OKINAWA, Japan - With roots dating back to the 15th century, the largest tug-of-war in the world is firmly grounded in tradition and ceremony. The tightly choreographed displays of martial arts, fireworks and dancing preceding the event further highlight its deep cultural history.
Service members and visitors from around the world joined tens of thousands of Okinawa residents in Naha City, Okinawa, to participate in the 43rd annual Naha Otsunahiki, or Naha Giant Tug-of-War, Oct. 13 at the Naha Matsuri Festival.
The festival is held to pray for the prosperity of Okinawa and the good health of all people, according to the Office of the Conservation Society of the Naha Giant Tug-of-War.
“This is one of those events that, if you are on Okinawa when it’s going on, you should definitely go see it and participate,” said Lance Cpl. Kyle Reid, a defense message system specialist, with Headquarters and Service Battalion, Marine Corps Base Camp Smedley D. Butler, Marine Corps Installations Pacific. “It’s just a spectacular sight to see so many people in one place competing against each other. Everyone’s screaming, and happy and enjoying themselves. It is definitely an experience I will remember.”
The competitors formed East and West teams that symbolized opposing dynasties from the time when Okinawa was a part of the Ryukyu Kingdom.
In preparation for the competition prior to pulling the rope, each team held a ceremony that included a karate exhibition and dancers with colorful ceremonial flags.
The rope, which weighs 43 tons and connects two separate pieces into one 200-meter-long cord, is one of the largest ropes in the world and takes thousands of people to pull, according to Takeshi Onaga, the Naha City mayor. The teams have to pull the rope five meters in order to claim victory.
If neither side succeeds in pulling the rope five meters across the finish line, the team that is able to move the rope two meters at the end of 30 minutes is declared victorious.
Representatives from each team, dressed in traditional Okinawa attire, called out a steady cadence for the participants to coordinate their efforts and pull in unison.
“The key to victory was teamwork,” said Reid. “Every time we were cued to pull the rope by the rope master with a whistle blow, we would all pull simultaneously, allowing us to get as much power behind each pull.”
Thousands of participants, grasping at 280 smaller ropes extending off the main length, struggled for 27 minutes before the East team pulled through with a hard-fought victory.
“It was a good fight,” said Taosa Oshiro, a Naha resident and tug-of-war participant. “There was a few times you could feel the rope get pulled back away from us, but in the end we were victorious.”
Both the East and West teams joined in celebrating the conclusion of the annual event and continued celebrating the Naha Matsuri Festival with a traditional rope cutting.
“It is a common tradition to take a piece of rope home,” said Oshiro. “The pieces of the rope are considered to bring good luck to whoever the new owner is. So it’s important to get a piece.”
Volunteers with the American Chamber of Commerce in Okinawa, including service members with MCIPAC and III Marine Expeditionary Force, assisted in cutting off pieces of rope and handing them to the crowd to help keep the process orderly and safe for all involved.
With both teams currently tied in victories in the all-time series, this gives both of them something to work toward for the 2014 competition.
“It was a great time,” said Reid. “Everyone came together, and worked as a team to accomplish such a spectacular achievement. There were a few times the West team regained some of the inches they lost from the East team, but in the end, the East team was victorious. I can’t wait until next years to see which team will win.”
This work, Service members, Okinawa residents pull together, by LCpl Donald Peterson, identified by DVIDS, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.