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Missing a line could turn today's good luck into an ancient massacre

The farmers below said we should not climb that stream because it was thick, BIG jungle filled with restless spirits. We had proceeded anyway, because we wanted to find a shrine that someone had told us was buried deep in the jungle. 

After hacking and climbing through thick and muddy jungle, the "shrine" seemed to be nothing more than a head water marker for a river that the farmers had never heard of, even though it was just up the hill from their farm. Now, I wanted to return to see if I could find the date and description that is typical for such markers so I could confirm that it was just a head water marker.

Buried under some brush next to the stone that read セー河 (Sze Gawa, or Seh River), I found what appeared to be an ancient stone into which someone had etched some faded writing. I didn't have paper and pencil for taking a rubbing, so I carefully dabbed water to bring out the detail and took pictures.

Zooming into the first column I could out the kanji for 1-9-8-and “do” [土], meaning “dirt”. I could not make out the first kanji in the second column, but the second one was clearly “day”.

198 dirt and mystery day. Not much sense in that one; I needed some translation help.

Misinterpretations of a simple scratch in a rock generated radically contradictory histories, from eternal good luck to ancient masacre

Down in the valley, I asked a farmer if he could decipher the characters in my pictures. “1-9-8” and “shi” [士] not “do”. The farmer said, that's not “dirt”. No, “shi” and “do” look similar, but the bottom line on “shi” is shorter than that on “do” [土or 士; can you tell the difference?]. So the meaning was not “dirt” but “samurai”; it could also be interpreted to mean "gentlemen" or "men".

The farmer said the first character in the second column looked like it was "古", meaning “old” or “ancient”, combining with the second kanji to mean something like olden days or ancient times. This was starting to sound more interesting than my river marker explanation.

The farmer said the stones must be grave markers where 198 men were killed during a war. He said that the spot we showed him on the map was just below the Zakimi Castle, and might have been a source for clean water to be carried up the hill to the castle. Like when he was a kid he used to have to pull buckets of water from the river and carry them up the hill to his house.

His interpretation: 198 samurai were killed at that spot during a war, and the stones were marking their eternal tomb—which we had just turned into our personal playground, oops. He continued to tell us about how the men would have had to carefully light fires to keep them from being seen; but, likely were caught and slaughtered.

If I left it there I’d have a fascinating story to tell. But, remember how the length of the line made my “dirt” turn into his “samurai”? Well, his line was too short, while neither line took a needed upturn.

Penny and I hiked out to the folklore museum next to Zakimi Castle, where I asked the curators if they could tell me the history of Seh River. I showed them the marker location on the satellite image, about 100 meters from the museum.

The curators said they had neither knowledge nor record of a “Sze-Gawa”, even though the marker was just down the hill from the museum of local history. One of the curators speculated that “Seh” might refer to fresh water shrimp; saying that Okinawans used to call fresh water shrimp “seh”.

Looking at the pictures of the stones, the curator confirmed the 198 gentlemen or samurai interpretation, but saw the farmer’s “old” [古]as “good luck” [吉] because she recognized a line that the farmer had not seen. Still puzzling, “187 samurai” and “good luck day”. The junior curator returned to take another peak and said, “that’s neither 'dirt' nor ‘samurai’; see the bottom line is longer, and part of the character is not visible. That’s just a '7' [七]".

1-9-8-seven, not 198 samurai!

It’s the date I had been looking for. “1987” and “good luck day” next to a marker that says Shrimp River.

The Sze River source water marker below Zakimi Castle in Yomitan, Okinawa.

An exciting story about a massacre during an ancient war that had sprung from seeing a shorter line and not seeing another had become just a contemporary commemoration of the spot where a stream had once exited a hillside. The message: “This is where Shrimp River begins; if you drink from this spot you will have good luck for all your days.” Didn't work out for Shrimp River, it's dry and it's only use is as as a marker for wandering gaijin exploring haunted jungles.

With disappointment, I had to return to my initial analysis. No ancient massacre story to tell, just a boring headwater marker. Lesson: People fill in the blanks with fantasy; and reality is rarely as interesting.

For future reference:

土= “do” or “dirt”

士= “shi” or “samurai”

七= “shichi” or “seven”

古= “furui” or “old”

吉= “yoi”or “good luck”, “fortune”

Getting them wrong could turn today's good luck into an old school massacre.