Okinawan Tug of War

It seems unneccesary to explain what a tug of war is. It is obviously a contest involving two teams pulling on both ends of a rope. It's a sport which was a regular event at the Olympic games in Greece, with universal rules and methods.

On Okinawa, tug of wars are conducted primarily during the summer months and in some locations in October. It is an annual event although some places choose to hold one once every few years in conjunction with village traditions.

Several stories exist regarding the origin of the Okinawan tug of war but the basic purpose is always the same. Tug of war contests are conducted to give thanks for good crops, to pray for rainfall, to pray for the expulsion of evils and for prosperity in business. It is characteristic of the festival to entertain gods, buddhas and ancestral spirits with rivalry.

Like most Okinawan traditions and festivals, the tug of war originated from an ancient legend. Unfortunately it is not known from which legent it is derived.

One legend tells of two farming brothers who lived in a village in the southern part of Okinawa. During harvest one year the brothers argued over who had the best harvest. They fought for days without recess and finally decided that the dispute should be resolved by having a tug of war. The brother who won would then obviously have had the better harvest. Since that day tug of wars have traditionally been held at the time of harvest.

Another legend claims that the tug of war is of foreign origin. In ancient times when Okinawa's main island was divided into three parts and ruled by three kings the king of the southern part heard of the tug of war, its tools, manners and rules from China. He introduced the sport to his territory and let the people try it. The ropes, which were made of rice plant stems, were burnt after the tug of war and the ashes were thrown into the river. It was a ceremony to expel the plagues and to pray for bumper crops. The event's purpose was to unify and to motivate the people to work.

The most interesting legend originates from Chatan Village, located in central Okinawa, and Kushi Village in the north of the main island. In Okinawa's old days there was a custom in which the people abandoned their old relatives in a deep mountain and left them to die. The old were considered useless, unable to work and only good for consuming valuable food.

....... During this age there lived in an Okinawan village a very affectionate man who was fond of and dutiful to his mother. When she became very old and weak the man knew it was time to abandon her. But he could not. He built an underground room for her to hide in and supplied her with food and water. After he built the room the village became plagued with swarms of vermin.

The people began to fear for the harvest. Concern grew but no one could think of a viable solution. The affectionate son consulted his mother who was wise from age. She told him to make big ropes with the dead stems of rice plants and to have a tug of war with all of the villagers. "Before you begin the tug of war," she told him, "ignite a fire to a bundle of dead rice plants and light torches, beats drums and bells as loudly as possible, inspire in the people enthusiasm and the fighting spirit. After igniting the passion of the people, have a tug of war with two teams, east and west."

The villagers did as the old woman had suggested to her son and the vermin were frightened by the rivalry and fled into the fields. Some pests ran into the ponds of water and rivers and drowned. The villagers had an excellent harvest. The people congratulated the son on his suggestion and asked him how he thought of it. He had to admit that it had been his old mother who had taught him. The villagers were so inspired by the old woman's wisdom that they abolished the custom of deserting the old and began to cherish their older, wiser relatives. A tug of war has been held every harvest since then.

The various ancient origin legends are enchanting and innumerable. Today there are almost as many legends as there are tug of wars. The war is a local event and each village/township follows the same basic principals with only a few variations. Yonabaru Town holds a big tug of war in June, and Naha City in October. Both are very famous, attracting tens of thousands of people, and are well-known by mainland Japanese. The ropes of Naha (and of Okinawa City) are very large and very long; a thousand people can participate.

During the tug of war festivals, representatives of both teams demonstrate their karate forms on elevated platforms and compare strength before competing in the tug of war, trying to psych out the other team. In Henna Village, near White Beach, before the war, the ropes are paraded through the streets by all of the particpants who carry them on their shoulders. In Okinawa City, during the Okinawa Carnival, usually held in August, Americans are invited to participate and promote friendship. The Okinawa Carnival tug of war reflects the international flavor of the city and the sport.

August 26, 1990 - Gate 2 Street
Okinawa City (Koza), Okinawa, Japan
Okinawa '90 Carnival Tug-o-War

Do your best to block out the female "rope Nazi" and I think you'll enjoy this video. She was a real PITA! My favorite of her many pugnacious bellicosities - "Stay back (from the rope) at least 2 meters. That's 6 feet for those of you who speak English!"

Click here to watch

Updated: 1-1-2020