Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (52): Tug-of-war, or trench warfare?

Posted by ampontan on Monday, October 1, 2007

COMPETITION IS THE KEY ELEMENT of more than a few Japanese festivals. Some feature half-naked men fighting each other for control of some object, while in others they race pell-mell through the streets with mikoshi (portable Shinto shrines), or smash the mikoshi into each other in what are literally called “fighting festivals”. People have died in these celebrations over the years, and while there is a greater awareness of safety than there might have been in the past, fatalities still occur. Last year a high school student died in a Saga Prefecture fighting festival whose main event is a competition in which two teams try to force the mikoshi carried by the other into a river.

Some of the fighting festivals feature tug-of-war contests. On Saturday the 22nd, what could well be the world’s ultimate tug-of-war competition was held in Satsumasendai, Kagoshima Prefecture.

Known as the Kawachi Tug-Of-War, this event dates back more than 400 years. Unlike most festivals, it is not related to Shinto. It originated in rope-pulling exercises ordered by Yoshihiro Shimazu, a Kyushu military leader of the late 16th century, to strengthen the fighting spirit of his troops in preparation for the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. This decisive battle led to the formation of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

Shimazu also led military campaigns on the Korean Peninsula until he was eventually routed by a joint Chinese/Korean fleet. His rope training survived to be used for the education of local boys and finally became an annual civic event.

The General and His Grunts

To call this the ultimate in tug-of-war is no exaggeration. The rope is 365 meters long (400 yards), 35 centimeters in diameter (13.8 inches), and weighs five tons. About 3,500 men participate. That means the people on one team near the center line can’t see their own team members at the end of the line.

As you can imagine, this is involves more than a bunch of guys spitting on their hands, grabbing a rope, digging in, and pulling hard. Befitting its origins, it very much resembles a military operation, and some fascinating twists have been added over the years.

The teams are known as the red and white team (or the upper and lower team) respectively. One month before the battle, both teams select a leader, who assumes the rank of general. This field coordinator and commander is assisted by the captain of the pulling squad, the captain of the pushing squad, and the lead drummer, who sets the rhythm for pulling and directs eight other drummers in his own squad spread out along the line.

The leadership triumvirate all hail from the same geographical area in the city, but their troops can come from anywhere. They establish a headquarters, devise strategy, and recruit members, for which there is no limit.

Battle Stations

On the day of the event, a post is placed in the street to establish a center point. At 8:00 p.m., the rope is placed on top of the post. On a judge’s signal, the lead drummers of both teams start banging, and then the pulling squads heave away. The drummer’s cadence is matched by the other drummers in his corps down the length of the rope, setting up a pulling rhythm much in the way the drummer on the war galleys in the film Ben-Hur set the rowing rhythm for galley slaves.

When one team starts to gain the upper hand over the other, the captain of the pusher squad for the team at risk springs into action and orders an attack on the other team. The pusher squads are stationed near the center line. Their marching orders are to cross the center line, charge into the other team’s row of pullers, and remove them from the competition. They can start pulling in the other direction from that point. The Japanese term used for this in one description was “hand-to-hand combat”.

In fact, the pusher squads not only push and shove each other from the front, but are pushed from the back by their own squad members. This can result in the people at the point of attack being lifted straight up. Battle-hardened veterans call this occurrence “the dragon standing”. This off-rope competition between the pushers can become intense, and is one of the highlights for spectators.

The teams have another squadron, consisting of 50 men, for handling wasa. The wasa are pre-tied rope rings attached to the end of the main rope. When one team finds itself in desperate straits, it tries to put a wasa around the center post to function as an anchor. This brings the other team to a dead stop.

Both teams also dispatch members to patrol and gain control of the area around the post, preventing the other team from placing a wasa over it, or giving themselves easy access if it becomes necessary. This is one of the most important parts of the competition.

If a wasa is thrown around the post, the judges call a halt to the competition, the center line is moved about 180 meters forward to a new location, and the combat is resumed. The strategy of the team that is losing is to keep sending out its pushing squad. The team that is winning will keep their pushers in reserve–they wait for the other team’s pushers to attack and deal with them then.

The pushers can change the flow of the contest, turning the team with the advantage into the team with the disadvantage and forcing it to use the wasa. The nature of the competition compels the losing team to go on the offensive and the winning team to defend, and the fortunes of war turn several times over the course of the battle.

No Unconditional Surrender

The basic rule is that at 9:30, the team pulling the rope on their side of the center line is the winner and the team with a wasa around the post is the loser, but nowadays judges usually determine the outcome. At the end, the judges cut the rope with a saw to stop the pulling.

The starring role to which everyone aspires isn’t the general, but rather the lead drummer, who is always in the center of the action. Also, no one starts pulling until he gives the signal. (And probably not coincidentally, he doesn’t go home nursing bruises or calloused hands.) The role of lead drummer is the oldest of the individually defined roles in the competition, and the chance to fill that role comes only once in a lifetime.

The men of Satsumasendai who have been through this pitched battle and lived to tell about it say there is no surefire strategy for victory. Events never go as planned, and of course dealing with a five-ton rope is no simple matter. They say the key is the proper stationing of and coordination among the pushers, pullers, wasa squad, and drummers.

It’s no surprise that this became part of the education for young boys in the area—most boys the world over would love it!

Try this Japanese site for more photos of the event, especially the daytime preparations.

“No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” – Helmuth von Moltke

One Response to “Matsuri da! (52): Tug-of-war, or trench warfare?”

  1. I got what you mean, saved to bookmarks, great site.

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