Braids of glory: Giant game of tug-of-war returns to Naha, Okinawa Oct. 8

by Shoji Kudaka
Stripes Okinawa
On a sunny day in late September, about ten locals in work clothes braid one straw-rope after another at Naha Military Port.
 
From time to time, they chant to work in unison, but their volume is much smaller than that of 15,000 people chanting “Haaiya” during a massive game of tug-of-war.
 
This is a familiar scene on the military facility. Every year when the Naha Tug-of-War rolls around, crews take to the facility and spend a month and a half bringing the Guinness World Record-certified rope back to life.
 
This year, the giant game of tug-of-war will take place at 4:10 p.m. Oct. 8 around Kumoji Intersection on Route 58.
 
The giant rope used in the annual event comes in three parts: the main rope called “honzuna” or “ufunna,” decoration ropes called “keshouzuna,” and hand ropes called “tezuna” or “teena.” The main rope is further broken into “mezuna” or “meenna”, which is a “female” rope to be pulled by the west side, and “ozuna” or “warnna,” a male rope for the east.
 
On this day, the crew was working on decoration and hand ropes. The main rope, which was covered with several sheets, lay on the side.
 
Rain poses the biggest concern, hence the main rope being covered according to Tsuneaki Gushi, who heads the crew. If the rope gets wet, it becomes much heavier - likely too heavy to be pulled even by a crowd of 15,000, explained the foreman.
 
When all parts are combined, the rope weighs about 40 tons. It has been enlarged three times in the past, which helped the event get recognized by Guinness. But a bigger size and more weight was a real test to the rope’s limit. The crew is unsure if the rope can take any more weight, explained Gushi. He also noted moisture can make the rope very fragile. If it breaks when people are pulling it, it can lead to disaster.
 
The main rope is now decades old, after being used for a long time. The decoration ropes are made every year to give a fresh life to the giant rope. The decoration and hand ropes are made by braiding together thin ropes called “kumun,” which means small things in local dialect.
 
For a hand rope, two sets of five kumun and one set of four are braided together first. Then these three sets are combined to make one hand rope. When tied to the main rope, a hand rope will branch out about seven meters on each side of the main.
 
Decoration ropes will be made in the same way, but it will take a total of nine kumun ropes instead of 14. On average, it takes around 1,500 packs of kumon ropes in total to make enough hand and decoration ropes.
 
“Hand ropes, which people put their hands on, need to be thick. 40 to 50 people will pull a hand rope on average” said Gushi. After the tug-of-war, all the hand ropes and half of the decoration ropes are cut to pieces and given out to the crowds, he said.
 
Always knowing that a potential typhoon is a threat to their schedule, the crew has built in enough leeway to make the deadline. His words may make it sound like this is an easy job to do. But the way they are focused on the rope, carefully removing small hangnails to make each braid smooth, or putting sheets on the ground to make sure that any part of the rope doesn’t touch water on the ground, offers a glimpse into the dedication Gushi and his crew put into making the rope with skills passed down from generation to generation.
 
The growing of the rope and the recognition by Guinness were in line with an ideal that “(The rope should be) beautiful, big, heavy, and long”, which Gushi shared with those who came before him. But as the rope became bigger, it became very difficult to maneuver, making the event very challenging.
 
In the schedule of the Naha Tug- of-War, there is a portion called “tsunayose.” It is a process where the male and female ropes are joined, by letting a loop that the male rope has at its end go through that of the female rope. The joint is then locked soon by a bar called “kanuchibou,” which goes through the two loops.
 
Men in traditional attire adjust the positions of the ropes by pushing them with poles. They often need support from the crowd which can scoot the rope by pulling hand ropes. Everything is supposed to be taken care of by humans.
 
Although those two loops are big enough to allow one to go through the other, this portion hardly comes easy, according to Gushi.
 
“If you use a heavy duty vehicle, it would be much easier. Or if the event were held somewhere else, there would be no need to worry about time,” Gushi said. “Because of the rope’s weight, joining them is always difficult. And it is something you don’t get to practice often.”
 
Sometime tsunayose can take longer than it should, and poses a big challenge to the event, which is literally a race against the clock. The venue, Route 58, needs to be cleared as soon as the event is over.
 
“This year, we were making the rope tight, so it will be alright,” said the foreman. Gushi and his crews are going to transport the rope to the location and see out how the event will come out.
 
Naha Tug-of-War is a not an easy event to pull off. Everything from blocking the traffic on a busy street and moving the huge rope in position to guiding large crowds needs to align. Gushi and his crew’s work is a crucial piece in overcoming such challenges. Looking at the way these craftsmen quietly work on the rope, you can sense their confidence and pride.
 
 
Naha Tug-of-War
Date: Oct.8
Location: Around Kumoji Intersection on Route 58 
TEL: 098-866-4858
 
Events
- 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.: Parade on Kokusai Street
- 2:30 p.m.: Traffic between Kumoji and Izumizaki intersections blocked off
- 2:45 p.m. to 4:10 p.m.: Opening Ceremony, karate and drum performances, Joining of male, female ropes
- 4:10 p.m.: Tug of war starts 
- 7 p.m.: Traffic restriction on Route 58 lifted 
Note: Naha Tug-of-War is a part of three-day event that takes place at the athletics field of Oonoyama Park near Cellular Stadium and Naha Military Port. From Oct. 7-9, the festival features live music, food vendors, fireworks etc. between 11 a.m. and 9 p.m. each day.

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