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East meets West at Yonabaru tug-of-war

By: By Bill Charles

Date Posted: 2011-07-29



Prayers for a good harvest set the stage for Yonabaru Town’s traditional Tug of War Sunday, as thousands gather for one of the island’s largest festivals.

The 29th annual Yonabaru Festival has evolved from more than 400 years of inherited traditions, where residents called upon the gods to provide a bountiful crops harvest and to chase devils away. This year’s tug of war takes place Sunday in Yonabaru Town, beginning at 5 p.m. Before the townspeople and tens of thousands of visitors grasp the rope, though, there’s a lot of fun to be had.

The Yonabaru Festival is a two-day affair, with opening ceremonies Saturday afternoon in the Main Festival open space in Udun-yama Youth Square in the town’s downtown area. The Yonabaru Junior High School brass band will perform, children and adults both engage in sumo wrestling, and martial arts demonstrations fill the square. Saturday afternoon also brings children’s Taiko drum performances and shishi dance, the lion dance. Eisa and Okinawa traditional dance, as well as taiko drum performances, give this city of 15,000 a sense of booming pride at hosting a tug-of-war that’s second only to the Naha Matsuri and tug-of-war in October.

Throughout the festival there are dozens of vendor booths offering food, fun and products for sale. The pre-festival tug-of-war dance parade kicks off at 4 p.m., following a tug-of-war history parade. Children’s tug-of-war events take place earlier in the day, starting at 9 a.m.

It’s the tug of war that draws like a magnet though. The festive event follows the historical precedent, with east and west villagers, both male and female, coming together. In olden days, men of the villages gathered and carried the rope around the community before the tug of war. All who attended the tug of war were assured of a safe life, free of accidents and injury from natural disasters.


The Yonabaru tug-of-war rope is no baby, weighing five tons and boasting a girth of one meter. Thousands of participants join in the tug-of-war, aiding the organizing teams who are dressed in historic Okinawa costumes as they balance themselves atop the massive rope and encourage everyone to ‘pull’. The two sections of the gigantic rope are linked by a three-meter wooden pole.

Following the great tug-of-war, an eisaa dance group performs at 7 p.m. at the main festival site, and the festival caps with fireworks at 8:45 p.m. The festival has been staged in Yonabaru Town for 400 years, having begun in the Ryukyu Kingdom era of King Sho-ei, who reigned from 1573-1588. The king chose the festival for good luck and to pray for everyone’s prosperity, including his own.

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