Experience Okinawa’s unique bullfights at tournaments in May

(Photo by Shoji Kudaka)

Starting in May, Okinawa’s bullfighting scene is getting busy with many tournaments slated at the Ishikawa Multipurpose Dome.

This is a great time to catch Okinawa’s unique take on bullfights. As is often pointed out, Okinawa-style is quite different from the bullfights in Spain. Two of the biggest differences is that in Okinawa, there is no deadly end, and the fight is between two bulls rather than a bull and a matador.

The rules are simple. A bull will lose if it turns its back on an opponent and gives up the fight.

Although it may not take many words to describe, what happens in a fight includes complex tactics and moves. Small bulls weigh around 750 kilograms (1,653 pounds), while bigger ones weigh around 1,000 kg (2,204 pounds). These bulls all have power, strength and agility to complete strategic moves in their bouts. Once a bull goes on an offensive, the other bull would make quick steps backward and sideways in defense. Sometimes they intentionally take backsteps to create a distance before furiously rushing forward. The bull’s horns are also used to stab an opponent or throw it off balance.

You may see it as a one-on-one match between the two bulls. To be precise, however, it is more of a tag team battle because bull handlers called “seko” are also a big part of the game.

A bull handler stays on his or her bull’s side in the ring, rooting by stomping on the ground or yelling. Their relationship is similar to those between a boxer and his cornermen, but a trainer or cut man for a boxer don’t run the risk of getting kicked, run over or stabbed by a horn.

Experience Okinawa’s unique bullfights at tournaments in May

(Photo by Shoji Kudaka)

Experience Okinawa’s unique bullfights at tournaments in May

(Photo by Shoji Kudaka)

Experience Okinawa’s unique bullfights at tournaments in May

(Photo by Shoji Kudaka)

Experience Okinawa’s unique bullfights at tournaments in May

(Photo by Shoji Kudaka)

Experience Okinawa’s unique bullfights at tournaments in May

(Photo by Shoji Kudaka)

Experience Okinawa’s unique bullfights at tournaments in May

(Photo by Shoji Kudaka)

Experience Okinawa’s unique bullfights at tournaments in May

(Photo by Shoji Kudaka)

Every time I see an Okinawan bullfight, I am equally impressed with the bull handler’s passion. The way they chant “Heeyai, Heeyai!” and stomp on the ground never fails to pump up the mood.

The bullfights held in Okinawa are truly a fun experience unlike any other. Come to the dome and witness this special Okinawan pastime.

Did you know?

Unlike the bullfights of Spain and Latin America, Okinawa’s bullfights are considered less barbaric since no bulls are killed at the events. Bouts are fought between two bulls with no matador, but the collisions stir up no less excitement than the deadly fights in Spain.

According to Uruma City, bullfighting on Okinawa could’ve started before, but the oldest bout on record was during the Meiji Era (1868-1912). The pastime has been attracting fans for a long time and its longevity on the island definitely signals to there being something special about it. 

Upcoming Tournaments

Date: June 9 (Sunday)

Bull fight tournament by Ginowan Togyu Kumiai

June 16 (Sunday)

Father’s Day bull fight tournament

Location: Ishikawa Multipurpose Dome

GPS coordinates: N 26.43630, E 127.82561


*Details such as time and admission fees are yet to be announced. Normally, competitions start at around 1 p.m. Admission fees are typically priced around 2,500 to 3,000 yen for men, 2,000 yen for women, 1,000 yen for middle school and high school students, and free admission for elementary school age and below.

Conversation with bull handler 

Hiroma Kamiyama, 26, is a Togyushi, or bull handler, and owner based in Uruma City. Kamiyama has over 10 years of experience handling bulls and participates in local tournaments.

Below Kamiyama shares his passion for the sport and what it’s like to handle bulls for a living.

Q: You are a bull handler and also a bull owner/caretaker. Does it take a lot to do both?

A: Suppose you are both a handler and caretaker of a bull, if you get injured in a bout, there will be no one to take care of your bull. That concern can be one of the reasons why some people don’t handle their own bulls in a fight.

Q: But you want to stay on your bull’s side and fight together.

A: Yes, the bulls know it. Some of them try to end a battle quickly while others try to take it slow. If a battle becomes long, the bulls get tired. Having their caretakers by their side makes a difference in motivation. In the end, caretakers are the ones that the bulls trust the most.     

Q: As they enter the ring, many bulls roar and rub their bodies against the ground as if to get ready for a fight. Are they aware that a fight is coming?

A: I think it’s territory that they have in their mind. By spreading their smell, the bulls are showing off that it’s their turf. 

Q: What’s the toughest part of being a bull handler or a caretaker?

A: I think it’s the daily training. It’s up to the training on how strong a bull can become.

Q: What kind of training do you have for bulls?

A: Sparring and walking a long distance will help them muscle up. 

Q: What does the daily schedule as a bull caretaker look like?

A: Since I have a daily job, I come to the barn before 6 a.m. and clean the site or feed the bulls some grass. After the daily job ends at 5 p.m., I will be back here by 5:30 p.m. and clean the barn once again or cut grass, feed the bulls and give them a massage.

Q: Is this a daily routine?

A: Yes. Plus, on holidays, we have practice matches with a friend’s bull. I also take my bull on a walk as part of the training.

Q: Your bull, Nidaime Tokuo, has horns spread sideways. Is this convenient for defense, but not good for offense?

A: Each bull has different types of horns. Generally speaking, horns pointed forward are thought to be good for bullfights. The horns spread sideways have disadvantages, but Tokuo has the guts to overcome that. Plus, this type of horn is useful in hooking opponents’ horns and making it difficult for them to move. The opponents will get tired if they are trapped like that, and Tokuo can attack them on the belly sideways.

Q: Do bulls have different personalities from one another?  

A: Yes, they are quite different. For example, my Tokuo is very shy. He gets nervous and jittery when around strangers. On the other hand, my other bull, Shimokun, was cared for and has spent a lot of time with people, so it helps him stay cool around other humans.

Q: Do you want your bulls to compete in an all-island tournament?

A: I could let them do that if I’m willing. My bulls have been invited to participate, but I continue to decline because the opponents are very strong in those competitions. I prefer competing in smaller tournaments hosted by individuals and working with other bull handlers and owners to make those types of bouts more successful.

Q: Your bull Tokuo is considered a very strong bull in the middle-weight class. Do you want him to be an all-island champion?

A: That’s a possibility in the future. The bull is six years old, which is still young. I want the bull to have more experience before challenging a champion. Bulls usually peak between seven or eight years of age.

Q: Do you raise bull calves or purchase grown bulls?  

A: There are cases where I raise bull calves, but I also purchased a bull that lost a match and trained it to be competitive again. You may think that if a bull loses, it will be the end of its career, but that’s not necessarily the case. One of my bulls has lost countless times, but it picked up a win just last month. Bulls are different from each other.

Q: Do tactics matter?

A: As soon as a match-up is decided, I will check on the opponents, especially about how they fought in the past by viewing bout replays. With that in mind, I will anticipate what kind of moves it will make at what point in the bout. I will also predict when it will show signs of fatigue. I will refrain from firing up (called “yagui” in Okinawan dialect) my bulls hard until late in the game, so they can charge when their opponent is tired.

Q: What’s the biggest appeal of bullfight to you?

A: It is the joy of winning a match.

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