Bullfighting on Okinawa is often described as bloodless in comparison with those in Spain.
While it is true that no bulls are sacrificed at the mercy of matador’s sword on Okinawa, that doesn’t mean that the game is a stranger to the same thrill and excitement.
Ishikawa Multipurpose Dome in Uruma City saw a large crowd turn out during last year’s New Year’s holiday. The first fight of the year has become a seasonal tradition for many Okinawans.
The opening match between “Fighting Daichiki” (Fighting Good Luck) and “Warugaki Taketora” (Taketora, the Bad Boy), who weighed 720kg and 830kg respectively, turned to be a thriller.
The two bulls, with horns that curled slightly forward - not an ideal shape to directly strike opponents, skillfully hooked horns as their heads violently collided. The bulls tried to throw each other out of balance as the sharpened points of their horns were pressed against the opponent’s temple. As the match went on, you could see the results of the battle on the bulls’ foreheads.
“That finish was like dynamite. It all came on to five seconds, the little guy beat the big guy, which is kind of cool,” said David Carrera from Camp Foster, as he expressed his excitement over the bout.
“I live in Yomitan and I stumbled upon a smaller bullfight, and we didn’t get to see much. Coming out here with family, this is pretty amazing.”
It’s not just the fight but also its mood that fascinates him.
“I have been to Spain bullfights, Mexico bullfights - it’s totally different. There is a sense of protecting the animal, and the sense of comradery and family, which I kind of like. It’s a safe place to bring the kids whereas I am not necessarily sure if I will bring back my kids to Barcelona to see bullfight,” said Carrera.
John Hamm from Camp Hansen, who came to see the bullfight with his family enjoyed the long match.
“This is our second fight,” Hamm said. “Last time, the fights didn’t last that long, so I was very surprised. Its’ very interesting. They usually last about 15 to 20 minutes.”
When asked if he would like to come back again for the third time, he said “absolutely.”
Good news for those who have not seen bullfighting. The dome constantly hosts a couple of bullfighting events per month. The next one will be the Yomitan Bull Fight on Jan. 27.
“People may think that it’s just bulls pushing each other. But there’s more than that. Just like human martial arts, skills and mentality play a big part,” said Taishi Iha, who is a play-by-play announcer for the bull fights.
According to Iha, one good example of such complexity is that some bulls prefer close combat like in-fighter boxers, while others are good at playing defense and waiting for opponents to get tired. He said each bull has his unique skills. Fans are well-aware of that and enjoy guessing the outcome of each match depending upon what kind of strength or weakness each bull has.
“The rule is very simple. If you escape, you lose. But even if a bull seems to escape, a referee needs to wait and see if the bull is temporarily doing so for a defense or is simply escaping from the match for good. Because some bulls do such move strategically. In the end, mental toughness matters most,” said the announcer.
For bull handlers and owners, it’s the tough competition that attracts them.
“I want my bull to be the best on the island,” said Katsura Yagi, a bull owner from Yomitan village. His bull “Sensho Ryujin Maru” (General Dragon) is competing in the Jan. 27 competition.
It takes up a lot of Yagi’s time to be a bull owner. Taking care of the big animal is something he cannot skip even for a day. Starting with grass cutting, feeding the bull, cleaning the bulls’ barn before and after work, taking it for walk or practice - the list goes on. And it also comes with a certain amount of financial cost. Although the he can win prize money if his bull wins, the expenses often exceed the prizes.
But, winning in a bullfight is worth all the struggle, according to Yagi.
In the world of bullfighting on Okinawa, there are champions for three weight categories: open weight (normally more than 970 kg), middle weight (970 kg or less), and light weight (850 kg or less). Yagi’s bull “Senshou Ryujinmaru” challenged for the middle weight title a couple years ago, but lost by a hair.
“Definitely,” Yagi said when asked if he would like to have his bull challenge for the title again. “For many bull owners, even becoming a challenger is a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
Bullfighting in Okinawa is often acclaimed for its popularity and success as an entertainment. The dome is commonly filled to the capacity when the fights take place, but some are looking at an even bigger goal.
“People just got to see with their own eyes those bulls weighing as much as a ton collide with each other,” said Iha, whose goal is to bring more and more people out to experience the unique event. “You are missing out if you don’t see this entertainment that draws 4,000 people to a single event.”
And the announcer is hoping to make the game more international.
“It would be great if Americans can join us as bull handlers or owners. I would be thrilled to see a bull draped with a flag of the Stars and Stripes enter the ring, marching to the tune of The Star-Spangled Banner,” he said. “Just like Eisa dancing or dragon boat racing, bullfighting should not only be something to witness, but also something to join in and be part of. I am dreaming of announcing ‘We are having the first ever Japan-U.S. match in the history of bullfighting.”
If you haven’t experienced bullfighting live, Jan. 27 is your next opportunity. Don’t miss out on another truly unique Okinawan experience.
Yomitan Bull Fight
Date: Jan. 27
Time: 1 p.m.
Venue: Ishikawa Multipurpose Dome
Address: 2298-1 Ishikawa, Uruma City, Okinawa 904-1106
Tickets: 2,500 yen for men, 2,000 yen for women, 1,000 yen for middle and high school students