Army, Okinawans Come Together for Sacred Site Cleanup

By Mr. Richard L Rzepka (USAG Okinawa)April 7, 2016

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U.S Army Garrison - Okinawa Soldiers and hundreds of volunteers from the Okinawa community came together April 3 to beautify the seven sacred sites (Utakis) on Torii Station in preparation for Shimi -- a Japanese ceremonial tradition to honor the dead.

Throughout the month of April, Okinawa families will gather at ancestral tombs across the island to pray and celebrate the lives of their deceased loved ones. A key part of the tradition is the cleaning of the tomb and other sacred sites.

Torii Station community relations personnel work closely with the local wards to ensure that these sites are accessible to families and coordinate joint efforts like the sacred site cleanup.

"It's a great opportunity to reach out to the community as a good neighbors and also to keep our installation clean," said Community Relations specialist Yumiko Uchima. "Not to mention, those Army volunteers had a chance to learn Okinawan culture and tradition," she said.

Several Soldiers with the Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers program, along with Soldiers and families from the 716th Military Police Battalion, took time on their day off, to help clear the hallowed areas from vegetation and debris. A central pillar of the BOSS program is volunteerism.

"It was a great opportunity for many Soldiers to interact with local people and build a relationship with the community around the base," said Sgt. James Turner, BOSS President. "Many Soldiers got to see some of the cultural sites located on Torii Station for the first time, and gained a new respect for Okinawan history and culture."

For Turner, being able to give back to the community is an avenue to broaden Soldier's experience while on island.

"It is very important to give Soldiers a chance to give back to their community, showing that they want to have an appreciation for the local culture and not just be a bystander during their time here on Okinawa," said Turner.

Torii Station is home to seven sites that are considered sacred by the local community. Village residents honor the Kabiginga and Uka Utakis out of obligation to a water deity, while the Mechinshi and Kumindo sites are dedicated to the male and female deities who built Sobe Village.

Perhaps the most famous Utaki on Torii Station is the Kuragaa spring well, where according to the Akainuko legend, a red-hair dog found the spring during a drought. Throughout the year, visitors come to the spring to pray for the blessing of water.

The Hunukan and Uganhira Utakis serve as the sacred grove of the village hearth deity and the location of the village guardian, respectively.

"As you know, there are seven sacred sites on Torii Station," said Sobe Ward Chief Takashi Ikehara to the assembled volunteers. "We are here to honor and respect those sites to clean-up before Shimi. It is a great turn out, we have lots of Sobe community members and volunteers from Torii Station joined together to clean-up. As Okinawan, we embraces the concept of Yui-Maru (meaning to help each other). "We should cherish and honor this spirit of "Yui-maru" concept so that we can develop our friendship," he said.

U.S. Army Garrison -- Okinawa places a premium on its relationship with its neighbors and appreciates open lines of communication used to forge a solid relationship, according to officials.

"We develop our friendship to create the foundation of trust, we support each other whenever we need some assistance," said Uchima. "We maintain a good relationship with local community, we can solve the issues through open communication."