Strangers in the Sacred Grove: The Changing Meanings of Okinawan <i>Utaki</i>
Author(s)Aike P. Rots
sacred natural sites
Religions. Mythology. Rationalism
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AbstractThis article discusses the changing significance of sacred groves (<i>utaki</i>) in contemporary Okinawa. Until recently, <i>utaki</i> were the domain of female ritual practitioners (<i>kaminchu</i> or <i>noro</i>), and men were not allowed to set foot in them. In many places, such taboos have faded away, if not disappeared altogether, and <i>utaki</i> have acquired new meanings in the context of mass tourism, heritage conservation, and environmental degradation. Although there are several studies of the ritual system of the Ryukyu Kingdom (1429&#8211;1879), little research has been conducted on the postwar and contemporary significance of <i>utaki</i>. This article begins by describing the current situation, using examples from the southeastern part of the island. It then identifies three main issues for the study of sacred groves in Okinawa today: the claim, made by leading Japanese scholars, that these are sites of primordial &#8220;nature worship&#8222;, supposedly similar to ancient Shinto; the recent popularization of <i>utaki</i> as sites of spiritual power, so-called &#8220;powerspots&#8222;, among tourists; and, finally, the emerging realization of their potential significance for biodiversity conservation.