Stars, Asterisms, and Constellations in Okinawan

Just a short post this time around, but a series I plan on continuing.

Different cultures label different parts of the night sky differently. Various Australian Aboriginal cultures labeled the “gaps” in the Milky Way (which modern astronomy understands to be particularly dense clouds of interstellar dust) as different creatures. Other cultures, like the ancient Babylonians, labelled arbitrary patterns between particularly bright stars, the ancestors to today’s modern constellations. These different things—stars, asterisms (groupings of stars and other celestial objects which are not traditional constellations), and constellations, can vary significantly from culture to culture.

Here’s a brief look at some of these in Okinawan culture, and why they are named the way they are.

Polaris (the North Star), is niinufabushi (ニーヌファブシ) in modern Okinawan. This likely comes from older 子の方星 ne=no fau boshi |1st.earthly.branch=GEN.IANI direction GEN\star| ‘the North Star’. 子 ne, the 1st Earthly Branch is associated with the direction north, as well as the 11th Lunar Month, and the Rat zodiac sign.

The Ursa Minor (also called the Big Dipper) constellation is called kajimayaabusi (カジマヤーブシ) in modern Okinawan. This is from the earlier 風回りや kaze mawar-i-ya |wind turn-NMLZ-thing| ‘pinwheel’. In Okinawa, pinwheels are traditionally made from the leaves of the pandanus tree (modern Okinawan adan アダン ‘pandanus tree, Pandanus odoratissimus‘). This site describes how to make a traditional Okinawan pinwheel. Modern pinwheels are generally made of multicolored paper. An excellent question would be why it has this name. My best guess would be because of the fact that Ursa Minor seems to rotate around Polaris, much like a pinwheel spins in the wind.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *