Rope in the Ocean
In the fifth month of the year on Okinawa the typhoons begin. The Okinawans found it wise to stay off the water. There was plenty to do at home. They made new ropes for the rigging on their ships. They repaired their fishing nets. They celebrated.
Their year was full of festivals. Everyone got together as often as they could. The farmers, fisherman and even the police carried musical instruments to work, they say. They enjoyed life.
In the fourth month they celebrated the planting of the fields. In the sixth month they celebrated the approaching harvest.
The fifth month was the in-between, a time of suspense and tension. The seeds were sprouting in the fields and all was hopeful. But in the air there was something mixed with the scent of the ocean – there was dread: of flood, of drought, blighted crops, of a poor harvest and hungry people. Things had gone that way before.
That was the time of the year of Okinawa’s fertility festival.
The Great Tug of War
The festival was held on the fifth day of the fifth month, traditionally, but preparations were underway for a long time. Everyone was involved. There are records of the festival held in Naha in the 1450’s, where they say, it was also a victory celebration. (Victory and fertility go hand in hand.) The tug of war festivals continued there and in the towns and villages all around the island, including in Itoman and Yonabaru, where it continues today.
People in the villages got together and made ropes for their festival teams.
The teams collaborated and competed as they trained for the festival day. They worked together.
43 Tons of Homemade Rope
Naha’s festival is called Naha Tsunahiki – the Great Tug of War.
The streets are filled for hours with dance, drumming, traditional skills and karate demonstrations. A ceremony featuring historical royal figures and re-enactments of heroic stories lead up to the main event.
The Main Event
In Naha these days the Great Tug of War is attended by about 275,000 people. 15,000 of whom pull the 43-ton, 600′ long rope.
What this has to do with fertility may or may not require penetrating the mists of history, but this is how it goes:
A male and female rope are brought close to one another and locked together by a tree-sized wooden pole. The two teams draw the ropes tight. After a brief stare-down they begin:
Pulling against one another they strive with every once of strength, at maximum tension, back and forth, again and again, as each team strives to remain rooted in place while they overpower the opposing team, pulling them just over the line.
With the competitors exhausted by their effort sudden victory is achieved. In an instant the tension is released. Both sides are elated. The victor is congratulated. Everyone is happy and has a nice time.
After it’s over, nowadays, thousands of knives come out and people cut off a piece of the great rope to take home as a good luck charm, or a souvenir, of the great Tug of War.
You work hard, together. You do a great job with everything you’ve got.
You let it go when you are done.
Our Training is Made by Hand
In the dojo we exert ourselves to the limit of our ability. The release of tension at the conclusion of the class is exhilarating. Even if you were tired from the workday or school when you came to class, after the heat and pressure of the training is done, the release fills you with a fresh flush of life.
We train together. We challenge each other. We collaborate. We look out for each other. We share skills, we share respect, we get strong. That is the Okinawan way.
The name Okinawa means “a rope in the open sea.” Okinawan culture is the source of dojo culture for many of us. It is, in a way, a lifeline that connects us modern people to a world that is not quite lost but is often beyond our grasp.
Dojo culture is a lifeline that connects us personally to the generations who made it and put it to work; who handed it off to us, and brought new generations to life.
To make a dojo great people work together. The more we work together, the stronger everyone gets.
Our karate training is, for some of us, a lifeline in a world that can be as unpredictable and formless as a sea.
It is an honor to remember and appreciate the people who made it, and handed it to us, and who maintain it now. Our challenge is to make sure it’s in perfect condition when we pass it on.
Post by Jeff Brooks
Image credit: Jesse Whitehead – RyuKyuCam – Yonabaru Rope Making, street scenes and kids playing
Featured image: Stripes.com
Double rope with crowd – unknown – please contact for credit