Okinawa’s annual tug-of-war requires lots of workers, rope
October 5, 2006
NAHA MILITARY PORT, Okinawa — It takes 16 workers a full six weeks. It takes more than $170,000 and a stupendous heap of rice straw imported from Taiwan.
It also takes a good dose of teamwork to make one of the largest ropes in the world for the annual Naha Giant Tug-of-War, when residents of the west and east sides of Naha tug away for bragging rights for the year.
The rope makers “must work with the same speed — not too fast or too slow,” said 82-year-old Yoshitaka Agarie, who has headed up the project for 25 years. “They need to work in great harmony. That is the key to making a graceful, strong and dignified rope for our Naha Tug-of-War.”
The final product is about 660 feet long and weighs 43 tons.
The rope used to hold the Guinness World Record for largest rope made from natural materials, but that title was usurped April 22, 2005. An 823-foot-long rope weighing 54.5 tons was used during a tug-of-war at the Righteous Army Festival in South Korea, according to the Guinness World Records Web site.
Still, the rope for this year “will be the best in quality ever,” Agarie contended.
The rope-making for Sunday’s 2006 tug of war began Aug. 23 and was finished last weekend.
The process starts with a core that has been used for the past 15 years. Then many smaller ropes, made by twisting the straw together, are tightly wrapped around it to build the rope out to its full diameter.
The rope is built in two sections. Each is more than 300 feet long and with one end turned over on itself to form a giant eyelet, so the two parts can be fitted together at the festival.
A forklift is used to wrap the smaller strands around the core. Looking a bit diminutive in both size and effort as they stand atop the rope, two or three workers pound the smaller ropes into place with heavy hits of a mallet.
The giant rope is finished off with pulling ropes that serve as hand-holds as tug-of-war participants try to heave the rope to their side of the line.
Jiro Uehara, 61, takes time off each summer from his job as a deep-sea fisherman to lend his talents to the process. He’s done so for the past five years.
“Every morning before I leave home, I offer prayers so that we can make good ropes,” he said.
Historians claim the tug-of-war started in the 17th century, but the contest’s latest incarnation has been around for just 35 years. Still, it’s already become a popular annual island event.
More than half the $170,000 cost of the rope is donated by Naha residents, said Taizan Maezato, Naha Tug-of-War Preservation Association director; more comes from various local government units. The contest itself draws a quarter-million people — including the 15,000 volunteers who actually tug the rope. Cheering them on: Fourteen teams, in traditional Okinawan costume, representing each of Naha’s communities.
And after all the tugging, the crowd begins hacking at the rope: Okinawan lore holds that cutting a piece of it to take home after the contest brings good luck.
Stripes reporter Chiyomi Sumida contributed to this story.