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East meets west in great tug-of-war

By: By Bill Charles

Date Posted: 2011-10-07

A world record stands in the balance Sunday as the 41st annual Naha Tug of War unfolds in downtown Naha.

Tens of thousands will join hands trying to move a 43-ton rope in the great Naha Tsunahiki (tug-of-war) Festival, an event that first made its way into the Guinness Book of World Records in 1995 and was renewed in 1997. That first time, the rope was 186 meters long and weighed 40,220 kilograms, and had a diameter of 1 meter 58 centimeters. It is longer now, by about 15 meters, and is pushing 44 tons, with a two-meter diameter.

The rules are simple; an estimated 25,000 men, women, boys and girls will team up with either the east or west side to shift the behemoth five meters during a half-hour competition. It’s not a simple matter, as evidenced by the record of recent years, when the east won 12 times, the west won 12 times and there were 11 draws.

An estimated 300,000 spectators will gather on Route 58 at Kumoji Crossing in downtown Naha for the tug-of-war, which ceremonially begins Sunday at 3p.m when representatives of four teams from east, and four from the west, perform a series of martial arts demonstrations.

The events leading up to the tug-of-war begin with a 2½-hour parade, the Ufunnasunei, along Kokusai Street in downtown Naha, led by the seven teams of the east and seven teams of the west, all wearing special black uniforms called Mumunuchihanta. The west includes the team flag, plus teams representing Izumizaki, Wakasa, Oroku, Kakinohana, Kume and Tsuzi, while the east team has the first flag, plus those of Asato, Shuri, Tomari, Mawashi, Kumoji and Tsuboya.

The tug-of-war was initially started by the four Ryukyu Kingdom towns that became Naha City—Nishi-Machi, Migashi-Machi, Wakasa-Machi and Izumizaki—and was intended as an event to pray for a bountiful harvest and for plenty of rain. It also invoked prayers for prosperity and good health. From the start in 1712, when the east and west teams were created, it’s been a festive event each year.

After speeches and praise for the 14 tug-of-war teams making up the two sides, the fun begins. The two lengths of rope, each measuring some 300 feet long, are pulled together and coupled with a 10-foot wooden peg. The main rope has 280 smaller ropes, each seven-meters-long, stretching to the sides for 15,000 spectators to grab onto and pull for their favorite team.

Kings symbolizing the supremacy of two dynasties in Naha centuries ago approach each other atop the rope with their royal courts, issue challenges to one another, and then command the tug-of-war begin. Team leaders clamor aboard the nearly two-meters wide rope and begin mustering their supporters into place.

Hundreds of pulling ropes are separated from the main rope, and all hands grab on, waiting for the signal. Once given, the pulling begins to cries of ‘yoishi’, O-Shoi’ and ‘Hai-ya’, meaning heave ho, or pull harder. The battle lines are formed, with east and west each trying to move the rope five meters within 30 minutes.

The tug-of-war dates back even further than the Naha event, to 1600, when it served a dual purpose. Villagers from east and west did honorific battle for victory as a sign to shamans who predicted the future. The prayers were for a good rice harvest. The second motive was to instill peace and stability into the lives of seafarers of this island nation, and to insure their safety. The tug-of-war rivets spectators during the hour-plus event, after which knives come out for everyone to cut ceremonial pieces of the rope to take home.

It’s the highlight of the weekend festival, but certainly not all of it, by any means. The fun begin Saturday on two giant outdoor stages that have been set for public concerts at nearby Onoyama Park during the festival, which runs through Monday. The RBC Citizens’ Stage is across the Kokuba River near the Tsubogawa monorail station, while the Orion Beer Paradise Stage is in the east central park area.

The main event is the RBC Karaoke Grand Prix Sunday starting at 5:15 p.m., following the tug-of-war. AEON stores are sponsoring the event, and has been running contests across the island the past few weeks, with more than 600 contestants. Saturday’s RBC Stage action starts at noon with Okinawa Bon and Misono, followed by a high school contest and then an evening Music Shower. Sunday starts with pro wrestling at 3:45 p.m., the Karaoke Grand Prix, and then Jimama. On Monday, it’s a movie promotion at 1:15 p.m., followed by RBC action, and KMP live in the evening with Shunichi Irei and Ai Nishida.

The Orion Beer Paradise stage sees the World Eisa PR on Saturday at 3:15 p.m., followed by Yudai Uechi and Tomoya Oshiro. Zukan performs at 4:55 p.m., with Shiori on stage at 5:35 p.m. Diamantes takes to the stage at 6:30 in the evening. On Sunday, World Eisa’s in the afternoon, followed by Tokky & Kumoji Band at 3:25 p.m., then Aria and Manami. Akira Ikuma performs at 5:30 p.m. and Parsha Club entertains on stage at 6:30 p.m. Sunday afternoon there’s more World Eisa, followed by Kiyama Shoten and Flip, leading up to Isamu Shimoji’s performance at 6:30 p.m.

Festivities each of the three evenings cap with fireworks displays launched over the Naha skyline from barges positioned in the river.

The Cost
All events and activities are free along Kokusai Dori and the Sunday Tsunahiki on Highway 58. Costs for foods and souvenirs vary depending on taste and desires, while parking is anything but free. Parking is difficult, and expensive. There is no parking near Onoyama Park, and none this year at Naha Military Port, so organizers recommend using the bus, taxi or monorail to get into the festival and tug-of-war areas. Plan on spending several thousand yen to park in the area, depending on how long you cruise the downtown and Onekama Park festival areas. For those on a budget, consider tours offered by Marine Corps Community Services, including the Single Marine Program, 18th Services at Kadena Air Base, Navy MWR or Army MWR from Torii Station.

Getting There
From the military bases, head south to Naha City. As you pass Tomari Port and the Tomarin Hotel on the right, you’ll find the first opportunities for parking. Turn left or right off Highway 58 and look for the blue “P” signs.

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