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The Sport of Okinawan Bullfighting

Okinawan bullfighting, which is sort of like sumo wrestling with bulls, is a popular sport and has a long, proud history in the Ryukyu Islands.

There is something totally unparalleled about watching two powerfully built Okinawan fighting bulls battle for dominance in a dirt ring. Maybe it’s the sheer size of the animals, which at 900 kg are close to double the size of the bulls used in Spanish fights, or maybe it’s the infectious enthusiasm of the crowd or the obvious sense of pride exhibited by both the bulls and the handlers. Regardless, an Okinawan bull fighting tournament is a heart-pumping spectacle you’ll be telling stories about for months.

Sumo Wrestling with Bulls in Okinawa

Okinawan bull fighting is nothing like what you’d see in Spain, Mexico or parts of South America. There is no matador, no cape and no swords are plunged into the animals. Instead of squaring off against a human in a dual that usually ends in death for the bull, bulls in Okinawa fight one another, and no animals are harmed. It’s rather more like Sumo wrestling with bulls than what most people would call ‘bullfighting.’ And that’s what makes it so awesome.

The ring and the atmosphere is reminiscent of sumo.

The similarities with sumo run deeper than merely the idea of two large and powerful competitors fighting for dominance in a circular ring. Officially known as ‘togyuu,’ the colloquial name for the sport is ‘ushi-zumo,’ or bull sumo (or sometimes ‘ushiorase’ in the local dialect. Similarly, the bulls are paired according to their rankings, and the highest rank is termed ‘yokozuna,’ a term borrowed from sumo. However, unlike in sumo, the matches are organized into weight classes. This is necessary since larger bulls enjoy a decisive advantage.

Anatomy of an Okinawan Bullfight

Each match begins with two bulls being led into the ring. The first bull is usually led in a circle and encouraged to scrape the dirt with its hooves. It knows it’s being watched by human spectators and most bulls love to put on a show. Often the bull will lay down on its side and roll, pushing it’s horn into the ground in a display of fighting spirit and when it stands back up, the bull utters deep, intimidating bellows.

Handlers stand ready to pull the bulls apart if needed.

When the opening spectacle is over, the second bull is led into the ring and the two handlers maneuver the fighters to face one another in the center. What happens next depends on what sort of mood the bulls are in. Occasionally, one of the bulls just isn’t up for a fight and, rather than engaging, simply turns and walks casually away, ending the match before it begins (the other bull is considered the victor). However, far more commonly, once the bulls heads are brought to face one another up close, the animals instinctively lock horns, and the match is on.

The bulls push, frothing at the mouth and vying for footing as they stare each other down with manic eyes, cheered on by their enthusiastic handlers. Grasping thick ropes knotted through the bulls’ nostrils, the handlers (only one of whom is permitted to hold the rope at a given time) stand ready to pull their bulls back in the event the fight gets out of hand, which it sometimes does. Every now and again the bulls approach the edge of the ring and, with nowhere left to go, one of the contenders gets pushed right up to the metal bars that guard the crowd.

The farmers take great pride in their bulls, which are treated very well.

Occasionally a bull loses its footing and ends up being knocked over by the other bull. When this happens, the handlers pull the standing bull back as quickly as they can to prevent the fallen bull from being gored. The bulls don’t seem to want to harm one another, but they’re still bulls and, in the heat of competition, they can get carried away.

Who wins an Okinawan Bullfight?

Okinawan bull fights last around ten minutes or so on average, but some can stretch out to 20 or 30 minutes if the contenders are both highly determined. The bulls often tire in the middle of the match and simply stand with their heads together, neither pushing nor conceding. The match is over when one of the bulls gives up and walks away, or when one of the handlers calls an end to the fight (thereby conceding victory). Occasionally official judges are called upon to make a determination, but in most matches the outcome1qq is clear. Unlike in sumo, there is no referee in the ring. The judges sit in a designated box at the top of the arena where they have a good view of the match.

The fight ends when one of the bulls turns away.

When a match ends, the losing bull is escorted out of the ring without fanfare, while the winner is brought to the center and adorned with brightly colored flags and other decorations. Often younger family members are placed on top of the bull and it’s not uncommon to see a girl hug the bull around the neck as if it were a big dog. Of course not every bull is keen to be ridden. Some refuse even to have a flag placed on them or to pose for a photo. However, it seems that most of the bulls are quite happy to be shown off and to take a victory lap to the tune of Okinawan traditional music blasted loud and proud over the speakers.

A Brief History of Okinawan Bullfighting

The sport of Okinawan bullfighting dates back to at least the 12th century, when local farmers pit their breeding bulls against each other for sport. It’s popularity increased in the late 1800s and by the early 1900s it was drawing spectators from all over the islands. It was said to be so popular that several districts outlawed the practice, not because it was harming the animals, but because its popularity was drawing young men away from the fields where their labous were needed.

The bullfights continued through World War II until the outbreak of the Battle of Okinawa, when the island was engulfed in some of the fiercest fighting in the pacific region. Fortunately, enough bulls and farmers survived to enable the fights to start only a few months after the war ended. By the 1960s, the sport had become highly organized, the rules became standardized and it’s popularity grew in leaps and bounds. It is said that in the lat 60s, the annual event to determine the prefectural champion drew a record crowd of more than 10,000 people.

Where to Watch an Okinawan Bullfight

If you want to see an Okinawan bullfight, the place to go is Ishikawa Multi Purpose Dome. It’s name seems a bit strange, since the dome is purpose-built for bullfighting, but anyway, this is the place. If you want to get parking near the building, you’ll need to get there early since space is very limited. You can park on a road that runs beside the dome, but you’re probably better to park at Uruma City Hall and take a shuttle (make sure to check if this service is available) or, worst case, a taxi.

Younger members of the family ride the winning bull.

The price of entry can vary by season and the specific tournament, but expect to pay around ¥2,500 if you’re a man. Women pay ¥2,000 and children can get in for less. There are lots of snacks you can buy, not unlike the kind of food you might find at a matsuri, and it’s considered polite to support the vendors. Also, you will likely be asked by some local kids in their baseball uniforms for a donation, so if you’ve got a bit of spare change, consider helping them out a bit.

The bullfights usually take place in the afternoon, leaving the morning for other fun things. Since you’re not far away, you can drop in and visit Cave Okinawa on the way there (you might see some fighting bulls munching grass in the fields around it). You could also visit Iha Castle ruins if you’re in the mood for a nice view of Uruma (although there’s not much of a castle there).

Ishikawa Multipurpose Dome

2298-1 Ishikawa, Uruma, Okinawa 904-1106
Uruma City Website

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