Translating Japanese

Yuta 1

Yuta is a kind of shaman in Okinawa/Ryukyu and Amami islands in the far South of Japan. Unlike in the mainland Japan, Okinawa especially is said to maintain the culture to recognise the doings of spirits and deceased ones. Hence Yuta is also still an accepted part of the society whom many people trust and depend on.

Yuta is known to be ‘chosen’ by the god-spirits. Once they get the message from the spirits, the chosen ones can barely escape; running away or ignoring the sign would lead to bad fortunes, and may even result in death. Kamu-daarii “god-possessed” is also a known phenomenon that the chosen ones go through in the process, which is sickness in many ways, whether it is physical, mental, financial or even in the form of family death.

Okinawa, now a part of Japan as a nation, used to be an independent Ryukyu kingdom who had its own diplomatic relation with China. Since sixteenth century, the dominance by the Japanese (or its regional) government grew. Still it had maintained its distinct language, which is the only sibling language of Japanese, and its culture, but the modernisation and imperialism has had the Japanese language and culture invade them to a large extent.

It became one of the very worst battle fields at the end of World War Two, in which it is said that a forth of the population in Okinawa were killed. It came under the US rule from 1945 to 1972 till it was returned to be a part of the Japanese nation . Yet, still majority of the US army in Japan are located in Okinawa, and the large amount of land used by the US base camp has been a matter for protest and one of the focal points in Okinawa elections. It is not only once that I heard Japan lives on the sacrifice of Okinawa.

On the other hand, many folklorists saw Okinawa as retaining certain essence of the very ancient Japanese culture. (I might write about this another time. Anyway my knowledge is actually too limited to discuss anything about Okinawa. What I wrote so far is a very basic knowledge.)

The first account I am introducing (yes, it will be a series) is that of Mako Hazuki, a yuta in Amami island. Amami belongs to Kagoshima prefecture in Kyushu legislatively, but its cultural heritage belongs to Ryukyu (Okinawa). Her grandmother was a yuta. Losing her mother at the young age of four, Mako spent a lot of time with this grandmother as a child.

I was often at grandmother’s house. Back then, she worked at a factory weaving Oshima silk pongee during the day, and also worked as a yuta (also called ‘god’) at home.
I remember there was an alter that was strangely big for her small house. At that time, I was not really aware of what yuta was, and what she was doing.
When I caught cold, grandmother would often face the alter with Shochu sake in a glass, and chant some spell-like words into the shochu. Then she would hold the sake in her mouth and spray it to me.
“Now you’ll be alright”.
And somehow it would heal after two days.
Another day, there was a fire at a nearby house. I said to her,
“Granny! It’s fire, let’s run away, fast, fast”
But she kept sitting in front of the alter praying. The fire had already reached nextdoor.
However, after fifteen minutes or so since she started praying, the fire lost its speed and was put out. This incident left me in wonder.
Grandmother moved to my aunty’s house in Kagoshima prefecture when I was at junior-high school (7th-9th grade), so I had to live far from her for the coming years.


When I became nineteen years old, something happened to my body. I felt cold suddenly, and then I had a squeezing kind of headache, vomiting sensation, and dizziness. I felt so bad I could not keep standing. At first, it happened once or twice a day. Each time it only lasted for about ten minutes, but the pain and the number of its happening increased. Sometimes it happened more than ten times a day. However, to my wonder, it would get better suddenly if I lied down. This was the beginning of my ‘Kamu-daarii’.

I had no idea that it was Kamu-daarii, so I went to a big local hospital. I was just told that it was migraine, and although the pain did not vanish, it started to happen less and less over time.

After a couple of years, I was happily married and had two daughters. Yet after a short period of happiness, that migraine started again. I became unable to do much household works, I could only lie down and go through the pain that took over me. My husband naturally became less favouring to me, and we got divorced after ten years.
It was the worst suffering in my life. I had to let go of my two daughters too. I left home alone at the age of 29 years and ten months. I asked why only I had to suffer, and even thought of killing myself, thinking that there is no point of living. A part of me had hatred to the gods because of that.


She managed to overcome the hardship, and the migraine gradually became less.
Then she started to receive dreams of messages and predictions, some of which included tragic happenings around the world.

Around two years after my grandmother’s death, she appeared in my dream.
“I came to collect my sandals that I left.”
I said,
“Grandma, you’re a dead person. You should not come to this side.”
She looked very sad, and turning her face once, left with two other women who were standing on her both sides. The woman on her left somehow looked very familiar. Is she my mother? I called grandmother again but they did not look back any more, and left.

After a couple of months, she appeared again and said she has a request for me.
“Take over my role as yuta”
I replied,
“No way!”
But she kept appearing, although I rejected many times. I tried to keep her away by forming a kind of barrier on four sides, but she appeared again. After a couple of dreams like that, one day a music descended from heaven, so beautiful it was beyond description. My soul was touched and trembled with the sound that I cried and faced my grandmother, and said,
“Ok, grandma, I will take care of the gods… I will take over your role as yuta…”


She was led to learn from three yutas then on; with each master, the spirits would send her message exactly how many years she should learn from them, until her spirit told her its name to be prayed to in her alter.

Here are a few episodes of her work as yuta.

One year in December, one of the yuta friends asked me if I could find somebody.
“Where is he? Is he alive? Or…”
I asked my god to tell me as soon as possible. That night around 3am, a man appeared right next to my bed along with thunder. He was dripping wet in his blue shirt, he was sitting down on his heels, gasping for air and caught my arm strongly, as if he was trying to breath. I was scared and thought what to do, but I also understood well that he was seeking for help. But it was too late.
“Oh, he is already dead. And he’s under the sea.”
The following morning, I told my friend who asked me, that the man had already passed away. His dead body was found from the sea after seven hours.
I and my friend prayed for his peace, and thought
“Why, if he came before making such decision, we could have saved him.”
“Why didn’t he come earlier…”
I felt so sorry and frustrated. He had thrown himself into the cold, winter sea.

Another day in the same year, this is about a woman customer that came to my yuta friend. The moment I heard about her from this friend, something dropped from my alter, twice.
“Ah, this woman is in danger. You need to save her soon.”
In the evening of that very day, the woman threw herself from the top of a building. She had two small children left behind.
We felt deep sorrow that we could not save her.

What we can do as yuta is to pray to our gods so that the ill fortune of the customers and others will become smaller; for the big difficulty to become small difficulty, the small difficulty to become no difficulty.
We also give advice how they can make the hardship smaller; that is all we can do.
We are with gods through our prayer, and we live being protected by the gods.”



The video below has Amami yuta, though different from Mako, whom I quoted above. From around 2:30 appears Yuta for the rest of this video.

Hazuki, Mako (2014) Yuta: Haruka naru kamigami no shima [Nampo-Shinsha]

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