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Masami.K - Shutterstock Masami.K - Shutterstock All rights reserved. Used with permission
Map Source: People Group location: IMB. Map geography: ESRI / GMI. Map design: Joshua Project.
|Christian Adherents:||3.00 %|
|Online Audio NT:||No|
|Affinity Bloc:||East Asian Peoples|
The Kunigami of Japan are made up of seven closely related people groups living in the Ryukyu Islands. This small chain of islands, which includes Okinawa, is located to the southwest of Japan, between Kyushu (the southern tip of Japan) and northeastern Taiwan. The Ryukyuan peoples are of Japanese and southeast Asian descent. Their languages vary from island to island and their dialects from village to village. Although their dialects are all quite similar to Japanese, the tribes are not able to understand one another. Some of the once dominant native languages spoken include Northern and Southern Amami-oshima, Toku-no-shima, Oki-no-erabu, Southern Ryukyuan, and Yayeyama. All of their languages are being replaced by Japanese among the younger generation. The Yaeyama are among these small people groups that are losing their culture and language. What can be said about the Kunigami cluster can be said about any of the subgroups including the Yaeyama.
In times past, while under subjection to China and Japan, the Kunigami learned to be peaceful and accepting, while considered "backward" by others.
Long ago, the Kunigami lived as independent merchants who sailed to China, Japan, and other Asian seaports. They are now dependent on outside powers and factors. Some work in the tourist industry, find work for soldiers on American military bases, or sell traditional Okinawan textiles or cash crops. Most Kunigami produce textiles or grow crops. They raise sweet potatoes and rice, their staple foods, as well as other cash crops. The family is the center of Yaeyama life. Often entire families tend the fields together. The people work hard and long and have very little spare time. In general, a Yaeyama does not like being alone. Any amount of free time they can afford is spent with their families or friends. During celebrations, the men stay separated from the women, usually drinking sake (rice wine). One of these festivals is the Mushaama Festival, celebrated on Hateruma Island. It is a harvest festival that features a parade dedicated to Miruku, a local fertility god and his children.
According to family tradition, a firstborn son has the greatest financial advantage. After marriage, the firstborn son and his wife live in his father's house until his parents have died. However, long before that time, he is responsible for managing the rest of the family and its finances. In times past, the fear of "dishonoring one's family" kept crime under control in the smaller communities.
Yaeyama children enter school at eight or nine years of age and continue until they reach about sixteen. Today, there are universities in the island region, and they have access to Japanese colleges as well. Formerly, their goals included acquiring an abundance of livestock, food, and friends, and having as large a family as possible. Since the Japanese took control of the islands in 1879, these goals have changed. The Japanese introduced a system of education that discouraged students from speaking their own languages and encouraged them to speak Japanese. The students were even punished for speaking their languages in class. Consequently, the Kunigami languages have been lost as the young have sought to identify with something they consider greater than themselves: the world class nation of Japan.
Progress through education and contact with the outside world has changed their lives dramatically. Many have moved to larger islands or other countries such as Brazil and the United States in search of jobs and better living conditions.
Most sources consider the Yaeyama to be Buddhist; however, traditional shamanistic practices are still prevalent. This means that they believe in many unseen gods, demons, and ancestral spirits. They believe the spirits of their ancestors live in the tombs where they were buried. The people believe that these spirits must be regularly invited back into the lives of their descendants or they will no longer exist. For this reason, each person believes himself/herself to be an extension of the life of the family.
The people also believe that unseen powers known as kami control the ancestral spirits and other areas, including the sea and land. The ancestral spirits are honored on a community level, and the kami are also worshipped privately in the homes. They believe that if the kami are not appeased, they can bring harm to a family or individual. For this reason they seek the guidance of the kami before making an important decision.
The father of the house maintains the religious rituals in the home and cares for the ancestral tombs. The women serve as "mediators" between the kami and the people.
The Yaeyama and other Kunigami peoples need the self-respect that comes from a relationship with the King of kings. They need to know they have much worth in the eyes of their maker.
Pray for the Lord to somehow get through to Yaeyama elders so they can open the door to allow the King of kings to enter their lives.
There are believers among some of the Kunigami people. Pray they will take Christ to the others.
Pray for a movement to Christ among every Kunigami people.