Blood-shot eyes fixed menacingly on their foe and snorting furiously, two giant bulls smash into each other with shuddering force: in Japanese bullfighting, matadors need not apply. Tongues hanging out and foam dripping from their mouths, the sweat-soaked beasts lock horns as barefooted handlers slap them on the backside and scream encouragement, risking life and limb beside the bovine battering rams, many of which weigh well over a ton. While the Spanish corrida faces mounting pressure from animal rights activists after being banned in Catalonia in the past few years, bullfighting on Japan’s southern island of Okinawa continues to attract big crowds, including families with small children who peer excitedly through the metal bars at the spectacle just feet away.
A bloodless spectator sport dating back hundreds of years also known as bull sumo, champion prizefighters are called “yokozuna”-like Japan’s roly-poly wrestlers-and lead a pampered life. “In Spain the fight ends with the matador killing the animal,” bullfighting historian Kuniharu Miyagi told AFP at a competition in the Okinawan town of Uruma. “Here, if a bull gets frightened and loses its courage, the fight is over and both bulls, winner and loser, get to go home. “We don’t feel bullfighting is cruel in Okinawa,” added Miyagi. “It’s a way of life. Farmers used to bring their bulls together to fight for amusement. “It takes five years to prepare a bull to fight, then it fights for at least five or six years. Cows that provide us with juicy steaks are slaughtered within a couple of years. “Fighting bulls live far longer and in considerable luxury. Owners want their bulls to win so they spoil them with good food and give them a comfortable home environment to frolic in. Yokozuna bulls even retire to stud, so they have a happy old life.”
Bullfighting in Japan can be traced back almost 800 years, when it was held as entertainment for the deposed Emperor Gotoba following his exile to the western Oki islands, where it is still practiced today. It also takes place in the Iwate and Niigata regions of northern Japan as well as remote areas stretching down to Okinawa. Similar styles of bullfighting are also found in South Korea, Turkey, the Balkans, the Persian Gulf and South America. Called “ushiorase” (literally “bullfight”) in the local Okinawan dialect, the sport is steeped in Japanese culture, with purifying salt scattered and rice wine poured on the sandy ring to ward off evil spirits.
Hosed down with cold water and bellowing fiercely before doing combat, bulls can take over 30 minutes to win by barging their opponent into the fence or forcing him to run away. The “seco” bull handlers, who nimbly jump from side to side to avoid being gored, dote unashamedly on their animals.”They’re part of the family,” said Yuji Tamanaha, a third generation handler. “They’re cute, aren’t they? Handfeeding them everyday, you form a loving bond. My wife and I don’t have children so our bull is like a kid to us. He’s very friendly. He likes to lick visitors.” Cute or not, fights can be brutal, the loser often sent crashing against the bars in a shower of dirt as fans dive for cover. Many bulls never recover from a heavy defeat-on this day a yokozuna called “Samurai” took one look at a brooding opponent tipping the scales at 1,100 kilos and beat a hasty retreat, so terrified he attempted to jump the fence.
“They can suffer psychological damage,” said Moriaki Iha, tenderly patting his animal. “You have to take care of their mental health too, just like a human athlete, and show them love from when they’re little. My animal is quite bashful but he knows no fear. He’s either very brave or just stupid. “I come to the cow shed at five in the morning every day,” he added. “I mow grass to feed them, clean up. I spend more than half my day with the cows. My wife thinks I’m daft. It’s a miracle she hasn’t left me. “To be a champion bull you need the size, physique and good horns. Then there is the creature’s fighting spirit. Two bulls weighing a ton smashing into each other is just magical.” Iha revealed that owners go to bizarre lengths to win. “I give my bull Okinawan tea before he fights,” he said. “It’s got caffeine in it so it acts like a stimulant. There are no doping rules in bullfighting so it’s fine. Everyone has their own secret tricks.” — AFP