The Legend of the Shi-sa

The Legend of the Shi-sa is part of what inspired my new novel, Scarlett & Aka: Imprint. Let’s look at the legend.

You’ve seen lion statues outside Chinese restaurants? Think of shi-sas as their cousins. Some people call them shi-shi, but that sounds ridiculous to me. We’re not talking about purse puppies with rhinestone collars and turquoise highlights.

Shi-sa statues can be found all over Okinawa on homes and places of business. Most are in pairs, one with an open mouth and one closed. People disagree on the significance of the open versus closed mouths, but you can think of it as the complementary roles of a shi-sa and her canine mate. Some shi-sa statues have a golden sphere under a front paw. While it looks like shi-sas are into soccer, the balls actually symbolize the goodness a shi-sa brings.

There are many versions of the story on how shi-sas came to be Okinawan protectors. Some say a little boy had a shi-sa amulet, while others say he was a king. According to legend, the amulet came to life and protected the people of a village near Naha, the southernmost city in Okinawa. There are further folktales of shi-sas protecting people from dragons, monsters, fires, and crop failure.

In the novel, I take the legend and make from it a race of supernatural canines who choose a human to partner with them in super powers. Here’s a little about the magic system in my novel:

Shi-sa warriors are female. Not male and not kings. Shi-sas are not stone. The lion-dog description is only that: a description. There’s no lion in them, despite having a couple of traits in common. Shi-sas are separate creations, supernatural and natural combined, much like human beings are physical while we also have an eternal part we refer to as our soul or spirit.

Shi-sas, warriors, and their small team of best friends and immediate family are adept at keeping secrets. They must be. Super powers could easily lead to unwanted celebrity, hampering their ability to move around a community undetected. Also, they wouldn’t want bad guys to know they were coming! Their role is to rescue, to solve, and to assist according to each pair’s special abilities. Being a thing of myth keeps them safe from prying eyes.

The book is told from Scarlett’s point of view. She’s the human warrior imprinted by a shi-sa puppy the morning she arrives in Okinawa from the United States. She tells the story looking back at her time as warrior, introducing the book thus: “I’ve always thought there should be a manual for shi-sas and warriors. I am preparing to mentor the duo that comes after my shi-sa and me, and my doctor has prescribed bed rest, so it’s the perfect time to produce a guidebook. I’ve never read a memorable manual. I learn better from stories, so I’ll start by telling ours. You, a warrior in training or person in her inner circle, can glean what you need from our tale. When I moved to Okinawa, I had no idea of the legend, let alone the reality. May you walk into your role with more clues than I had.”

Pictured is my dog, Midori, who inspired Aka’s character, and one of our many shi-sa statues. She was a Labrador-Akita mix with deep empathy. I adopted her in Okinawa and often joked that she was actually an Okinawan shi-sa. If she sensed depression in someone, she wouldn’t leave their side. She was a powerful swimmer, and sometimes startled scuba divers when they surfaced offshore. She moved with me to the States, and back to Okinawa, and then to the States again to marry my husband. She died in 2015, before the first draft of Scarlett & Aka: Imprint was finished.