Women of the Sacred Groves: Divine Priestesses of Okinawa

Women of the Sacred Groves: Divine Priestesses of Okinawa

Women of the Sacred Groves: Divine Priestesses of Okinawa

Women of the Sacred Groves: Divine Priestesses of Okinawa


Although most historical and contemporary religions are governed by men, there are, scattered throughout the world, a handful of well-documented religions led by women. Most of these are marginal, subordinate, or secondary religions in the societies in which they are located. The one known exception to this rule is the indigenous religion of Okinawa, where women lead the official mainstream religion of the society. In this fieldwork-based study, Susan Sered provides the first in-depth look at this unique religious tradition, exploring the intersection between religion and gender. In addition to providing important information on this remarkable and little-studied group, this book helps to overturn our mostly unexamined assumptions that male dominance of the religious sphere is universal, axiomatic, and necessary.


The Ryukyus are a chain of some seventy islands located where the Pacific Ocean meets the East China Sea, south of Japan and east of China. The largest and best known of the Ryukyu Islands is Okinawa--famous for the bloody battles fought there between the American and Japanese armies during World War II.

The Ryukyu Islands are the only known place in the world where women lead the official religion. Women are the acknowledged religious leaders within the home, within the clan, within the village, and--until the dismantling of the Ryukyuan Kingdom by Japan approximately 100 years ago--within the kingdom.

In 1994 and 1995 my family and I lived on Henza, a small island off the coast of Okinawa. We came to Henza to find out firsthand what it is like to live in a culture where women communicate with and embody the divine on behalf of the entire community of men and women. This book is my attempt to share with Western readers a culture which, in many ways, turns on its head some of the most basic paradigms of our own culture.

I thank the residents of Henza for allowing me to live in their village and for teaching me about their culture. I especially thank the noro and kaminchu who permitted me to attend their rituals.

I wish to express my gratitude to Teigo Yoshida of Tokyo for his ongoing encouragement and advice and for helping arrange my trip to Okinawa. I also wish to thank Takashi Tsuha and Masanobu Akamine of the University of the Ryukyus for their help in choosing a field site, getting settled in Okinawa, and making sense of my data. Special thanks to Yoshimi Ando, also of the University of the Ryukyus, for working together with me in sorting through and analyzing the population records of Henza, for so kindly serving as my link to other Okinawan scholars since my return to Israel, and for his spirit of true collegiality. Kurayoshi Takara, a historian at the University of the Ryukyus, spent hours teaching me about Okinawan history and generously helped me overcome the disadvantages of not being able to read many of the relevant historical sources.

With insight and laughter, Fran Markowitz discussed this manuscript with me. Judith Plaskow's encouragement and suggestions were immensely helpful. I thank Teigo Yoshida, Kaja Finkler, Laurel Kendall, Patrick Beillevaire, Dafha Izraeli, Sam Cooper, Pamela Feldman, Diane Jonte-Pace, Judith Lorber, David Murray, and Harvey Goldberg for reading and commenting on the manuscript. Special thanks to Eyal Ben-Ari for so generously sharing bibliographies, contacts, and ideas.

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