Assignments, Island Icons, Japan, Okinawa, Photography
Comments 4

Island Icons – Shisa Artist Mitsuo Miyagi

Shisa Artist Mitsuo Miyagi

Shisa Artist Mitsuo Miyagi

Lion King

Mitsuo Miyagi creates plaster shîsâ. He operates his own store and gallery beside Kokusai-Street, and his designs have met with both critical acclaim and commercial success.

Mitsuo studied art at Kaiho High School on Okinawa before attending college in Kyoto. Rather than specialize in just one discipline, Mitsuo trained under several teachers to learn pottery, sculpture, papermaking, ink, and painting. At age 21, he returned to Okinawa and started creating shîsâ in his apartment. His unique designs became popular almost immediately, and soon he was overrun with too many orders and too little space. In 2001, he moved to a new studio in Onna Village from which he could create larger sculptures and paintings. On April 3, 2005, he opened his own gallery and store in Naha City, where visitors can browse his work or even create their own shîsâ.

What is a shîsâ? Is it a lion, a dog or some kind of dragon?

“Shîsâ are sometimes called lion-dogs, but I think this is only half-right. Shîsâ are based on lions, which have been used in sculptures since the Egyptian sphinx. The sphinx had the body of a lion and the face of a pharaoh. Sometimes the lions were given eagle’s wings, and this tradition continues in Europe today. (The symbol of Venice is a winged lion.) When lion sculptures became popular in China and later Okinawa, they lost their wings. Dragons meanwhile have a completely different heritage.”

What is the difference between ceramic and plaster shîsâ?

“Ceramic shîsâ are made from clay and fired in a kiln. The first plaster shîsâ were created by men who had materials left over after completing tile roofs atop homes. The used a few tiles as the core and then applied plaster to create the shîsâ. These methods are still used today.

The plaster is produced by burning crushed coral to make lime, mixing this was straw, and then letting it ferment for a month. Unlike ceramic shîsâ, the high temperature of a kiln isn’t needed. The shîsâ are constructed on the roof, and then dry naturally in the sunshine.”

Shisa painting by Mitsuo Miyagi

Shisa painting by Mitsuo Miyagi

Are shîsâ always found in pairs?

“Shuri Castle has pairs of shîsâ by its gateways. One has its mouth open; the other has its mouth closed. In the past, most regular homes had one shîsâ on the roof. However, modern houses in Okinawa are often built with a flat concrete roof and there is nowhere to put the shîsâ. So people have begun to place shîsâ on either side of the door or gate. Pairs of shîsâ are now a more common sight than a single one on a red tile roof.”

Is shîsâ design evolving?

“There are now many different styles, materials, and colors of shîsâ. It has also become popular to have shîsâ indoors as well as outdoors. They welcome people into the home and make the place look cheerful. They can be seen as pieces of art or even as lucky charms.”

Shîsâ were originally talismans. Do they still have the power to protect?

“I think it depends how the shîsâ were created. Traditional shîsâ are said to be born, not built. There are two kinds of tiles on a roof: osugawara (male) and mesugawara (female). At the apex of the roof where the two kinds of tiles meet, the shîsâ is born. When an artist makes a shîsâ, the strength and love from his hands passes into his creation. I think it is this connection that gives shîsâ the power to keep away evil spirits. Mass-produced shîsâ, however, are nothing more than colorful souvenirs.”

Shisa by Mitsuo Miyagi

Shisa by Mitsuo Miyagi

( Interview first published in Okinawa Living magazine June 2006 )

His store is located just around the corner from the Starbucks on Kokusai Street in Naha. There is pay parking on the opposite side of the road.

– I published this to my blog using the WordPress App on my iPhone. Clever stuff 🙂


  1. I love your series on Okinawan artists. Good stuff! Keep it up, and thank you so much for sharing.

  2. toranosuke says

    I love that painting!

    Linking to this on my own blog; hope you don’t mind me reusing your photos and such.

  3. Pingback: Blog Link: Shisa artist Miyagi Mitsuo « 茶有の者 – A Man with Tea

  4. mileinmyboots says

    I’m in Okinawa and I am looking for a pair of Shisa to take home with me. Now I know where to look. Good info!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s