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By Robert Kajiwara
I regularly receive many requests for information about hajichi - Indigenous Luchuan (Okinawan) tattoos, typically on the back of the hands of Luchuan women. They are sacred symbols that contain spiritual power, connecting Luchuans with our ancestors and the spirit realm. The symbols vary based on village / island & genealogy.
This short article is based on a Twitter thread I wrote, which can be found here: https://twitter.com/robkajiwara/status/1513762965937303556
Women are the spiritual leaders of Luchuan society, and thus the practice of hajichi on the hands are reserved exclusively for Luchuan women. Men cannot receive hajichi on the hands, and typically do not receive hajichi at all except for rare cases when ordered by a yuta for spiritual reasons.
Luchuan terms to know:
Nuru (Noro): socio-political-spiritual priestesses, had official (paid) positions at every level in the Luchu Kingdom government. Wielded extreme power & influence. Abolished by Japan post-1879.
Yuta: socio-spiritual female folk leaders, many still exist today. Similar to the Nuru, Japan also attempted to ban yuta though were unsuccessful.
Kaminchu: a generic term meaning 'godly / spiritual person;' can be any gender or age. Basically, someone who is spiritually-sensitive, respectful, and has shown some degree of spiritual aptitude.
Historically, Luchuan women of every class / status received hajichi. The practice dates back thousands of years & is linked to other Austronesians (such as aboriginal Taiwanese, Polynesians, Ainu) who also practice tattooing.
Much of what has been written about hajichi in the English language is flawed because:
1) Most Luchuans / Okinawans don't know English very well;
2) Most Okinawan Americans today lack connection to Luchu, can't speak the language, don't know the customs very well, and instead rely heavily on anecdotal information;
3) Many Western & Japanese "scholars" are self-serving racists who promote false information about Luchuans and many other peoples around the world in order to benefit their own careers. One of the worst books in the English language about Luchu / Okinawan spirituality is Women of the Sacred Grove: Divine Priestesses of Okinawa by Susan Sered. The book contains much misinformation, and was heavily criticized by Luchuans and others immediately after its release, as well as to this day. Sered herself admitted that she does not understand any of the Luchuan languages, and instead did her research in broken Japanese.
There are many secrets associated with Luchuan customs, including hajichi, that must be safeguarded from Western & Japanese people who would love to appropriate them. It is better to die with the secrets than to give them to Westerners / Japanese "scholars." For this reason I am very careful about what information I share publicly. I don't share Luchuan secrets, or anything that could potentially allow Westerners / Japanese to appropriate our culture. I strongly advise all Luchuans to do the same.
In 1879 Luchu was illegally annexed by Japan. Shortly after, Japan banned the practice of hajichi, as well as many other Luchuan customs. The reasons for this are many, but I argue that one major reason is the Japanese (and now also Americans) are threatened by the power of Luchuan women. The banning of hajichi was an act of misogyny in a direct effort to suppress the power & influence of Luchuan women so that the illegal Japanese occupiers can exert their control over Luchuan society, which they do to this day. Historically, Luchuan women were guaranteed positions of power, wealth, influence, and status at every level of society - including the very top. Japan, which has long been a patriarchal society, saw this as a threat, which is why they abolished the Nuru (Noro) priestess class, and tried to abolish the yuta as well (though were unsuccessful). I argue that in order to consolidate their power over Luchu, Japan had to remove Luchuan women from power & reduce their influence. However, many Luchuan women today continue to act in covert ways...
Today hajichi are technically no longer banned, but due to generations of persecution & stigma, the practice is very rare. Some young Luchuan women today are trying to bring it back, but it has yet to regain widespread use. One problem, however, is that due to U.S. & Japanese oppression, many young Luchuan women today do not understand the spiritual practices associated with hajichi. They should learn from a credible elder kaminchu / yuta in Luchu first before receiving hajichi. To wear hajichi is a tremendous honor and responsibility that should not be taken lightly. If you can't speak your Native Luchuan language, and have never apprenticed under a kaminchu / yuta, you should not receive hajichi even if you are a Luchuan woman, in my opinion. If you wear hajichi you are expected to be a socio-spiritual leader in Luchuan community. You should at least know the basics, as you will be held to a high standard. To wear hajichi without knowing your language, customs & responsibilities is a bad idea, and you are setting yourself up for failure and embarassment. So while it is great that today some young Luchuan women, particularly in the diaspora, are interested in reviving hajichi, my advice is that they should come to Luchu & learn first from the established elders, gain their blessing, then receive hajichi. While Western / American culture encourages rash acting, the Indigenous Luchuan way is to learn first, and then act and receive.
Some in the diaspora ask me if there are any Luchuan elders in the U.S. or Hawaii they can learn from. There are very few, if any, credible Luchuan yuta / kaminchu elders alive in the U.S. or Hawaii today who could legitimately train others in Luchuan spirituality. Thus, the only way for the diaspora to learn is to actually come to Luchu and apprentice under the elders. There are some Luchuan diaspora elders in the U.S. or Hawaii who are trying to teach the younger generations, however, some of them are problematic: they haven't lived in Luchu in a very long time, are speaking OVER (contradicting) the elders in Luchu, and are propagating false information, doing more harm than good. It's good that they're trying to teach the younger generations, however they should not speak over or contradict the elders in Luchu, especially when they themselves haven't lived in Luchu in decades, have close personal ties to U.S. imperialism, and for decades have benefited by approximating themselves to white colonizers. This is unacceptable. If someone - even a Luchuan American elder - has willingly lived in the United States for most of their lives and personally benefited from U.S. imperialism, they given up their right to speak authoritatively on Luchuan issues.
Although hajichi is no longer common, most other Luchuan spiritual customs are very much still practiced, particularly in rural areas. Many of my own elders are kaminchu / yuta and I study under them. However, because I am not a woman I am not eligible to receive hajichi or to become a yuta. If I were born a woman I would have undergone the proper spiritual training & received hajichi long ago. Although I am not eligible to receive hajichi or become a yuta I can still learn, to an extent, the spiritual customs from my female elders and use them appropriately, and I encourage other Luchuan men / nonbinary people to do the same.*
* Trans Luchuan women are eligible for hajichi provided they undergo the proper spiritual training. Nonbinary people who present as female could also be eligible.
Some Japanese people today are appropriating hajichi, thus bringing a curse on themselves. Japanese people should never get hajichi for any reason.