OKINAWA, Japan --
The match began when the announcer came across the speaker system in the arena and energetically introduced the first contestant. The crowd grows wild with cheers and high pitch whistles. They prepare for the beastly mammal to barge through the entrance with his trainer, also known as a “seko,” towards the center of the ring where they position themselves for the appearance of their rival. The announcer’s voice breaks through the roar of the crowd as he introduces contestant number two.
The second contestant’s hoofs fiercely strike the ground as the sound of the crowd feeds into his momentum. As the beast approaches the entrance of the ring, the crowd’s energy rises as their eagerness for the two animals to meet heighten. Contestant one immediately stops dead in his tracks as he and his trainer face their oncoming rival. The bulls aggressively hook horns as their skulls collide. The fight has begun.
Okinawa bullfighting or “togyu,” dates back to more than one hundred years ago as a spectator sport for Okinawans. At one point these popular fights were aired on television for viewers to experience while in their own homes, said Kazuo Ozato, director of Okinawa Bullfighting Union Association. As cities began to grow, many arenas were shut down, causing this spectator sport to lose popularity. However, the sport is still a traditional form of entertainment among the Okinawan community today.
Bullfighting arenas are typically stadium-shaped with rising seats for the best viewing experience. The fighting area is in the center of the arena and only has one entrance for the fighters to enter and exit.
An Okinawan bullfight, unlike the commonly known bullfights in Spain or Mexico, is a fight between two bulls rather than a bull and person, said Ozato. In fact, there is rarely ever any bloodshed between the two animals. In the event that a bull is injured, the fight is ended and the fighters exit the ring. Each bull is accompanied by a trainer who directs and motivates them during the matches.
Tournaments consist of 10 to 13 matches, beginning with the lowest ranking bulls first. Matches can last only seconds or several minutes. Tournaments last between two to four hours.
Ozato says each match has a panel of judges who determine which opponent wins. The bull that runs away or gives up fighting first is considered the loser. Certain moves such as the haratori, a technique in which the bull strikes the side of their opponent’s body, result in an automatic win for the aggressing bull. The judges determine the winner of each match and the trainers will immediately pull their fighters out of the ring. There are a number of attacks and techniques that bulls can be trained to use in the ring. These factors are what classify bullfighting as a spectator sport.
Service members on island attend these tournaments as a cultural experience to tell loved ones about back home.
“I thought it was an amazing experience,” said Lance Cpl. Nate L. Gaytan, a network engineer with Marine Air-Ground Task Force Information Technology Support Center, Marine Corps Base Camp Butler. “When I first heard (about the bullfight) I thought it was going to be like the Spanish bullfights.”
Gaytan says this is the first time he has heard about the bull fights in the 11 months he has been on island, but he’s glad he came out to the event.
“I would recommend other service members definitely check the bullfights out. They’re an interesting cultural experience,” Gaytan said.