Okinawa is Japan’s southern most prefecture. Its comprised of around 160 islands* some of them very close together. Since Okinawa is a set of islands and has such a long, rich history, it is no wonder there is a strong maritime tradition. The Hari or Dragon Boat comes from Chinese culture and is one of many cultural items adopted by the former Ryukyu Kingdom. The old country used the over-sized canoes to get between islands. Over time, competitions between neighbors overcame war and as a way to test ability. Today the hari boat races are still a part of Okianwan culture, and like many traditional Japanese sports are part of a festival. Like sumo they are an offering of effort to the village, ancestors, and spirits. Today the events are also great community and team building activities and draw large populations of tourists.
The Naha Hari boat festival takes place at Tomari port, a fishing port near the Tomarin ferry terminal in Naha City, Okinawa. This year the festival lasted from May 3-5 and comprised many races. Large teams from various organizations, schools, businesses, and even the military participated. Each race consisted of 3 large teams all in their own boat. The boats traveled several hundred meters, turned and made their way back. In addition to the races, there were many carnival like attractions and games, with two stages, rides, and myriad food stations. A large population of foreigners attended the event, possibly military families from nearby bases.
There will be many more Hari races over the next weeks as many azas (neighborhoods) have their own boat races to ensure safe seas and good fishing. I’ll bring you more on Kumejima’s upcoming Hari races in June.
Every Year students around Japan have days specifically set aside for school outings. Unlike western field trip that usually have some sort of cultural theme, Japanese Ensoku are usually geared towards giving the students time outside to enjoy nature.
Elementary ensoku are usually comprised of a walk to local landmark or park where students play, eat, and learn. The walk is a physical activity that gets the students outside and allows them to visit local areas in a safe environment. Most ensoku also have a recreation aspect, with planned games.
Usually a team will be selected to help run the event, giving them speaking and leadership experience, with the responsibility for helping run the events. Afterwards, students usually eat bentos (lunch boxes) prepared by their parents. Students get to play on their own for a bit and socialize before helping to clean the area and returning to school. Every school has its own unique way to run the outings so they also help develop individual school identities.
Junior Highs also generally have ensoku, though these are usually geared towards giving the students an opportunity to plan and cook their own meals. In teams students usually prepare their ingredients the day before, then cook. Depending on the school and location, students may also travel to local parks or spots where they can use grills.
On my previous island, the school was small so the entire junior high walked the 2-3 kilometers to the closest port and had the ensoku there. On my new, much larger island, each school has their own ensoku. The plan for this year’s junior high was for each grade (first, second, and third) to go to a separate location by bus or walking. Unfortunately there was rain and lightning on the planned day, so instead of traveling the ensoku took place on school grounds. In the morning, each class had its own recreation activities. In the afternoon, first years ate bento, second years prepared and cooked in the home economics room, and third years cooked outside with portable grills.
Since each age did its own thing, there were plenty of activities going on in the gym. Most of the games and rec period activities were competitive and done by teams. Each lunch group gained points towards winning the ensoku outing for their grade. Activities included dodge ball, basketball, team jump rope, ball toss, shuffle board, and other team games.
The same teams that played together also worked together to cook their lunch. Since they had to plan and prepare their items in advance, they could only use the items they had brought. Each team cooked, put a plate up for the teachers to judge towards the overall competition, then ate together.
More on Ensoku
Since I have only lived on small outer islands, I can only imagine how challenging it would be to do the same kinds of activities at very large schools, still the Spring ensoku is an important part of the Japanese school system. It gives a rare opportunity for an abrupt change in schedule and transfers a bit of responsibility and creativity to the students.
Spring is here, and with a new school and financial year in Japan come new ways to bind new co-workers together into a community. In some places, this happens via sports. Throughout the year, there are local competitions supported by the local government and other organizations. The first competition for the new year was Softball and provided many companies the opportunity to build teamwork between old and incoming members. Both Junior and Elementary school teachers formed teams to compete against teams from the city hall, clubs, and industry. Since school started just yesterday, and the competition was two days ago, it was a real chance for people to interact in a fun way, and develop close relationships.
Okinawan Sumo, also known as kakuyukai, is a form of the famous Japanese martial art practiced in the southern islands. A cross between Edo Sumo wrestling and judo, the goal of Okinawan Sumo is to toss your opponent on their back. Unlike Edo Sumo wrestlers, Okinawan Sumo-ka generally wear a heavy gi (a martial arts outfit) tied with a simple white or red cloth belt.
How to Sumo, Okinawan Style
Okinawan Sumo takes place on a sandy patch of ground. Originally it was practiced on beaches. The participants start out by looping their hands into their opponents belts. The right hand goes first inside from below, then the forearm wraps around and the belt is grasped for a secure grip. The left hand simply holds the opponent’s right side belt from the outside. Intertwining the hands ensures the arms are protected from flying free and getting broken during falls.
