Fighting the Bull

Okinawa Pastime article, 1978, edited to add a highlighted memory of mine. This was one of the first articles I wrote while there.

I recently had the challenge of attending an Okinawan bullfight. My advance information held that fight would start at noon, and admission was 1000 yen per person.

When I awoke that rainy Sunday, I began wondering if the bullfight would even be held that day. I decided to play it safe and go. Safe, yes, dry, no.

When I arrived at the stadium, I saw no cars or evidence of any activity. I stopped at the food truck and asked in Japanese, “Where is the bullfight”? The lady answered with sign language – holding up her fingers like bull horns in question. I answered hai, continuing my attempt at conversation in Japanese. She pointed up a small hill to my left. (I later realized that I never need my Japanese to ask my question. So much for my conversational Japanese lessons!)

Armed with a camera and umbrella, I parked the car among the mud and high grass. We could hear the bulls bellowing back and forth. The owners were still arriving in their small pickups, with the large bulls yoked in back.

Admission was 1500 yen, we were allowed through the gates and after a few steps looked out over a small amphitheater. The crowd was nonexistent. We were the only Americans present. Amidst drizzling rain we stood waiting. By 12:45 the spectators were still struggling in, complete with umbrellas, raincoats and waterproof cushions. (I was always amazed at how Okinawans could produce such items from seemingly nowhere at the drop of a hat – er, rain.)

I had been warned ahead of time that matadors are not Okinawan; the bulls fight each other. I was surprised, however, at what seemed like a total lack of enthusiam on the part of the spectators. A rising tension in the arena lasted quietly thorugh the first two matches. Two sets of bulls locked horns and eventually winners were pronounced in each case. (I didn’t really figure out why.)

The bull handlers numbered six, each man being spelled after an specified amount of time. The only noise was the yells of the handlers and the splash of their feet as they stomped to punctuate their commands.

Even when blood was drawn, not one person seemed to be upset. During the third match (of about 13), the bulls stayed locked for what seemed to be an interminable amount of time. The crowed whispered and eventually I began hearing soft calls from the Okinawans.

The bulls would move from one side of the arena to the other. Rain started coming down harder and harder. Not one person budged except in some cases to make sure they weren’t sitting in puddles.

In the meantime, I was getting drenched. Being new to Okinawa, I had not yet developed the knack of ignoring rain. That third pair of bulls were still maneuvering when we got up to leave. As we walked out several men openly smiled and laughed at our cowardice, lack of strength, staying power, or whatever. We smiled back, thinking no bullfight was worth catching pneumonia over.

An hour later we drove back past the area. By that time, the rain had lessened but the number of spectators had obviously increased three or fourfold with cars parked in all directions.

I will go back for another try at an Okinawan bullfight after I acquire more rain gear and more knowledge or else an Okinawan friend to accompany me. As I become acquainted with the presence of the Oriental mind, I can feel the presence of varying levels which I can’t yet untangle. That bullfight added a new dimension for me but one that I don’t yet understand. Bullfights are part of life for Okinawans, for some a way of life and, therefore, essential for knowing Okinawa.

Note: I never went back to a bullfight. I sit here today wondering still what it was all about!

Spectators at an Okinawan bullfight, 1978, photograph by Delia, published in the Okinawa Pastime