Spirit of Okinawa: Asobi ni Iku yo! and Ryukyuan Folklore

How familiar is the modern foreign anime fan with Japan as a place? From the bustling streets of the mecca of moé, Akihabara, to the temples of historical Kyoto, some parts of Japan are well-trodden backdrops. Watch enough anime, and a viewer will have no trouble recognizing the sight of… well, the Tokyo Big Sight, or the familiar red torii that mark the entrances of shrines across Japan. However, there are many parts of Japan that fall into the fringe, and subsequently get little coverage in popular media.

For example, there’s Okinawa: a prefecture to the south of Fukuoka made up of hundreds of tiny islands. Historically a part of the Ryukyu Kingdom, it wasn’t even considered a part of Japan until the 19th century. Many factors, including Okinawa’s location and the Ryukyuan influence on its culture and dialect, make Okinawan life a far cry from what most people would consider quintessentially “Japanese.”  This means, unfortunately, that you won’t find reference to Okinawan culture in most anime.

Well, there's this show, but I'm pretty sure I'm one of five people outside of the Okinawa area who actually watched this.

This is where Asobi ni Iku yo! (Cat Planet Cuties) comes in. Although it’s easy to see the Western references, it’s also a show with a very strong Okinawan flavor. From local dishes to A&W restaurants (which don’t exist in Japan outside of Okinawa and American military bases), Asobi rewards the keen viewer with many insights into life on this island. Some references to Okinawan culture, however, are a bit less obvious…

"I watched this show for its fascinating look into Okinawan culture"

Take the assistaroids, who act as robotic helpers for menial tasks and serve as comedic relief. Curiously enough, none of the humans in the series seem to be very surprised to see these brightly colored robots walking about. Of course, this is a show in which a lot of suspension of disbelief is asked of the viewer, but there’s another, more satisfying explanation.

Enter the kijimuna: this legendary creature is exclusive to Ryukyuan folklore, and is said to inhabit particularly old trees. These mischievous spirits are usually described as resembling small boys, with a mop of wild, red hair.

Well, they look much less like those awful troll dolls than the kijimuna usually do, but...

I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that the assistaroids are influenced by the legend of the kijimuna. After all, the kijimuna are a familiar icon to this day in Okinawa, adorning signs and even having an annual children’s festival named after them. With the assistaroids, Asobi ni Iku yo! cleverly marries local mythology with modern character design, giving new life to these traditional creatures of whimsy and in turn illuminating today’s audience to a part of Okinawa’s rich history.

And much like with legends of “hidden folk” in Iceland, there are those in Okinawa even today who believe that the pure of heart, if they happen to look at the right place at the right time, might just happen upon something… magical.

23 Comments

Filed under Asobi ni Iku yo!, Editorials

23 responses to “Spirit of Okinawa: Asobi ni Iku yo! and Ryukyuan Folklore

  1. 2DT

    A&W restaurants (which don’t exist in Japan outside of Okinawa and American military bases)

    You are an unconquered genius.

    • I’m not quite sure what to make of that, but thank you! Apparently, they’ve tried multiple times to establish locations on the mainland, to little success.

  2. Very interesting,

    I actually liked Asobi ni Iku yo! alot and one of the reasons why was that the setting was so different which allowed for the local flavor to bleed into the show. To think even the assistaroids were based on local folklore.

    And no fair, teasing me with a show that I can’t watch since no one appears to have even posted raws.

  3. I recall the visit to Okinawa in Azumanga Daioh, but you’re right that I can’t think of many other anime that show that locale. There are quite a few Japanese live action dramas, however, that feature that area, such as Ruri no Shima. Thanks to you, I’ll be on the look out for more :)

    • In my research, I’ve found that Blood+ starts in Okinawa, and Love Hina might have an episode or two that features it?

      I’ve never watched J-drama, but that’s an interesting tidbit! I imagine it makes for very beautiful scenery shots and the like. Might have to check out Ruri no Shima someday…

  4. The Underside of the Kitty Paw has my lifelong, fanatical loyalty.

  5. Tokyo is the most popular real estate in anime, and I never figured out why that is (convenience, large city has a variety of locations), same goes for New York City in films. But it’s great when a story is immersed in the setting down to finer details. Take Griffith Park in Macross Frontier, which exists in the Los Angeles area, or the Victorian architecture of Frontier’s ‘San Francisco’ area. Some details seem incidental before investigating and realizing their purposeful existence. And yea, Azumanga did have an Okinawa segment, without the cultural touch. Although there was Maya, the distinctly Okinawan iriomote cat.

    It would be nice to see more of this in stories. A genuine feel for the setting.

    • Oh right, I remember their trip to Okinawa now!

      As for stories that invest more in the actual locations that they take place, I think that’s a part of why iyashikei shows like Aria and Tamayura excel (in my head, at least); their more introspective moods provide great reason to focus on the sublime parts of the background. I mean, of course, it’s not a phenomenon unique to iyashikei shows; but if you were to ask me about the shows that I really remember the fine details of the settings, the canals of Neo-Venezia and the rustic, historic feel of modern-day Takehara come to mind first.

