The Stone Lion Racism Test

This is the lion dog of Okinawa. And in today’s video, I want you to tell me
who is allowed to build one. This is a stone lion. It’s a mainstay of East Asian culture
for thousands of years running. Virtually every nation here has it
as a part of their society. Whether they call it a shishi, a shisa,
singha, simha, haetae, gang-seng-ge, they’re all really meant to mean the same thing. It’s just they are most certainly
not the same thing. They’re similar, but thousands of years of change and
adaptation have produced slightly different versions, which are all molded by the many varied
environments that have taken them as their own. And those adaptations are what
I’m here to talk about today. If you see a shishi in China,
it tends to look like a lion. A real lion. One you could see in a zoo. At the very least you can tell that at some point
somewhere down the line, somebody saw a lion and this was their attempt
to recreate it. But that’s not the case in Okinawa,
where they call it a shisa. Looking at these deformed little figures, it is
immediately clear that nobody here had ever seen anything remotely close to a lion. At best, they might have seen an Iriomote
bobcat, but since they’re called lion dogs when directly translated, I think it’s more
than likely that they’re meant to be a dog. Because while at some point China
may have told them about lions, Okinawa, and for that matter even their colonial
overlords in Japan, only had dogs. Yet despite representing an animal that never
existed based on an animal they’d never seen the shisa are one of the Ryukyu kingdom’s
most treasured customs. Other East Asian societies may have taken
to these protective figures in their own way, but nobody has done it like here. Virtually every house, every business, every
government office on this island chain features a pair of these unmistakable creatures. They are here to ward off evil spirits. They keep in the luck. These are the creatures that fought
against the dragons from the sea. These are the creatures that kept
the forest monsters at bay. Why wouldn’t you have them? Even if you don’t
believe they’re going to do it why risk it, why not put them up? But unfortunately for the kingdom of Ryukyu,
they were doomed regardless of their lawn ornament. And because they were too small
to survive their neighbours, Japanese lords vassalized the kingdom in the early 1600s and after injecting a large swath of their culture onto the local people, properly
colonized them in the mid-19th century. Okinawans are second class citizens in Japanese
society, and at times have faced brutal treatment. In the eyes of their colonial overlords, they were,
and to an extent still are, a lesser people. Marrying an Okinawan was considered a stain
on your family line, and was to be avoided at all costs. It kinda still is. During world war two, the local people were
killed en masse by a suicidal imperial army espousing mainland loyalty propaganda. And almost a quarter of the island’s
pre-war population lost their lives. In the aftermath, with American colonization
in full force, the remaining locals were convinced to take a Japanese identity simply as a
means of holding back the American one. By the 1970s, everything was in disarray. What hundreds of years of Japanese colonialism
had attempted, the fear of Americans achieved in a single generation. People took to it, because they thought it
was better than the alternative. The languages of Okinawa, varied across the island
chain, all dwindled and were replaced by Japanese. The indigenous spiritual history virtually
died out completely, and religious festivals mimicking those of mainland Japanese
society came to take their place. Much of what is known today about Okinawa
is only done so through Japanese texts, with all the biases that come with them. In 1972, America returned these islands to Japan,
but their soldiers have stuck around. They maintain bases here to this day with tens of
thousands of people from all across their own empire. Soldiers that display the wide array of culture
and racial differences that have come to define the American melting pot. And subsequently, Okinawa today is one of
the most multicultural parts of Japan. This is the only part of the country where I know
more people with foreign backgrounds than local. I know people here who are Taiwanese women,
Persian-Canadian men, ancestrally Japanese who have been here for six generations,
Native Americans, and even once in a while, a true Okinawan. But yet they’re all representative
of this new Okinawa. An island where ancestral culture has
very little bearing on modern action. The ability to separate what came before with
what is coming now is virtually impossible. There are no native Okinawans living
as they once did, and the idea that there ever will be again
is a fairly clear impossibility. This is the new world. The world they inhabit. We inhabit. And nobody is pretending it got this way
through kindness or sympathy. But that doesn’t change what it is. So my question here is, who gets to
build the Okinawan shisa? Is it offensive if I had one on my deck? It’s very easy to look at a white Canadian
in a feathered headdress and say that’s wrong. You can feel the history of the abuse in the action,
and so it’s therefore not the action that’s causing the offence
but the history behind it. The clothes aren’t offensive, it’s the nuance of
what’s being brought up by you wearing them. But I suspect a lot of that is merely because
I understand that specific problem by being a part of it. I’m so directly connected to both
the cause and effect that I feel it there where I don’t in Okinawa. And certainly while it’s not the case for me
in Okinawa, it is for many people I know. So I want to look at them. If my Taiwanese friend wants to ward her home
from evil spirits, is it imperative that she do so with the Taiwanese version of the lion
or can she use the Okinawan one? After all, Taiwan never conquered Okinawa. They’re not an oppressive force. But if she’s ok, what about
her American husband? What about their household? It’s mixed. It’s even more complicated
for someone who is Japanese. Because are the mainlanders expected
to use stone as they do in their homeland, or can they use coral as is often the case in the local
custom of the land they’ve conquered and inhabited? Are children born in Okinawa with Japanese
heritage allowed to make it out of coral or only if they contain Okinawan blood? So if you’re still with me, let’s take
that one step further, okay? What happens when they start to sell them? Because of course tourists want souvenirs,
and few things sell better than the lion you see on every wall. Almost no tourist site here fails
to include small shisa figurines, and very few tourist sites are
owned by Okinawans. Even to this day, the systemic oppression of their
people means that they have far less access to the economic wealth that allows them
to run businesses like mainland imports. So, who controls the shisa? Well, it seems like everybody. You cannot turn back the past. The cat(-dog) is out of the bag. Love it or hate it, Okinawan history is being used
to sell German soft drinks by Japanese importers to American soldiers. But it could be worse. They could be ground to dust. They could be destroyed. Their memory could be wiped away. Yes, culture is a spoil of war. Yes, the powerful will always
control the weak. But you can’t turn back history. It always moves forward, and culture has
always been whatever we do with it. Modern Okinawans, be they from Taiwan or Nepal
or Japan or America, love their little stone pets. Even if they never saw the animals that
they are truly meant to represent. This is Rare Earth.


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