|A lonely road near Benoki Mountains|
View Map It! Okinawa in a larger map
|N 26 47.199||E 128 15.339|
*GPS is to the Benoki Dam
The Long Road From a Demon's Past...
Every other year on the 16th of January, people from the town of Benoki come together and pay their respects to a fallen ancestor. Incense burning and prayers are part of the formalities to this melancholy, yet solemn occasion. It is their way of keeping the peace in Benoki; a reverent act to tame a demon with hopes that he never returns.
Some time at the beginning of the Meiji Period...
Angry voices reverberated through the forest trees. Soon the mob would reach him. Closer and closer, they narrowed in. The man knew his attackers were not far behind.
Fate had turned against him; For it was not too long ago, when he was the one doing the chasing and harassing. Now, the shaven-headed man found himself fleeing for his life... for the second time. Shortly before that, he had fled Shuri. Something there too had caused him to go into exile. When he escaped to Benoki, he sought refuge in the Nanga forest, high up in the Benoki mountains. No one knew his real name. He was just a shaven-headed man from Nanga. The Nanga Bozu they called him.
But his welcome was a short one. Soon after he arrived, he took advantage of town's meek and kind-spirited demeanor. He would often maraud through the village taking whatever he wanted, especially their livestock. Women and children were constantly harassed. No one knows why he did it. He was just a wicked man. Something very dark swelled in his soul. Now, the villagers were forced into a dilemma. Evil had made its way to their home; and the once humble and good-hearted people of Benoki found themselves in a very precarious situation. They were going to do the unthinkable.
The chase had finally come to its end. The Nanga Bozu was trapped like a wild animal. Armed with sickles, the villagers cornered the unruly man. Time, as if capable of fatigue, had limped to a halt. All that could be heard now was whispering cries of the wind; and then suddenly, that too had quietly faded away. Fear had taken root; it seemed to be the only life force the villagers had left. One by one, they closed in on the shaven-headed man. There would be no turning back now.
History for the town of Benoki was about to change... forever.
January 16th, better known as Jyuu Ryoku Nichi, is no ordinary date. In the old calendar system, this is New Years for the Dead in Okinawa. The townspeople of Benoki chose that particular day to pay homage to the Nanga Bozu, or whoever that man really was many years ago. It was their way to make peace with what had happened on that tragic day; for they were truly sorry that it ended in his death. Did he deserve to die? Was justice served? Lingering questions like these continue to haunt the people of Benoki.
As time went on, rumors and ghost stories drifted about of what really happened on that day in the Nanga forest. It was said that when they slayed him, his body had fallen near a creek and that his blood had filled the entire stream. Villagers later claimed to see this creek turn into a pool of blood. "The Nanga Bozu is returning!", they believed. This creek later became known as Uninga. In the Okinawan language this means the demon's creek. It was also said that when the villagers attacked the shaven-headed man, he unleashed some kind of dark magic and sorcery against them. He or it was not from this world. "Could the Nanga Bozu come back from the dead?", they thought. For fear that he would return, the villagers would offer a pig's head to appease him. But that particular tradition had faded away over time, as well as the whereabouts of the Nanga Forest and Uninga. Their location and all memory of them... lost with time. Perhaps, it was meant to be.
For now, it would seem that the true demon is nothing more than a haunted past, for it was a tragic time indeed. Humanity had suffered a loss; a man had sold his soul into a world of darkness, and a once innocent town was now left to bear the guilt for the rest of time. Despite it all, hope still remains in Benoki. In a word, the 16th of January means reconciliation. Though it is a sad moment in their history, it is a way for the villagers to revisit and learn from the past and move forward towards a happier future. The road to peace may be long, but as villagers gather on that 16th Day, it is an occasion to face their demon head on, much like their ancestors did many, many years ago in the woods of the Nanga Forest.
The Origins of the Story. The Benoki Village Chronicles (dtd 20 January 1998) explains that the incident involving the Nanga Bozu was the reason why the villagers first embraced the 16th of January as a communal occasion. But the overall story is believed to have some basis in the truth. The Nanga Bozu man did exist and that he was later hunted down for his crimes. And as for the Nanga region, that too is thought to be somewhere high in the Benoki mountains. No one really knows for sure. But a different version of the story may give clues to its location. The village chronicles states that Nanga Bozu may have been killed by the people of Ukka, the next village to the north. After they killed him, they discarded his body near Benoki. Author's speculation. If this is true, then it seems highly unlikely that anyone would carry a body great distances through the mountains. This would hint that maybe the Nanga region lies somewhere near the border of Ukka and Benoki.
