By Micah Mizukami, an ALT in Amagi-cho (Tokunoshima)
For many, bullfighting conjures images of Spain and its matadors with red capes. The first thing that comes to mind is probably not a tiny tropical island located between Okinawa and Kagoshima, especially one that most people have never heard of. However, this tiny tropical island called Tokunoshima is essentially the capital of bullfighting in Japan. Unlike Spanish bullfighting, however, bullfighting on Tokunoshima pits two bulls against each other.
Bullfighting (tougyu in Japanese) is believed to have started about 400 years ago in the Ryukyu Islands, including Okinawa and the Amami Islands. On Tokunoshima, the bullfight beings with each bull entering the ring with its owners and supporters, who beat taiko drums, play horns, whistle, and dance in excitement. The two bulls lock horns and butt heads until one bull runs away in defeat. During the fight, one trainer from each team stays in the ring alongside the bull encouraging it to fight. Once the fight is over, the drums and horns start up again in celebration and bull trainers and their supporters ride the bulls in delight. They cry out, “Waido! Waido!” – a traditional bullfighting cheer – to express their euphoria. (An example can be seen here.).
Here on Tokunoshima, with a population of about 27,000 people, bullfighting is a way of life. It is not uncommon to see trainers walking their bulls on the road or on the beach. Many children also aspire to continue Tokunoshima’s tradition of bullfighting. In the classroom, children break out dancing while shouting “Waido! Waido!” to celebrate winning a game. During lunch breaks, students even fold simple origami bulls to fight.
On Tokunoshima there are three championship bullfights a year – in January, May, and October. If you ever find yourself on Tokunoshima during one of these months, please check out a bullfight and experience Tokunoshima’s unique waido culture.