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Maezato Village holds tug-of-war tradition together

By: Kenny Ehman

Date Posted: 1998-11-20

Eighty year old Ichiro Miyazato came in from the hot morning sun to sit down for a little while. He had been busy getting the eastern part of his village ready for the biggest event of the year - it was August 16 of the lunar calendar, and the day of the tug-of-war for Maezato Village. He sipped on a coke and explained that the actual preparation for the tug-of-war started a few weeks ago, when the first meeting of villagers took place to discuss this year's festival. From that gathering on, the approximate 1,000 people of Maezato slowly began to split the village into two separate areas of east and west. "The tug-of -war is still done the same way as it was many years ago," said Miyazato. His words meant that although it is the most enjoyable festival for most of Maezato's residents, they take the tug-of-war very seriously. In some cases, husbands and wives who were born on opposite sides of the village have parted, returning to either east or west to participate in their rightful place. Traditionally, the story is told that the winner would reap the benefits of a good harvest the following year.

Unlike the Naha tug-of-war, there are no tourists that come to watch. There is no event planning committee, and there are no colorful posters advertising the awesome spectacle. It is for the people of the community, who hold the tradition to be passed down the same way, year after year.

The morning of the actual tug-of-war was extremely busy with preparation. Everyone from the eastern part of the village had gathered at Miyazato's home, which had been declared the "muutuya" (main household) of the east. The Miyazato family has held this title for centuries, and will continue to do so for generations to come. Inside, the faces of children were being carefully painted to match their elaborate costumes, which have many characteristics influenced by China. Their dress helps them to bring to life the role of Ryukyuan princes, and they will actually stand on the rope during the tug-of-war. Their characters keep the history of the Ryukyu Kingdom alive, while bringing power and energy to those who will pull the rope.

Although it is the men who are mainly visible, the festival involves people of all ages - both male and female. "Everyone is involved. The young adults help the older ones, and the children help them. The women help the men, and also will sing and dance," explained Miyazato. "That's what I like best, everyone is helping out."

Just outside of Miyazato's home laid the giant 50 meter rope. It is always handmade by a group of the villagers together. Later, the rope is actually carried to the center of the village, where it is met by the western half, which must be exactly the same size. The halves represent either female or male, with each side of the village alternating every year over which part of the rope they will represent. This year, it was the eastern side of the village that held the female half.

Miyazato got up to make final preparations, and the atmosphere outside was buzzing with energy. A gong was being sounded to mark the start of the event. As some of the younger men made last minute checks on their head dresses, a group of older women began to beat their small drums. They were accompanied by "sanshin" players, and soon singing and dancing followed. On the opposite side of the village, the exact same thing was taking place.

The giant rope had already been stretched out along the narrow road just in front of Miyazato's home. A crowd of people now began to grow. Many of the villagers were already waiting down at the center of the village for both east and west to make their appearances. During the singing and dancing, one by one the men performed a series of "kata" using the staff - a weapon used in the ancient Okinawan art of self defense called karate. Their eyes were focused, and their faces showed no signs of weakness. They were intense, and their adrenaline soon began to spread through everyone.

It was time to move the rope. In a massive show of strength, the men shouldered the rope and proceeded to the village center. Through the streets and under the hot Okinawan sun they walked - the rope becoming heavier with each step. Giant flags draped on six meter poles lead the way. The flags stretched upward to the sky as their bearers struggled to keep them straight. The entourage reached the village center, and across from them stood a mirror image. The west had also arrived.

The ropes were checked by officials from both sides. Then, a show of strength though a series of acts followed. Spears were being used in more "kata" demonstrations. The men holding the staffs on both sides faced off performing their own "katas" again. The "shi shi' lion danced about as it fought with a villager dressed like a monkey. Drums were beat, gongs were sounded, and the energy began to build. In an awesome show of force, the men all came together in a circle, holding their staffs high in the air. They yelled while they hit their staffs against each other. The west side performed the same movement. The yells roared back and forth across the center line.

A signal came to begin connecting the ropes. The men retreated and hauled the heavy ropes to the center line. A pole was used to lock the ropes together after their loops were slid through each other. The pulling began right away, and the massive rope seemed to not move at all. Everyone - men, women, and children from the crowd all joined in the struggle. In a final pull of strength the west was able to win.

The tug-of-war was over, but the festival continued into the night. There was drinking and eating, along with much singing and dancing. Miyazato took his defeat lightly. Tomorrow there would be no east and west. But next year was going to be on many people's minds.

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