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The Coral Cave


Recently I've been visiting my grandma often at the nursing home where she stays. It's October here in Okinawa, the summer heat is gone and typhoons are bringing some cool breeze. One windy day, I opened a window of her room to let some fresh air in. Instantly, I became outrageous for the sight that caught my eyes: two mega tombs. "This view is absolutely inconsiderate for those who are dying!" I cried. After spending so much time in occidental world, I've forgotten the fact that tombs are everywhere (by "everywhere" I mean next to shopping malls, residential area, luxurious hotels, even inside the American bases).

Not only they are everywhere, they are gigantic. The tombs here are not at all discrete like the ones in mainland or in the western cemeteries. This is because unlike traditional tombs, it’s designed to hold an entire family. The appearance of it is rather strange. It's very curvy to resemble a womb, as it should remind people that when you die, you go back to your mother's womb. Actually, it has nothing to do with human anatomy. The womb-like shape is just a metaphor; a symbol for "returning Home."

Perhaps, it’s a concept that's hard to grasp for those who live elsewhere in the world but death is neither holy nor horror here in Okinawa. It's part of our lives. As long as you are alive, you will be reminded that there is death living next to you.

the mega tomb's party I was brought up as a Christian, which is rare since Christianity holds only 1% of the population. So occasionally, as a youngster, I witnessed two believes colliding. "You Christian people are lazy! You think that you can rest forever in heaven when you die? Nonsense!" I remember my grandpa yelling at my mom. In fact, you might as well forget about the concept of "rest in peace" here in Okinawa as there are just too many traditions to keep dead people busy. Once a year, the members of family get together in front of their ancestral tomb to throw a crazy party. I've done many partying during my college years but believe me that's nothing compare to this tomb party. But apparently, that's not enough. In August, there is another big fiesta for the dead ones. This time is for three consecutive days. We, the alive-ones, have to fetch the dead ones expensive fruits, and a special currency called Uchikabi.

I still don't really know what happens after I die. No one knows. However, when I pass by those old and pathetically useless mega tombs, I cannot help but to be enchanted. This seemingly inefficient afterlife believes and rituals are comforting in a strange way. The tombs are the creatures of our imagination. The endless effort to imagine the world we are yet to see. I believe that If there is one good thing that we all humans share, that is the power of imagination. Even science and logic first began as imagining unknowns. Perhaps we sometime find beauty in such power.

So many things are changing rapidly here in Okinawa though. Someone told me that there will be a tram and USJ (Universal Studio of Japan) will be built. The politicians are screaming for "change" and "prosperity.“ Okinawa will be ever more convenient for both locals and tourists. That is all good news for the people. In the process of urbanizing the island, however, will they remove those mega tombs and the crazy “dead fiesta”? Most likely. If you think about it, they are the least necessary things for "prosperity". But the island without the tombs is like the ocean without shores. All I hope is that at some point in the future, the wave of prosperity will learn how to embrace the power of imagination.

Ryoko Kokuba was born in Okinawa.
She aims to promote Okinawan culture through artworks
inspired by her beloved island.


"Mabui (マブイ), or "spirit", is a key concept in Ryukyuan religion. Mabui is the essence of the self, somewhat like the soul and somewhat like mana. Just as the soul in many traditions is immortal, so is mabui; also like the soul, one's mabui is one's defining characteristic, unique to the individual."

When I was a toddler, it was my grandparents who took care of me. My parents separated before I was born, so my mother worked almost 24/7, right after she gave birth. Naturally, since the age of 0 I was a notorious member of public childcare services. All I can recall from those days is this blurred idea of how much I dislike such institutions. Most of these memories are perhaps constructed from the letters exchanged by my mother and the caretakers. One of which, went like this; “August 13th, Sunny. Today Ryoko-chan was grumpy all day long. After napping time, she bit one of her friends." There are many letters, which proved that I was a habitual biter. I think I might have been just stressed out. I mean who wouldn’t be? If you spend the first 4 years of your life with 40 other wild kids who constantly brought in pandemic diseases such as chickenpox and mumps, you would be a biter as well. 

Ryoko and her grandma From this everyday life, there was one moment I used to really like. It was when the clock hit 5, the time my grandma came to pick me up. She was never late. My grandma was at the gate waiting for me at 5pm sharp everyday. My grandma was the embodiment of love in my universe. Everything about her, her tenderness, smell, smile, and soft voice, was the very proof that my life is not one lone continuing steam of institutional existence. 

"Where is your Mabui my darling? You dropped it?" Everyday at the gate, she asked me the same question. Then we would begin our daily ritual of hunting - walking around a playground to find my lost Mabui. My grandma could find it very quickly, while I could never seem to get lucky. "It takes approximately 75 years my dear,” she used to joke about her age as she carefully picked it up with her hands. Then she put it back into my body and chanted, "Mabuya Mabuya mudimiso-re (Mabui, Mabui please come back). I remember feeling a lot stronger when it was back inside of me. 

Because of the ritual of Mabui hunting with my grandma, I begun to understand that there was something inside me, which is free from chickenpox, and perhaps all the unlucky circumstances I found myself in. I learned that this something inside me is easily lost and can only be found by great love. 

Time has passed by since then. My playground now is no longer a 15 square-meters sand with slides and swings. Perhaps I've lost my Mabui in Boston, Tokyo, or who knows, may be at a worn-out bar in Paris. 

Anyway, I have time. I have approximately 50 more years to find it. 

Ryoko Kokuba was born in Okinawa.
She aims to promote Okinawan culture through artworks
inspired by her beloved island.