MOTOBU, Japan — On the fourth Tuesday of each month, Masaru Kinjyo begins preparing food for a dinner that he and his closest friends have held every fourth Wednesday for 23 years. But the food and sake that they'll consume is only part of the reason that they gather at the Sharaku bar in this town on northern Okinawa.
The other purpose is to lend support and money to deserving members of the "Sharaku moai," one of hundreds, if not thousands, of savings and loan clubs — moai — that continue to flourish here, outside the world of modern banks and financial institutions.
During the gatherings, each member of a savings club contributes a sum, perhaps $100. The money then is doled out, sometimes to a deserving member — with the understanding that it'll be repaid within a year — sometimes for some group activity. It's a traditional Japanese savings strategy that not only provides members with cash but also seems to be a balm for the soul.
"I have never missed a Sharaku moai gathering. Moai makes my life worth living," Kinjyo said, smiling broadly. "I am a member of two moai. Sharaku Moai is for fishing colleagues, and the other is for musical friends."
Recently, Kinjyo, 51, butchered a goat for a Sharaku moai gathering. The goat was prepared as sashimi (raw, with ginger, soy sauce and vinegar), as soup and as a risotto. At other moai gatherings, Kinjyo has served stonefish, moray eel or a fighting cock that's lost its last battle. Kinjyo works for the local water department but he's also worked as a part-time butcher since he was 10 years old.
"I can cook anything that has four legs, except a table!" he joked.
On the island of Okinawa, hundreds of thousands of people belong to such clubs, which existed long before modern banking came here more than 100 years ago.
Sokichi Omine, 48, is another dedicated member of the Sharaku moai and attends at least two different moai each month.
"It's indispensable for my daily life. Moai is my world, source of information, family, and I can't think about my life without moai," he said.
Omine's mother, Yoshi, 75, belongs to two moai and his wife, Ikuko, belongs to three.
He explained how the Sharaku moai works: Twenty members pay 10,000 yen ($90) each per month as well as a contribution toward the food. Once a year, two members get 100,000 yen ($900). "They can use it for whatever they want," he said.
Some use it to buy fishing gear, others use it for auto repairs or other expenses, and still others spend it on their children.
The benefits go far beyond the money, members say. The meetings are a good excuse for eating, drinking and bonding with friends. Some say the organizations are one of the reasons that Okinawans live longer on average — 89.2 years for women — than Japanese do on the country's main islands 1,000 miles to the northeast.
Taku Yanagi, a Ryukyu Broadcasting radio announcer (Okinawa is one of the Ryukyu Islands), recently noted in his blog that in other parts of Japan, moai members usually don't function "after age 80."
"Okinawa is the only place where members over age 80 still function well," he wrote.
The moai have helped keep traditions alive in Okinawa, despite its recent history. Captured in one of the bloodiest battles in World War II, Okinawa was a U.S. territory from the end of the war until 1972. Although Okinawa was returned to Japan, it still hosts about two-thirds of the 40,000 U.S. troops who're stationed in Japan.
Changes have been vast — first under U.S. influence, then under Japanese governance — yet many old customs survive, most notably the "yuimaru" spirit of mutual aid, which Craig Willcox described in his book, "The Okinawa Program," as "social networks that nourish and heal us — the kind that we call healing webs."
Moai typically form among school friends, relatives and friends with shared interests or purposes. Sometimes they evolve far from their roots.
For example, the moai at the Sadahiro Shimabukuro Restaurant began 23 years ago among fishing buddies, but it now comprises a disparate group that includes a doctor, a shop owner, a company president, a dive-shop operator, architects, a civil servant, an inn owner and retirees from Tokyo.
Rieko Kuniyoshi, who works as a chief nurse for the Bank of Okinawa, belongs to three moai. One of them, formed by a group of university friends, collects money jointly to go on a big trip once a year. Another one is for the daughters of patients at a hospital where she once worked.
"Without moai, our friendship might have evaporated a long time ago," she said.
One of the oldest Okinawan moai is Mihara Kyoshin Kai, which formed 80 years ago in the island's capital, Naha. To mark that milestone, 120 people from three generations of 65 families gathered.
Omine, the Sharaku moai member, savored a glass of Awamori sake as he tasted crab, fish and goat.
"When we get married, new babies are born, for Christmas, we all celebrate together here. Moai is for me like a big family," he said.
(Doi is a McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent. Tim Johnson in Beijing contributed to this article.)