2012 Kume Island Hari

This past weekend saw the celebration of Dragon Boat festivals throughout the south pacific.  The Dragon Boats, like many Olympic Sports, has its roots in war training and preparation.  In the far past, small canoe-like boats were used as transportation between islands in the Pacific.


Before the use of sail and other types of propulsion, the long canoe boats were propelled by thin, long oars.  They are often brightly painted with water dragons which is where they got their English name.  In Okinawa, the boats are known as ha-ri- and are one of the many cultural traditions adopted from China.  As with the origin of many Olympic sports (think the javelin), the ha-ri- races developed from war training to friendly competition.  As with many traditional Japanese sports, they are often associated with matsuri (festivals).  The ha-ri- is a way for groups, teams, and villages to offer their hard work to the local kami (spirits) and ancestors, as well as keep alive the traditions of the past.

Traditionally, Ha-ri- started at the beach, but now they mostly take place at local fishing ports where the water is calm and safe and where safety boats can patrol in case of accidents.  The courses were generally straight lines down about 500 meters to a buoy flag where the boats had to turn and paddle back.  Three boats generally went at the same time, each with its own buoy.

If you’d like more background on the Chinese origin of Ha-ri- check out Celebrating the Dragon Boat Festival from Tuttle Publishing (my publisher).

Modern Ha-ri-

Ha-ri- races are now a popular spring/summer activity for local villages.  On Kume Island, there are three separate ha-ri- races all on the same day.  As you might expect with such diversity and history, there is a lot behind the races.  Schools, locals, companies, and tourists all come together to participate in the races.  For small villages, it’s an important and fun way to spend an afternoon, while larger events such as the Naha Ha-ri- can bring in much-needed tourist revenue.


On Kume Island, the races took place on Saturday and were mandatory for students to attend.  Each region had its own festival so each school attended the closest of the three events.  Most of the races were for the students, with Elementary, Junior High, and High School students all competing in teams against each other.  The elementary students went against other schools, while the Junior High and High Schoolers competed within their own schools.  Since there is only one High School on Kume Island, only the High Schoolers from the region attended, providing a rare opportunity for the older students to participate with their old school mates.

There were also activities for the smaller students, with a ball toss game and tug of war in the water.  Of course everyone got rather wet as well.  Since the boats are low to the water nearly everyone gets splashed while riding, and for those that didn’t, there were people ready with bailing buckets to help them out.  Two of the High School teams managed to tip their boats as well.

The Adult Crowd

Ha-ri- isn’t limited to just the children.  The very first race was put on by the staff, most of whom were local fisherman.  As a semi-spiritual activity, it is important for the fishermen to participate to ensure a productive and safe year for themselves, the harbor, and the people.  The races are part offering and thanksgiving, with all the participants both working hard and enjoying the experience.

After the first race, and all the students, there were also opportunities for local government teams, teachers groups, and companies to participate in the races as well.  The friendly competition was a great way to build teamwork while maintaining community ties.

In addition to the races, there were also live music performances, mainly of shanshin  (Okinawan guitar).  Of course there was food and drinks aplenty as well as a major part of Japanese festivals is the enjoyment of the harvest (even if the modern harvest comes in a can).

The Boats

The Dragon Boats used on Kume Island are long wooden boats roughly five meters or so in length and can hold around thirteen people.  They are brightly painted and sit low to the water.  Inside there are removable planks to sit on as well as cross bars for stability.  Usually one person sits in the front with a gong or drum to beat out at a rhythm for the rowers while another sits in the rear to steer.  The rest of the seats are filled usually with two people side-by-side.

Unlike modern paddles, the oars are thin with the useful portion extending along a far longer percentage of the pole.  Where modern paddles pivot, these oars are pulled perpendicularly through the water with both arms before being taken out  with the lower hand and swinging forward.  The correct hand hold is for both hands to be palm out, which feels awkward but is meant for an even pull and deeper thrust into the water.

More on the Races

I spent most of the day at only one of Kume Island’s ha-ri- festivals, but I was able to visit the others for long enough to see they all have slightly different methods.  At my local festival, each race comprised three boats.  The winning team from each boat got a prize.

At another race, the boats were timed.  Each individual race winner had the honor, but the prizes were given out at the end, with trophies and flags up for grabs based on time. At that race there were also clowns encouraging the participants on.

All the races were finished by one last race of teams made up from community club members.  For the first and last races, they wore bright happi (traditional festival jackets) colored for each team.  The festival’s official activities ended around three o’clock, with a few performances and small groups staying on far later into the afternoon.