Additionally, the village chronicles never mentions anything about Uninga, the Demon Creek, or the use of demonic powers by the Nanga Bozu. This version was found in Kunigami's Historical Chronicles, dtd 1967 (note: Benoki is a town within the Kunigami Village District). This same version was later retold in the Ryukyu Shimpo, March 17th 2013 edition. It appears it was just a ghost story that took a life of its own... perhaps.
The Man from Shuri. An intriguing question remains. Who was this Nanga Bozu? Did he have a name? Where did he really come from? It is believed that man was indeed from Shuri. Villagers had observed that he could read and write, implying that he was formally educated. This would seem to make sense, especially for someone who had lived in Shuri. Some villagers of Benoki speculated that he even might have been a monk because of his shaven head and his high level of his education.
There is one last clue. The Benoki chronicles infers that the Nanga Bozu story originated some time at the beginning of the Meiji Period (1868-1912) and that he fled Shuri because of a 'conflict' that had occurred there (based on the interpretation, the translation seems to hint that it was some kind of armed conflict). It makes no mention of exactly what that conflict was.
Author's observation and conjecture. The closest and perhaps the largest political upheaval involving Shuri was in 1879 (eleven years after the birth of the Meiji Period) when the last Ryukyu King, Sho Tai, surrendered Shuri Castle and the kingdom to the Meiji Government. In 2012, the Ryukyu Shimpo featured an article covering a historical play that talks about this transition of power. The play was titled “The Surrender of Shuri Castle”. Interesting enough, the Ryukyu Shimpo writes, “The play tells the story of when the Meiji government ordered the abolishment of the Ryukyu han (feudal domain) and forced the surrender of Shuri Castle. A confrontation ensued between the pro-Japan party and the pro-China party.” Could this confrontation be the conflict the Nanga Bozu's story was referring to? And the reason why the mystery man went into exile? This is pure conjecture. There are no facts to support this theory.
Epilogue. Benoki is a quiet town, and just as quiet is the Benoki Dam further up the hill. At first glance this functioning dam seems deserted. Not many people come here. There is a certain emptiness about the place. And when you get to the dam, you will find yourself immediately engulfed by the Benoki mountains. Somewhere in that vast abyss of forest greenery lies is the Nanga forest. And what of the Nanga Bozu? Today, there is no indication that people of Benoki believe in any such ghost. It is just a haunted memory. But a stroll around the perimeter is revealing. As you explore the back roads, one cannot help but to feel that you are being watched. And as you gaze into the whispering treeline, one cannot help to think that somewhere within the forest shadows is a lost soul, a specter from the past, silently awaiting his return.
1. Nanga Bozu, Benoki Village Chronicles, Book, dtd 20 January 1998 (Azashi Benoki January 20 Heisei 16), pgs 213 -214
2. Nanga Bozu (Ghost Story), Kunigami's Historical Chronicles, Book, dtd 1967, pg 78
3. Nanga Bozu (Ghost Story), Ryukyu Shimpo, Newspaper, dtd 17 March 2013
3. Historical Play - "The Surrending of Shuri Castle", online article, dtd 12 December 2013
4. Resistant Islands: Okinawa Confronts Japan and the United States, book, McCormack, Norimatsu, Pub 16 July 2012, pg 4 (Sho Tai surrenders the Ryukyu Kingdom)
5. Okinawan-English Wordbook, book, Sakihara, University of Hawaii Press 2006, pg 195 (Definition of uni).
6. Encyclopedia Britannica, online reference, (Dates of the Meiji Period)
i. Uni in the Okinawan dialect means demon. In Japanese this is pronounced as Oni. Ga is Okinawan (usually annexed as a suffix) is a term that means water or stream. The extra n in the middle of Uninga could be a variant of the Okinawan language of how it is pronounced. In the Benoki Chronicles it is spelled with an extra n.
ii. Bozu is a Japanese term often referring to someone or something that is bald.
ii. Bozu is a Japanese term often referring to someone or something that is bald.
Directions. Take Highway 58 north into Kunigami Village. The turn-off will be at large Silo-like structure off of Highway 58 (See LandMark Icon on the map). The road will zig-zag up the hills. You will pass a large wooden Torii next to a small concrete fenced off building (See LandMark Icon on the map). Continue further up the hill until you run into the Benoki Dam.