  6. Tiboreau Lee

    Ah, I’ve been curious about Asobi ni Iku yo!, and as someone who enjoys when setting plays a role in a story I’m now going to have to make a point of watching it sometime soon. Thanks for the fun, informative post, sir!

    • No, thank you, sir, for giving the show a shot!

      But yeah, even the American sci-fi and action movie elements that play such a large role can be seen as a result of American occupation on local popular culture… but that might be another post altogether, heh.

  7. My mom used to tell me story’s about the cold war between the Okinawan maid and and the Miyakan gardener when my family lived there, Keiko would tell her “you fire papa-san! Miyakans are mean! Pirates!”. For his part the gardener just took every opportunity to smile evilly at Keiko and be coldly polite at her but he was a good gardener so he stayed.I do wish I had been around back then but I’d likely be a bigger weeaboo than I already am.

    • Your family used to live in Okinawa? That’s very cool! I must admit that I know absolutely nothing about the Miyako Islands, though. The fringe of the fringe, so to speak!

  8. Pingback: Spirituality in the Anime Blogosphere: Amazing Grace of Eureka 7, Anime Cons = Anti-Christian, and Homura the Evangelist «

  9. KAMINO OKINA

    I am the original author.
    Though regrettable, asistroid is at the point of the history of the mascot robot which has appeared in the Japanese-made amusement of old many instead of KIJIMUNA.
    And he is not surprised in a tale for the man in the street to look at asistroid because there are the circumstances “in which Okinawa residents have accepted various foreign culture.”

    • ‘I am the original author.’

      Thank you for writing a good story.

    • 神野オキナ先生ですね!すごく驚きました!コメントしてくださって本当にありがとうございます。

      アシスタロイドのインスピレーションのことを気を回して申し訳ありませんでした。沖縄の文化のことをちょっと習っていて、つい間違えた結論に辿り着きました…

      たしかにマスコットロボのキャラは日本のSF作品によく出るものですよね…チャージマン研のバリカンとか(笑)

      そして沖縄の市民は宇宙人でもすぐに慣れるタイプなのかなー アメリカ人として、沖縄は映画やほかの大衆文化のメディアにあまりでないから、ちょっと不思議な場所だと思うけれど、米軍基地のせいで意外と共通点も多いみたいですね…良くも悪くも。

      改めて、神野先生の作品の印象にお返事してくださってありがとうございます!放送のころから『あそびにいくヨ!』のアニメの大ファンなので、いつか原作のライトノベルも楽しめるために日本語を必死に勉強しております。

      You’re really Kamino Okina! I was so surprised to hear from you! Thank you so much for taking the time to comment on this post.

      I apologize if I read too much into the design of the Assistroids. To think I’d come to such an erroneous conclusion after learning a bit about Okinawa…

      Mascot robot characters are indeed pretty common in Japanese sci-fi works, aren’t they? Like the one from Chargeman Ken (haha)

      And I wonder if Okinawan citizens are really the type to even get used to aliens… As an American, I think Okinawa is seen as a bit of a mystery, since it doesn’t appear too often in movies or other popular media; however, Okinawa and America might have more than common than we Americans think, due to the presence of American military bases… for better or for worse.

      Once again, thank you for taking the time to respond to my thoughts about your work! I’ve been a big fan of Asobi ni Ikuyo! since it began airing, and I hope to become proficient enough to read your original light novels as well one day.

  10. machineslife

    Funny. I’ve lived in Okinawa for almost 2 years, and I’ve never heard of this kijimuna folklore. You hear more about the ghosts from WWII and the yamamayaa (“mountain cat” in the Okinawan language called Hougen).
    Besides your observation about Okinawa not being a real part of Japan (which Okinawans also believe in as well), it might also be because Okinawa is the poorest (and darkest) part of Japan. Okinawan history is shrouded with dark times as well. So, classicism might contribute to a lot of non-Okinawan anime and manga titles.

    • Thanks for the comment!

      I kinda imagined socioeconomic differences would play a role in this, but then again, I’ll be the first to admit I don’t know very much about the region.

      At the same time, though, I can’t say that I think that people who produce anime and manga are actively biased against Okinawa or anything, either, though. If anything, it’s more of a very strong city-centric viewpoint (mainly Tokyo?) that leads to other parts of Japan becoming marginalized. But well, the best way to counteract this effect is supporting creators from all over Japan!

  11. There’s this attention to small details in this show that’s made it so fun watch. The shout outs at the beginning of each ep comes to mind and then there’s this Okinawan feature included. It’s added another layer of things I should be appreciating here. Not exactly what I was hoping to find when vuc sent me here but good read!

    While I’m here though, would you happen to know who the custom assistoroids represent? Only one I could guess here is Kio’s, which is probably modeled after Tezuka. The other ones are not so easy to guess at.

    • Well, there’s the one with sunglasses that’s totally Chow Yun-Fat, and apparently Aoi’s are modelled after famous samurai movie actors, but I’m not too knowledgeable on samurai movies.

      Thanks for the comment!

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