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  • Maternal Deities and the Ancestry of Humanity: The Life and Photography of Higa Yasuo
  • Takara Ben (bio)
    Translated by Katsunori Yamazato and Frank Stewart

The child of Okinawan parents who emigrated to the Philippines, Higa Yasuo was born on Mindanao Island in 1938. His father was drafted into the Japanese army and died during World War II. With his mother and two siblings, he remained in the Philippines until 1946, when the family returned to Okinawa.

Three years later, Higa’s mother died. Raised by his grandmother in Koza City (now Okinawa City), he graduated from high school in 1958. But because his family was poor, he could not pursue his dream of going to college. Instead, he took a job with the police force and was posted at the Kadena Police Station, near the largest American military base in all of Asia. Assigned to the crime scene investigation unit—which mainly handled cases involving American servicemen—Higa learned to use a camera, and for the next ten years he worked as a forensic and documentary photographer.

In 1968, while on duty at the police station, he witnessed a fully loaded B-52 bomber crash shortly after take-off on a mission to Viet Nam. The experience was a turning point in Higa’s life: he decided to leave the police force and become a professional photographer.

He moved to Tokyo and enrolled in the Tokyo School of Photography, graduating in 1971. That year, the first exhibition of his work was held. Umarejima Okinawa (Okinawa, Land of My Birth) was shown at the Ginza Nikon Salon in Tokyo, then travelled to Osaka, Naha, and Koza. Photographs from the exhibition were featured in the magazine Kamera mainichi, and the following year, in 1972, the Tokyo School of Photography published a collection of his work as a textbook. Through his photography, Higa was able to explore and rediscover his native island, Okinawa.

In 1973, he was commissioned by a magazine to photograph Miyako, an island about two hundred miles southwest of the island of Okinawa. While in Karimata Village on Miyako, Higa witnessed the Uyagan matsuri (Ritual of Ancestral Deities), an experience so intense that it launched him on a lifelong exploration of the sacred ancient rituals of the Ryūkyūs. [End Page 60]

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Higa Yasuo: Maternal Deities

Worshipping the Gods (Kami-agami)

Miyako Island, Karimata, Uyān


[End Page 61]

In 1975, Higa travelled to Kudaka Island, regarded since ancient times as sacred. There he met the noro (female shaman) Shizu Nishime. This meeting was another critical moment in his life. In the following months, Higa visited Kudaka Island over a hundred times, and through Shizu Nishime he was able to observe and photograph the ancient ritual known as Izaihō. In 1978, the ritual was discontinued: the shaman priestesses had dwindled in number, and there were not enough young women on the island to replace them. Before the demise of Izaihō, Higa carefully studied and recorded the rite. The collection of photographs he produced, Onna, kami, matsuri (Women, Deities, and Rites), won the thirteenth Taiyō Award. His efforts also resulted in such important works as Kamigami no shima: Okinawa Kudakajima no matsuri (The Island of Gods: Rituals of Kudaka Island, Okinawa) and Ryūkyūko: onnatachi no matsuri (The Ryūkyū Arc: Rituals of Women). In 1980, he won an Okinawa Times Encouragement Award for the exhibition Kamigami no shima Kudaka (The Island of Gods, Kudaka).*

Higa’s documentation of shaman rituals in the Ryūkyūs was the beginning of a journey that took him from the spiritual roots of his homeland to the rituals and ceremonies of minority people elsewhere in Asia. By comparing female shamans of ethnic minorities worldwide—such as noro of Kudaka Island, mudang of Cheju Island, and itako and gomiso of Aomori Prefecture—Higa gained an international perspective and a profound understanding of the subject. By the 1980s, he was thus regarded as more than a fine photographer. As he fused photography with careful research in ethnography and anthropology, scholars in those fields began to acknowledge the great significance of his work.

In 1990, Higa was...


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