales. We’ll perform the ‘releasing life’ ritual!”
The person at other end of the phone line is on Okikamuro Island.
It’s an island where all the charm of Seto Inland Sea is squeezed into one! It has even been chosen as one of the 100 Japanese fishing villages of historical cultural importance that the Japanese would like to conserve for the future.
Shark Jizo is a deity characteristic of islands with fishing cultures.
The Japanese character for the ‘shark’ of Shark Jizo can be read in two different ways: one is ‘fuka’ meaning ‘shark’, and the other is ‘wani’ which means crocodile or alligator. However, in olden times ‘wani’ was also the word most commonly used for shark. This is the reason why the character now read as ‘crocodile’ or ‘alligator’ was chosen for the shark Jizo.
Well then, on this shark Jizo…
He is a bit of a famous Jizo as he appeared in a long-running animation series! Running from 1974 to 1994 on the TBS channel, famous ‘Japanese Folktales’ were turned into 10-minute animated clips.
This is how the story goes:
“Back in ancient times, there was one female diver on Okikamura Island. She would get up early every morning, and after saying her prayers to the Jizo, she would head out to fish. She was a devout girl. One day when she was out diving the waves became rough, and even though she tried to cling onto some rocks her strength soon ran out. Just when she had given up hope, a shark appeared out of nowhere, took her on its back and delivered her safely to the shore. Only later did she find out that the shark that rescued her was actually the Jizo…”
It’s a typical folktale, but there is a surprising continuation to the story.
It’s from the mid-Edo period (between 1692 & 1779).
A group of Yamagata-ya merchants from Shimonoseki were sailing through the Okikamuro offing when a large shark began swimming at the ship’s side. It would not budge. It was almost as if it was glued there. The passengers concluded this must mean that the shark was looking for a sacrifice. To try and find out who it was that the shark wanted, everyone on board the ship threw their personal hand towels into the ocean. Of all the people on board, the towel of one of the merchant’s daughter’s sank in the water. Suddenly, in the midst of all the grieving and moaning, one of the sailors remembered the story of shark Jizo who had saved the diver. The members of the group all prayed together, “We will donate a Jizo statue, so please help us.” Suddenly the shark was gone, and the group was able to return safely to Shimonoseki. The next day, a stone Jizo statue was delivered as promised by Yamagata-ya.
Just like the folktale, this story should be taken with a grain of salt.
However, the stone Jizo statue actually exists!
It can be found standing in a row right next to the temple.
And there is an even further continuation to the story.
Try and count the statues!
Yamagata-ya did not send all 6 statues at once.
Engraved on the newest statue, it says Showa, year 58 (1983).
Believe it or not, this is the truth.
One for every half century! Even today, after 300 years have passed…
Descendants of the Yamagata-ya have donated the statues, generation after generation.
During the annual festival, the ritual for releasing life [setting animals free to go back to nature] is performed.
It’s a ceremony for thanking the sea, and for mourning the spirits of the living beings that had to be killed.
For the people of Okikamuro who make their living from the ocean, it is an indispensable and important ceremony. It’s the only day when most of the island’s people gather together.
Looking at the six Jizo statues by the temple, the releasing life ceremony, the shark Jizo in which the island’s people even now deeply believe, all of these things make you rethink the relationship between human beings and the sea.
And you begin to understand why Okikamuro Island was chosen as one of the fishing villages that the Japanese would like to conserve for the future.
Oidemase! Come over to Yamaguchi!
The temple is within the borders of the Buddhist Jodo Section Chionin’s direct branch temple, Hakuseiji. In addition to gathering the deep belief of the island’s inhabitants as the guardian deity of the ocean, a large number of visitors even from outside the island gather once every year for the Shark Jizo festival.
Address: 260 Okikamuro Island, Suōōshima-chō, Ōshima-gun, Yamaguchi-ken
Although the island was abandoned once due to Hideyoshi Tomotomi’s pirate ban, in 1606 people began living on the island again. Moving in to the Meiji era, the island’s population exceeded 3,000 people. It became known as “Kimuro sengen” (thousand houses) and was the most prosperous fishing village within the Seto Inland Sea area.
The 400th anniversary of the island opening up for living was celebrated in 2006. At the same time, it was selected as one of the 100 Japanese fishing villages of historical cultural importance that the Japanese wish to conserve for future generations.
Currently, the island’s population is under 150 people! Many islanders now work away from home, but every year during the Obon holidays, the island’s population swells due to them returning home.
It jokingly gets called “the island that sinks during Obon”.
Making visits to the island possible by car, Okikamuro Bridge was built in 1983.
Setouchi Finder Photo-writer: Masashi Fujimoto
Masafumi Fujimoto Hi there! My name is Masafumi Fujimoto. Until the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, I was engaged in editing production at an advertising company in Tokyo. However, the earthquake was a turning point in my life and I headed home to Yamaguchi. When I arrived, I was extremely energized and motivated to help revitalize the region, but I had a hard time adjusting to the motivation level of the local people. Around that time I met an elderly lady who said: "It doesn't matter if all the people move away from the island; that's just the nature of things. Someday people will come back again." Lessening the tension I’d been feeling, those few words relieved me hugely, and I was able to finally adjust. Since then, I've been involved in writing and editing magazines, and working in advertisement production, as well as doing a little bit of farming. I also spend time walking around Setouchi searching for the many, many voices out there.
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