Starting this week, RocketNews24 will feature blogs written by people living in Asia who we hope can offer a unique glimpse at the country they call home. The first of these is You, Me, And a Tanuki by one of our own writers, Michelle. Originally from California, Michille is currently one of only two foreigners living in a tiny fishing village on one of the Oki islands in Japan. We’re still looking for more unique and interesting stories from Asia to share with the world, so drop us a line if you’d like to have your own blog featured on RocketNews24.
The Oki Islands, nestled in the Sea of Japan, have a tumultuous history. Once used as a place of exile for fallen emperors, the islands have been shaped by its unique past and transformed into an area rich in traditional culture and events. One such event is ushi-tsuki, or bull sumo. Used as a form of entertainment for the exiled Emperor Gotoba and dating back to 1221, the tradition of bull sumo is still proudly preserved by the local people of Oki.
Unlike the famous “man vs. beast” bull fighting of Spain, Oki’s bull fighting pits bull against bull in a fair battle of brute bovine strength. The match is over when one bull gives up and runs away and neither bull is injured in the ring. There are even weight classes and bulls of comparable weight fight against each other. Humans are present in the ring, but only play a supporting role facilitating the fight.
In the photo above, you can see two men holding on to ropes attached to the bull’s nose. The men are there to watch over the bulls and pull them away in case the fight needs to be stopped. At times, these men are more like cheerleaders, supporting the bull and encouraging him to fight hard with shouts of “ii zou!” (that’s right!) or “daijyoubu!” (it’s OK!).
The bulls are treated similar to their human sumo wrestler counterparts. Much like traditional Japanese sumo, the ring is purified using salt before the fight begins.
The strongest bulls are even able to achieve the title of yokozuna, champion status bestowed on human sumo wrestlers.
During the fights leading up to the main event, younger, inexperienced bulls are only allowed to battle for a few minutes. When time is up, the bulls are coaxed apart and sent back through the crowd to their holding area (usually a tree with a rope tied to it).
During one of the main event matches, a bull turned tail and fled from the fight, losing his match. The rope slipped from the facilitator’s grasp and the fleeing bull managed to get around to the back side of the champion bull and gored him in the right flank. The facilitator of the champion bull was so enraged to find that his bull was injured (something that is very uncommon in Oki bull fighting) that he began screaming at the officials and the other bull handler.
It was very touching to see how upset this man was at the sight of his bull being injured. These people spend hours a day training and caring for their animals and the bulls are treated as beloved family members.
The bull sumo arena in the Tsuma area of Okinoshima was nestled between two hills in the middle of a Japanese cedar forest. The hills served as a holding area for the bulls and were joined in the middle by a low dip in the land, forming the stadium.
It was as if we were stepping into another world where man and beast peacefully coexist. A few hundred people had gathered at the stadium, perched on fallen tree trunks or simply sat in the dirt. Massive bulls tied to pin-straight cedar trees by laughably thin ropes stood near the spectators, awaiting their turn to battle. These giant bulls, some weighing in at over one ton, were as docile as a sleepy kitten, just happy to be resting amongst the trees. When a girl of about four went skipping between the bulls, the enormous animals just casually looked at her as she went on her merry way. Seeing this, I even questioned if the bulls were fierce enough to participate in the fighting.
There was something so wild and almost spiritual about the whole event, it made me wish I could return to the simpler times where animals and humans mutually respected each other. I’ve been told that the bulls are taken for daily walks through the neighborhood to help keep them in shape. It isn’t uncommon to see a withered farmer leading an enormous bull through the streets in the early morning.
Before watching Oki’s bull sumo, I wasn’t expecting much. I even had an image of the event being just a couple of angry bulls tussling around in the dirt while spectators madly cheered on. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Oki bull sumo is a wondrous event where even the most casual of observer is able to tangibly feel the sense of pride and honor participants have for their island’s tradition. The sense of community and camaraderie that ushi-tsuki instills in its people is heartwarming. I feel honored to have had the chance to witness such a unique and powerful tradition that is still alive in the sleepy island communities of Oki.
Michelle is originally from California, but currently living in the tiny fishing village of Chibu, one of the Oki islands in Japan. Being one of two foreigners living in an island village of a little over 600 people presents many adventures. Come back every Saturday for a new article featuring the interesting and bizarre things she comes across in her life in rural Japan. Once a week not enough? Check out her blog, You, Me, And A Tanuki, for photographs and even more articles.