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Okinawan Bullfighting

By: Michael R March

Date Posted: 1999-03-26

It may not evoke the passion and masculinity novelist Ernest Hemingway chronicled so vividly in 'Death in the Afternoon,' but for many Okinawans, togyu - bullfighting - is as revered as Spain's most popular sport. Togyu, popular since the 17th century, is thought to have originated in remote Ryukyu Island farming communities, such as Amami Oshima to the north (present-day Kagoshima-ken) and Yaeyama Islands to the south. Initially a farmer's form of amusement, togyu has grown in stature and popularity. Now, many Spanish-style stadiums dot the main island.

Unlike Hemingway's 'mano a mano' - where two matadors compete in execution and style - the Ryukyu Islands' version pits bull against bull: 1,000 kilograms of grunting, snorting ferocity. Bulls' handlers, sun burned and barefoot, shout unintelligible directions into the very tiny ears of the massive animals. Working a short length of rope, which has been forced through the bull's nostrils, handlers exhibit little of the flair or melodrama associated with togyu's Mediterranean counterpart, but excel in exuberance and enthusiasm. The crowd, mostly farmers and curious onlookers, sit with legs crossed and arms folded.

Flexing its flank muscles foretells an impending charge. There is no prodding or working the bull into a frenzy; pushing, butting and grunting proves the mettle of these steely-eyed bulls. There is no death, nor danger to human. There are no cries for blood or for a dispirited bull to be cast out, or be put down.

Dangerous fighting techniques, such as ripping, throat stabbing or goring are rarely a part of modern-day togyu. The match is decided when a bull either turns and runs from aggression, or is forced back and retreats from the arena.

The victor, decorated with colorful ribbons on its horns and the sponsor's cloth across its flanks, is treated royally. He is led from the arena to the holding pens as the crowd snaps photographs. Although a country cousin to Okinawa's far more popular and better advertised attractions, togyu can give the spectator a perspective of the true Okinawan lifestyle, its cadence and mood. Stalls around the arena offer fast food offer Okinawan cuisine, including the popular Okinawan Soba. The next Okinawan bullfighting tournament is Higashi Onna Togyu Taikai which takes place Sunday at Higashi Onna Bullfighting Arena in Ishikawa City.

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