Travel to Okinawa, Japan with Keith and Michael as they take you on a photographic journey from past to present–the story of the Tomori Lion.
Its image has graced both the pages and cover of several books about the “Battle of Okinawa.” One famous picture from the period shows only the solitary stone statue perched on a knoll that is completely barren of vegetation. Another picture shows U.S. military personnel hunkered down beside it to avoid enemy snipers on the next ridge.
With its sardonic grin and its piercing eyes fixed in a resolute gaze, the Tomori Lion statue is one of the Battle’s best known survivors. Surprisingly, even though tourism is one of the pillars of the local economy, it is also one of the least visited sites on the island.
This part of tiny Okinawa is where the great WWII battle, known to locals as the “Typhoon of Steel,” drew to its bloody close. It’s also where some of the most ferocious and desperate fighting took place.
The true number will probably never be known, but ballpark guesstimates say that as many as a quarter-million souls met their maker during the three month long battle. To see it as it is now and compare it to historical photographs shows just how fierce the fighting was and how much the place has changed.
“Goose Bumps” Marla–don’t know what else to say! This has special meaning to anyone who’s ever lived through bombs, bullets, grenades, mortars and artillery and lived to talk about it. We lock it away somewhere and only talk about it with others who’ve been there, too. And that’s only when we get drunk. That’s all I can tell ya. >>>Mike
Though the lion amazingly survived intact, it did not go unscathed. Pock marks of varying sizes mark its body to indicate that it was hit by gunfire from just about every conceivable direction. On its left side are several large holes that were obviously made by a high caliber machine gun.
The size, angle and depth of the holes indicate that it was probably made by an American aircraft during a strafing run.
But the story of the Tomori Lion predates the great battle. Legend has it that in the late 17th Century the people of Tomimori Village, as it was called back then, were plagued by frequent fires. So great was the problem that they consulted with a “Holy Man” who told them that in nearby Mt. Yaese there was an evil spirit that caused fires.
He advised them to make a Shisa and place it so it faces the mountain. By doing so, it would allow no evil to approach from that direction. The legend goes on to say that the fires miraculously stopped.
Just what the heck is a Shisa you ask? A Shisa is a lion or “lion dog” which originated in China. They are powerful talismans that are believed to have the power to ward off evil. Today they are a cultural icon closely associated with Okinawa.
They can be seen just about everywhere you look to include the entrances to homes, castles, temples, bridges, mausoleums and as is the case with the Tomori Lion, as guardians of the village.
Incidentally, in addition to being the largest, the Tomori Lion is assumed to be the forerunner of all village Shisas on Okinawa. Apparently the advice provided by the Holy Man must have worked, because soon afterward, other villages in the district built their own Shisa, which coincidentally on this part of the island, also face Mt. Yaese.
Nothing quite breeds like success, because it wasn’t very long before village Shisa of varying sizes were to be found all over the island.
Today’s cynic might question the veracity of the Holy Man’s claim about evil spirits being the cause of the fires. They might even go so far as to speculate whether or not he (the Holy man) might have had a relative in the stone cutting business in need of a little economic assistance.
But you have to remember that during the days of the Ryukyu Kingdom, what Okinawa was once known as, the people were renowned for their honesty and integrity. This is why the tiny kingdom thrived as an economic trading powerhouse of the time. The Okinawan people are also known for being non-confrontational. Both of these facts might also explain why they have no weapons and were sub sequentially annexed into Japan without a fight.
Lastly, this isn’t Chicago! Conspicuously absent from any accounts of the legend is any reference to Mrs. Oshiro (a common Okinawan name)—her cow allegedly kicked over a lantern. Nor did the Holy Man protest about having inherited a mess left to him by the Holy Man formerly in charge.
Today the Tomori district is a part of Kochinda Town and a suburb of Naha City. It’s a mix of sugar cane fields and quiet suburban homes. The prefectural government designated the Tomori Lion as a Tangible Prefectural Cultural Asset and built a small park on the tree covered knoll where it sits.
The trees and brush have grown so much it’s hard to believe that this is the same place as those famous WWII photographs so graphically depict.
Tourist’s wishing to visit should travel by car. From Naha take highway 507 southeast toward the Peace Prayer Memorial Park. Just south of downtown Kochinda town look for Highway 52. At the very next traffic light make a right hand turn onto highway 14. About 300 meters down the road you’ll see a bus stop on the left side of the road and a mock up of the statue.
Note: Although the railings going up the stairs appear to be made from logs, they’re actually concrete. Realistic fences and stairs which appear to be made from logs can be found in parks throughout Japan. The colors and textures of these termite-proof trees are so convincing, you actually have to scratch one to believe they’re not made of natural wood!
On the opposite side of the road you’ll see a small mom and pop store and a narrow side street leading into a quiet subdivision.
Follow that road and the signs the rest of the way to the lion. At the last turn you’ll see a small shrine and a steep one lane paved road leading up through the sugarcane fields to the top of the knoll where the Tomori Lion stands its century’s old silent vigil.
This photo gives a sense of appreciation for how greenery has returned to the site. Sixty-five years ago, American and Japanese bombers and artillery destroyed everything on these hilltops, except for the Stone Lion.
Article by Keith Graff (Doc)
Photography by Michael Lynch