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Maezato Tug-of-War is Legendary

By: David Knickerbocker

Date Posted: 2001-10-13

Tsunahiki (tug-of-war) is a historical ritual of long standing where many families come together to pray to the gods for a successful crop during the following year. In the old days of Okinawa, many tsunahiki took place in virtually all parts of the island, but in recent years, the tendency has been more towards entertainment and tourism. However, the Maezato Tsunahiki in Itoman has maintained it's traditional essence since its origins in the 17th century.

This year's festivities took place on Tuesday, Oct. 2, beginning at about 9 a.m. and lasted all day long. All participants began preparing for the battle from early morning. The giant tug-of-war rope, measuring 105 meters long and 0.75 meters wide, was kept under a tin shack while faces were painted and people waited around for the festivities to begin. Several Maezato locals began warming up for a karate demonstration and others banged on gongs. Finally, two giant decorative poles, hitherto standing erect outside the entrance of an old Okinawan house, were picked up and carried to the front of the parade as participants began to gather. Bo sticks were passed out to karate demonstrators who then gave their best with skill and community pride.

Finally, the rope was unwound and several people helped carry it towards the venue of the big battle about 300 meters away. On both sides of the battleground many people began to gather, preparing to watch this year's tsunahiki, hoping for their respective sides to win. As the time for the battle approached closer and closer, the crowd began blowing on conch shells and banging on gongs and other drums with a new fury. Both sides brought their ropes to about 100 meters apart and began a traditional representation of a conflict with karate participants showing their loyalty for their village. Both sides' demonstrations gradually moved to the center grounds where they clashed in a symbolic conflict before the large traditional tug-of-war began. Once two warriors from both sides met in the middle, they confronted each other and the game began.

Both the North and South teams carried their rope to the centerline, led by two warriors and a dragon. A child, an archer, and a samurai were standing top of each sideís rope. The rope was then tied together in the middle and masses of individuals took to the large rope and grabbed a handhold to prepare for the pull for victory. The countdown began and suddenly both sides started pulling with all their might.

After a few minutes, one man asked me to join in the battle, but I politely declined. A few minutes later, an older woman grabbed my hand and began pulling me to the rope but I declined again. Finally, a few minutes later, another older man grabbed my arm and asked me to participate, pulling me to the rope. I could not resist any longer, so I made my way up to the rope to do what little I could for my team. I pulled with all Iíve got on the giant rope and was surprised with its overall weight and mass and with the difficulty of pulling it even an inch in my direction. Each team had a quick, rhythmic pattern for pulling on the rope, but after a few minutes of intense tugging, my side became weary and we finally let up, giving the victory to the opponent. This same battle has taken place year after year for about 400 years and lasts up to 30 minutes with the team that pulls the rope 7.2 meters or more declared the winner. If after 30 minutes of tugging neither team is able to accomplish the feat, the victory is given to the team that moved the rope a total of 90 centimeters. Otherwise, the battle ends in a draw.

After the tsunahiki, the rope was pulled to the side of the road and more karate demonstrations took place in the center arena for another 30 minutes. Several people began making their way towards vendors selling food and drinks, and many children persuaded their parents into buying them kakigori (shaved ice). After these demonstrations took place, the communities made their way back to their home grounds for a day of celebration. We gradually moved up to a resting spot about 100 meters away and everyone began making small talk about the day's battle. People everywhere were drinking beer, hanging out with good friends, discussing life, reminiscing of the good years gone by, and passing beer out to those who were empty-handed. It was a time for drinking with old friends and family and a time to celebrate life. After sitting in the shade under an ancient tree, we moved into a Maezato family's house for more socializing, eating, and drinking. At this house, another generous local invited us over to his house for more food and drinks. Finally, after visiting two houses, and after a long day of tug-of-war, festivities, and celebration under a scorching October sun, we left the small town and went back to our everyday lives.

One onlooker, Mike Davies, has been attending the festival for 13 years in a row. He is married to a Maezato local and was united with four generations of family members during the day. More of a spectator than a participant, he claims, "I never fight in the tug-of-war, but my wife and her sister go into their own world!" Mike first came to Okinawa in 1982 as an active duty serviceman, but he was constantly on and off the island year after year. Finally, in 1990, Mike came back to Okinawa, retired in 1994, and has lived here ever since. During his life on Okinawa, he has made it a point to come out to the Maezato Tsunahiki festivities every year.

The Maezato Tsunahiki was an eye-opening experience for me, personally. Never before have I seen so much community pride and traditional value as I saw during this one-day experience on the Southern end of Okinawa. In contrast to the great Naha Tsunahiki, this battle is not commercialized, and young and old citizens from the area came out to genuinely cheer for their sides. With the banging of gongs and the blowing of conch shells, I felt as if I was in another time and country altogether, different from Okinawa or Japan. It felt, more or less, as if I had been teleported back in time to the period when the Ryukyu Kingdom still ruled the islands. The Maezato Tsunahiki is a must-see for anyone interested in catching a glimpse of original Okinawan tradition. It is by far Okinawa's most traditional tug-of war, and some say that once you have seen this battle there is no need to see any other, as there are none that compare in tradition.

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