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Tug-of-War has deeper meaning in Okinawa

By: Rob Piazza

Date Posted: 1998-10-09

Tsunahiki (tug of war) is a religious ritual which takes place to pray to the gods for a successful crop the following year. The rope is divided into two sections-north and south-one with a male end and one with a female end. The two ends are joined and the competition begins, with the results predicting the fortune of each side.

When rice crops were abundant, tsunahiki took place all year round in virtually all parts of Okinawa; however, in recent years the tendency has been towards entertainment with many of the tsunahiki festivals being tourist oriented.

In the history of tsunahiki it says, "The head of the a village who was troubled over insect damaged crops and a poor harvest asked the villagers for their wisdom regarding a way to solve the problem. However, he was unable to find a solution so, after considerable deliberation, he went to his father for instructions. He followed his father’s instructions to have a tug of war in the paths between the rice paddies while beating drums and brandishing torches. This one night of festivities annihilated the insects which were causing so much damage to the crop. From that tine on, without fail, tsunahiki was performed every June (lunar calendar)."

Itoman Tsunahiki is the second largest in Okinawa, rivaled only by Naha. While tug of wars in other areas are performed on holidays and tourist oriented, the Itoman tug of war still remains relatively traditional and is held on August 15 of the lunar calendar (Monday, Oct. 5 of this year). The rope is 1.5 meters in width and 180 meters in length.

The giant rope is divided in two, with each side being 1.5 meters in width and 90 meters long. One length of the rope has a female end and the other has a male end. Each year, the north and south alternate between the male and female portion. Constructing 50 smaller ropes, 15 cm in width by 100 meters in length, and joining them together makes the two sections of the rope.

The tsunahiki begins with two men from each side (north and south) confronting each other. Once the confrontation has ended, the actual tug of war begins. A match lasts for 30 minutes and ends when one side is able to pull the rope 7.2 meters. If, after 30 minutes, neither side has been able to accomplice this feat, the side which pulled the rope a total of 90 cm is declared the winner. It is generally said that if the female side wins, the year will be a lucky one.

The Itoman Tsunahiki takes place along National Highway 331 (from the Itoman Rotary to Hakugin-do Temple) and starts from about 5:00 p.m. All visitors are welcome to participate. Before the tug of war, there will be a costume parade with about 2000 participants from various groups performing Okinawan dance and Eisa. The parade begins at 2:00 p.m. and lasts until 4:30 p.m. If coming by car, please be advised that Route 331 will be closed from Hakugin-do Temple to the Itoman Rotary for the festival. Iif coming by bus (#89 or #32 from Naha), get off at Itoman Iriguchi. The fare will be around ¥400.

On August 16 of the lunar calendar (Tuesday, Oct. 6 of this year), another tsunahiki takes place in the district of Maezato in Itoman. Although it is considerably smaller than Itoman’s tsunahiki-0.75 meters in width and 105 meters in length-Maezoto boasts one of Okinawa’s oldest tug of war festivals with a history of more than 400 years, rivaling that of both Itoman and Naha.

The festival is filled with the sounds of bells, drums and conch shells as participants from each side dance and show off their strength by cursing and performing staff (bo) techniques. It is said that once you have seen the Maezato tug of war there is no need to see any other, as there are non that compare in tradition.

The Maezato Tsunahiki Festival begins at about 9:00 a.m. with the actual tug of war taking place around noon. It is highly recommended to arrive in time to see the events leading up to the tug of war. Maezato can be reached by bus by taking #89 or #32 from Naha to the Itoman Bus Terminal and then transferring to Bus #85 or #86 to Maezato.

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