Uruma Okinawa, Japan
by Michael Lynch
Bullfighting in Uruma Okinawa, Japan is part of the festivities associated with the Lunar New Year on the 1st of February. According to the Asian calendars this year, 2009, is the Year of the Ox. Bullfighting is a traditional Sunday pastime in Okinawa and earliest records show it has been a spectator sport since at least the 17th century. Unlike bullfighting in Spanish speaking cultures, there is no Matador to face the bull; it is one bull challenging another and neither will be seriously injured or die in the event.
The arena, a dome-shaped structure with open sides, provides air circulation. A circular area covered with a mixture of sand and clay, about 18 meters in diameter is where the bulls face each other. It is surrounded by an earthen mound and topped with an iron fence railing. Completely around and above the bullfighting ring are concrete bleachers with enough seating for a few thousand spectators. A tunnel, under the bleachers, is the only way for bulls and their handlers to enter and exit the ring.
There may be a team of handlers in the ring for each bull but, only one member at a time is permitted to physically handle their bull. The rest of the team stays back at a distance, ready to relieve a handler as required. The less experienced bulls are led on a line tethered through their nose. Bulls with the most experience are un-tethered, and do not need to be led. They actually look forward to the fight.
Judges, seated above the arena, determine the winner and loser of each bout when a decision needs to be made, but usually, the bulls decide for themselves. Normally whichever bull runs away from the fight is the loser. However, sometimes a bull will break free and run, only to gain enough momentum to turn around and charge his opponent and win the match.
The normal bout lasts around ten minutes with the bulls locking horns and trying to muscle their opponent into quitting. They get tired much as a couple of arm-wrestlers would and usually one bull will just give up, turn and run; ending the match. Sometimes a bull will be intimidated when he first sees his opponent and just run for the exit without ever starting to fight. This makes the hecklers in the crowd go wild! Some bouts last twenty to thirty minutes. The unpredictability of each match is what the crowds come to see.
With their heads and horns as their only weapons one would think this might be a bloody sport, but it isn’t. The judges and handlers would quickly end any match where serious injury might occur. The handlers actually treat their bulls as family pets. Some of them go through the bout barefooted while standing right next to their bull, patting a shoulder and speaking encouraging words while its locking horns with another ton of snorting, earth-pawing bull.
At the end of each bout the loosing bull is quickly escorted to the exit by its team of handlers. The winner has a colorful cape placed on its back and bright colored ribbons and towels tied to its horns and tail by celebrating fans and team members. Then he is paraded around the ring stopping only for children, family members and handlers to jump on his back for a victory photo. Loud, Okinawan traditional music is played until the victor leaves the ring. The crowd cheers and applauds until the bull is out of sight
Then, the music stops, the announcer calls for the next teams and the crowd becomes silent waiting for the next match…
The Ishikawa Dome, where these events take place, sheltered from the weather is about a 45 minute drive from Naha International Airport. The quickest route is north on HWY 58, or north on the Okinawa Expressway, following road signs for Exit #6 of the expressway. The arena is a large concrete, dome-shaped building visible from the entrance/exit of the Toll Road.
Bullfights are events held on Sunday and the tickets are sold at the entrance for 2,500-3,000 Yen. Most Google searches for Okinawa Bullfight will lead to travel agencies (some in English; most in Japanese).
A good Link to try is: www.japanupdate.com
An excellent link to the culture and history behind Okinawan bullfighting: en.wikipedia.org
About the author:
Michael Lynch is a wildlife photographer living in Okinawa, Japan. His photography has been published in a quarterly Okinawan magazine and his travel articles are published in various online magazines.
All photos are by Michael Lynch.