Tug-of-war brings local community, Marines together
NAHA, Okinawa, Japan -- Checking in at 200 meters long and 43 tons when assembled, the rope is the largest in the world. It stretches between two blocks in downtown Naha, Okinawa, and is nearly as wide as a traffic lane.
The only logical thing to do with such an exceptionally behemoth braid is to hold the world's largest tug-of-war.
That is exactly what the citizens of Okinawa, service members of U.S. Forces Japan and tourists from around the world did Oct. 7 at the 42nd annual Naha Tug-of-War, or Naha Tsunahiki as it is known in Japanese, at the Naha Matsuri Festival.
"It was a very fun event, and not just for the Japanese and Americans, but for people from all countries," said Shota Kawamitsu, a volunteer with the American Chamber of Commerce in Okinawa. "They came here and got to be part of the tradition (and it is) a gateway to introduce people to Okinawan heritage."
The heritage of the tug-of-war and the festival celebration date back to the 15th century, when the Ryukyu Kingdom ruled Okinawa and other Ryukyu islands. The battle between separate dynasties during the reign of the Ryukyu Kingdom is represented by the opposing sides during the tug-of-war.
Marines participating in the single Marine program of III Marine Expeditionary Force and Marine Corps Installations Pacific joined volunteers of the American Chamber of Commerce in Okinawa to help U.S. service members and other tourists participate in the event.
The volunteers helped bridge the language gap, providing a resource to allow foreign participants a chance to understand the intricacies of the event and fully participate alongside the Okinawans, according to Mike Holland, education committee chairman, American Chamber of Commerce in Okinawa.
The tug-of-war was preceded by a ritual display that included fireworks, dancing and karate demonstrations.
"The culture is very rich here in Okinawa, and an event like this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to experience it," said Cpl. Doris Rubio, vice president for the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma single Marine program, Marine Corps Base Camp Butler, MCIPAC. "We are stationed here (between two and three years), and it is important that we get out and explore the island."
For the volunteers helping stage the event, the competition provided not only a chance to witness Okinawan culture, but a chance to take an active role in it.
"(Volunteering) shows that we love Okinawa and the culture here and want to be part of it," said Holland.
Following the ritual display, the two 100-meter lengths of rope were connected. On the main body of the rope, smaller ropes were attached and distributed to the crowd to be used as hand-holds during the tug-of-war. Hand-holds provided each participant a grip to pull on during the event.
The tens of thousands in the crowd were organized into an east and west team and attempted to move the rope five meters in order to claim victory. If neither side succeeded in pulling the rope five meters, the team who moved the rope the furthest at the end of 30 minutes would be declared victorious.
During the competition, the volunteers also served a much more critical role while the densely packed crowd attempted to move the 43-ton mass, added Holland.
"Without the volunteers, we could have many problems with tourists getting hurt," said Holland. "We have made the event safer … all the tourists now know what's going on and feel more comfortable knowing that (the volunteers) are here to answer any questions they have."
Following the tug-of-war, participants were invited to take a piece of the rope home with them, an act traditionally believed to bring good luck to the rope's new owner.
The volunteers were issued small folding saws to cut off lengths of rope and hand the lengths out to the crowd, negating the need for the crowd to bring their own knives and potentially create an unsafe environment with a large number of people attempting to cut the ropes on their own, according to Holland.
At the end of the 2012 tug-of-war, the west team claimed victory, having moved the rope one meter off of its starting point.
"It was a great time; everyone came together for the event," said Cpl. Nanci Espinoza, a supply administration and operation specialist with Marine Aircraft Group 36, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, III MEF, and volunteer at the event.