After the arms are secure, both opponents will lean into each other, with a balanced stance and strive for a lower, more stable position. The referee will call a start to the first round and each will try to throw the other on his or her back. There are many ways to do this, including a combination of throws, trips, and falls. Usually competitions are the best 2 out of 3 with an overall 4 minute time limit. If time expires without a clear winner the back up judges and referee will vote on a winner by raising a white or red flag to match the winner’s belt.
Unlike Edo sumo, there are no boundaries, though the match will be stopped if either of the participants are in danger of running into something or off the sand. Since many of the techniques involve lifting an opponent to change their center of gravity, it can be a dangerous sport, but all care is usually taken.
Here is one of the classic Okinawan Sumo moves called takanushi. This is a third grade junior high student on Kume Island during last week’s inter-high sumo competition. Look intimidating? That’s what the other students thought too I bet. Since Okinawa Sumo is all about center of balance, by taking his opponent off his feet, the student was able to completely control the match. Flexibility is a big part of this sport.
Like Edo Sumo, Okinawan Sumo isn’t just done for show. The act of competition is a form of offering. For this reason, Okinawan Sumo is often performed during festivals which purpose are for thanking spirits, and/or seeking good fortune in the coming year. Many mainland Okinawan people know little about Sumo, but it is very popular on the outer islands. Many Sumo Wrestlers travel to other islands to compete during festivals. This promotes inter-island communication and friendship. While not everyone can compete in sumo, even the spectators are drawn together as they enjoy watching.
Students on various small Okinawan islands learn to do Sumo from very young ages, and compete regularly. This helps promote health and discipline, and gives them a way to participate in the local festivals.
Most Sumo participants can also expect gifts for competing. Even those who lose generally are given a small thank you gift (usually a towel or small box of laundry soap- Actually comes in handy for cleaning your gi after all those practices in the sand!). As you go up in the rankings, you can expect larger gifts and trophies too!
This is a trophy I received in 2008. That was my first year competing, but at that competition there were only eight people. I didn’t actually win either of my two matches, but I guess I got lucky in the draw. Since then, I’ve learned a lot about Sumo and have finally won a few matches!
More Things Sumo
One thing you may notice with both Edo and Okinawan sumo is that the participants often throw salt onto match area. This serves several purposes. First it is a kind of offering in itself. The participant does this in hopes of avoiding injury and may also consume a small bit of salt as well. Salt is also an antiseptic, which is useful after several clashes ^_^.
I’ve had the good luck to live on relatively small islands. My placements have given me the opportunity to learn and participate in Okinawan sumo. At first I did not find it very enjoyable, since the sand can easily abrade your skin when practicing for long periods. After I learned ways to avoid this, and built up my strength, Sumo became much more enjoyable. More so than the actual competitions (I doubt I’ll ever be a yokozuna [champion]) were the social opportunities that came with practicing. I meet many more people than I would have at just my work place, and that eventually let to being invited into a moai. It also allowed me to visit other places for competitions and talk with many people interested in sumo. I even ended up in the Okinawan Times newspaper after a competition.
If you live in Japan, consider taking up a local sport or club! Do you have any Sumo stories? Share them in the comments!
This weekend was another ekiden (a relay-type marathon) on Kumejima. The one previously this year was for the Junior High School students from all over Okinawa. This one was just for Kumejima. There are nearly thirty aza (neighborhoods) here, and since Kumejima has been around for so long tensions can rise between the members and families of different areas. Many have their own festivals, traditions, and ideals. For a long time the various communities were organized into two villages, but not long ago those villages were incorporated into Kumejima Town. Suddenly, independent communities became one entity. In order to avoid creating more tension and bring the separate communities together the leaders of Kumejima sought to facilitate communications through friendly sporting competitions. The ekiden is one modern competition to bring both the smaller communities and Kumejima as a whole closer together.
Each aza selects a team for the competition which comprises 16 segments over nearly 40 kilometers. This requires a meeting which is an opportunity for locals to meet at the community center (kominkan). During the actual race, even those who aren’t participating gather to cheer on their teams. Everyone from babies to grandmothers lined the roads to cheer on everyone. Through out the day various groups from different aza talked as they waited at their stations to run, or while waiting to cheer on the runners. As I rode on one of the safety bikes I was able to see and hear various people from different areas laughing and cheering as runners fast and slow went by.
At the end of the night, after awards, each aza met at their kominkan to celebrate their victory, loss, or participation. The winners were happy, and the not-so-triumphant plotted their revenge for next year. Everyone, however, grew a little closer together.