Tug-of-war events are held from June through August of the lunar calendar (July and September on the Gregorian calendar) in Okinawa.
In Okinawa, the tug-of-war is generally characterized by featuring the ozuna (male rope) of the east on one side and mezuna (female rope) of the west on the other, using a rope made with the ozuna and mezuna by connecting the rings of the two with the kanachibo (“bo” meaning stick or bar). There is also a tug-of-war called Kenkazuna (“fight rope”), which features fierce clashing.
The main objective of the event is to pray for good harvest, big catch, rain, and warding off evil, while it is also believed to forecast the fortune of the following year based on the outcome. In general, tug-of-war takes place once a year, but there are also regions where it is held once every few years, every year but mainly every few years, and even those that hold it twice a year. They are held all around, and every event has its own characteristics. Comparing the different styles would be one way to enjoy them.
Here, we will introduce the three major tugs-of-war from different regions in Okinawa that have been passed down through generations, Naha Great Tug-of-War, Itoman Great Tug-of-War, and Yonabaru Great Tug-of-War.
Started as a celebratory event around 1450, this tug-of-war event is endowed with rich history and culture as well as great pride. Reintroduced in 1971 as part of the 50th-anniversary celebration of Naha City, it became a traditional and cultural event in Okinawa for people to wish for happiness and peace, family harmony, prosperous business, blessings of fertility, and good health.
In 1995, the event was certified by the Guinness World Records for having 270,000 attendees, 15,000 participants, and the largest rope made of rice straw, which is 200 m in length and 43 tons in total weight. Since then, the event has seen a steady increase in participants from all over Japan as well as overseas. It is now an event that represents Okinawa.
The Itoman Great Tug-of-War is an event rich in ancient rites as well as tradition. It is held on August 15 of the lunar calendar each year. This is the only tug-of-war event in Okinawa that takes place on the day of the harvest moon. A parade known as Michijune takes place prior to the tug-of-war, during which there are traditional performances and dances lead by people holding flags.
The tug-of-war opens with youths dressed as legendary characters of Itoman, Ichimanmagi and Makabechan. They appear from the north and south to meet at the middle for a stare-down, then the tugging begins. The Itoman Great Tug-of-War was awarded the Grand Prize by Hometown Event Awards in 2013 out of 169 entries and officially became the traditional event that represents Itoman.
The Yonabaru Great Tug-of-War is said to have started during the King Sho Ei era of the Ryukyu Kingdom (1573 – 1588) as a ritual to pray for a great harvest, held as a traditional event to forecast the harvest of the year based on the outcome. It involves using a rope braided with “male” and “female” ropes as a way to celebrate the harvest in advance, which was then tugged in the directions of east and west. The rope is 90 m in length from east to west and weighs 5 tons. The sight of the rope with an arrangement atop being carried across town is a heroic sight, as it looks like a moving dragon. The moment the ropes are joined together with the kanachibo in place and the rope slams the ground, the tugging begins.
The sight of the tugging towards the east and west captivates the audience while fueling passion among those tugging. It is said that those who participate will be blessed with good health and fertility, and people come from all over Japan to participate each year. In addition to the tug-of-war, there are also plans for concerts and fireworks.