Bullfighting in Okinawa

Jul 3rd, 2009 | By | Category: Events

A bullfight in Okinawa is quite the spectacle – unlike bullfighting in Spanish speaking cultures, there is no Matador to face the bull; it is one bull challenging another and neither will be seriously injured or die in the event.

Okinawa Bullfighting Ring Japan

The bullfighting arena is a dome-shaped structure with open sides providing air circulation.  A circular area covered with a mixture of sand and clay, about 18 meters in diameter is where the bulls face each other.  It is surrounded by an earthen mound and topped with an iron fence railing.  Completely around and above the bullfighting ring are concrete bleachers with enough seating for a few thousand spectators.  A tunnel, under the bleachers, is the only way for bulls and their handlers to enter and exit the ring.

There may be a team of handlers in the ring for each bull but, only one member at a time is permitted to physically handle their bull.  The rest of the team stays back at a distance, ready to relieve a handler as required.  The less experienced bulls are led on a line tethered through their nose.  Bulls with the most experience are un-tethered, do not need to be led and actually, look forward to the fight.

Judges, seated above the arena, determine the winner and looser of each bout when a decision needs to be made, but usually, the bulls decide for themselves.  Normally whichever bull runs away from the fight is the looser.  However, sometimes a bull will break free and run, only to gain enough momentum to turn around and charge his opponent and win the match.

Okinawa Bullfights Japan

The normal bout lasts around ten minutes with the bulls locking horns and trying to muscle their opponent into quitting.  They get tired much as a couple of arm-wrestlers would and usually one bull will just give up, turn and run; ending the match.  Sometimes a bull will be intimidated when he first sees his opponent and just run for the exit without ever starting to fight and the hecklers in the crowd go wild!  Then, there are the bouts that last twenty to thirty minutes.  The unpredictability of each match is what the crowds come to see.

With their heads and horns as their only weapons one would think this might be a bloody sport, but it isn’t.  The judges and handlers would quickly end any match where serious injury might occur.  The handlers actually treat their bulls as family pets.  Some of them go through the bout barefooted while standing right next to their bull, patting a shoulder and speaking encouraging words while its locking horns with another ton of snorting, earth-pawing bull!

At the end of each bout the loosing bull is quickly escorted to the exit by its team of handlers.  The winner has a colorful cape placed on its back and bright colored ribbons and towels tied to its horns and tail by celebrating fans and team members.  Then he is paraded around the ring stopping only for children, family members and handlers to jump on his back for a victory photo.  Loud, Okinawan traditional music is played until the victor leaves the ring.  The crowd cheers and applauds until the bull is out of sight.

Then, the music stops, the announcer calls for the next teams and the crowd becomes silent waiting for the next match…

Getting There:

The Ishikawa Dome, where these events take place, sheltered from the weather is about a 45 minute drive from Naha Airport.  The quickest route is north on HWY 58, or north on the Okinawa Expressway, following road signs for Exit #6 of the Expressway. The arena is a large concrete, dome-shaped building visible from the entrance/exit of the Toll Road.

More Info:
Bullfights are events held on Sunday and the tickets are sold at the entrance for 2,500-3,000 Yen.  Most Google searches for Okinawa Bullfight will lead to travel agencies (some in English; most in Japanese).  Japan Update has more information on the All Okinawa Weatherweight Bulls’ Tournament bouts that are scheduled for July 26th, and other upcoming bullfights in Okinawa.

The images in this article are from the bullfight in Uruma Okinawa, Japan that took place as part of the festivities associated with the Lunar, or Chinese New Year on the 1st of February 2009.  According to the Asian calendar it is the Year of the Ox.

This article was written by Michael Lynch.  He is what the Japanese call a Camerman and photographs wildlife, culture, travel destinations and festivals in Okinawa, Japan. See more of Michael’s images on his website mikesryukyugallery.com

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  1. Wow! I never knew the Japanese were into bullfighting!

  2. I’ve also seen some good Bull Sumo in Uwajima, Shikoku, which might be easier to access than Okinawa for some.

    In fact, there will probably be some during the festival in Uwajima from July 22nd to 24th. When I went, it was on the last day. I’m not sure if it’s done throughout the fest…

    On Shikoku there’s also dogfighting Sumo in Kochi, although this is perhaps a bit more offensive to some….

  3. This is some strange $%^&, but well worth a watch.

    The problem is, they’re talking for the first hour, and the match I was at lasted about 5 hours beyond that, which was a bit much. The thing is - you can’t get there late, or it’ll be way too full.

    Really strange people running this show, but as I said, it’s well worth a look. Note that it does get rather boring when the bulls aren’t getting flipped or gored. And the trainers are so obnoxious, that I’d love to see the bulls released on them…

  4. Funny, I spent about two months with bulls and their trainers and studied how they care for, raise, feed, train and groom their animals. In or out of the ring, I never met a handler I’d consider obnoxious, nor a bull that would turn on its handler. I hope your negative experience was just a coincidence, as I have a collection of over 300 photos of my experiences with the bulls and their handlers, I’d like National Geographic to have a peek at for a potential story. Please, be so kind as to let me know which bullfighting arena you were at, so I can avoid it !

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