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At 7:40 a.m., I board an airplane to go from Kagoshima airport to Tokunoshima. My purpose was to closely cover the bullfighting tournament that would be held from this day over 4 days.
Tokunoshima is an island located almost at the center of Amami Islands. It has a size of 248㎢, circumference of 80 km, and a population of about 26,000. There are three towns on the island: Tokunoshima-cho, Amagi-cho, and Isen-cho. Main industries on the island are agricultural productions of potatoes and sugar canes, etc. The island is also known for longevity and fertility.
It is also the only island in Kagoshima Prefecture where bullfighting is held. There are about 20 small and big tournaments throughout the year. The biggest tournaments are held 3 times a year in January, May, and October, and is called the All-Island Bullfighting Tournament.
The All-Island tournament can be classified as an open-weight division of bullfighting. It is the decisive game that decides the true Yokozuna among Yokozuna (the highest ranked fighter). You can say the voltage of the island is highest at this time of year. There are many locals who live in other areas that come home just to watch the matches.

Picture: Kicking up clouds of dust, neither side is backing down. Blood blurs the wound on the forehead.

Match Day 1

  • Match Day 11
The bullfighting in Tokunoshima is said to be the most intense in Japan.
On the first day of tournament, the “All-Island Young Hanagata All Stars Bullfighting Tournament” was held. It was a night match from 6:30 p.m. held at “Tokunoshima Nakusami Kan” in Isen-cho. The entrance fees were as follows. Primary school or younger: Free, Junior high school student: \1,000, High school student or older: \3,000. I met up with Mr. Endo and entered the venue 30 minutes before the match.
Currently, there are 7 bullrings in Tokunoshima. Nakusami Kan is an all-weather dome type bullring that was renovated about 2 years ago. Inside the venue looks still new. It is the only bullring in Tokunoshima ran by a town. The ring is circular with the diameter of 20m and around it, there are concrete seats shaped like mortars surrounding the ring. We sat in the very front with Mr. Endo, a seat called Tamariseki/Sunakaburi (a seat very close to the front) like in Sumo.
Looking at the spectators, there were surprisingly many families with young children, and junior high school/high school students. I could sense how bullfighting was supported by the young generation as well. Right before the match, about 80% of the seats were full.

Picture: Inside the modern looking Nakusami Kan. You can hear the thuds echo as the bulls smash into each other.
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The opening ceremony ended and it was finally time for matches to begin. Bulls in the competition started to enter one by one. Bull owners and Seko pulled the rope as Tsuyuharai (attendants leading the way) sprayed salt shouting, “Waido! Waido!” (which is how they shout in Tokunoshima to pump up the atmosphere) while blowing trumpets and drumming at the same time. Cheering groups wearing matching happi coats and towels occupied spaces in the seating area to cheer their voices out.
On the left side of the bull, a Seko accompanied the bull. When the halter was taken off (or cut off), the matches began. Seko made the horns lock, patted the back of their bull while talking to it. A Seko accompanies a bull, and supports the bull to victory.
There were many kinds of bulls like those that cry loudly from excitement, those rubbing their faces on the sand in the ring (territorial marking), etc. and matches were orchestrated with these individualities in mind. Seko can be replaced and it was interesting to see different shouts from different Seko.
When bulls smashed into each other I could hear the thuds echo in the venue. I could see the gigantic bodies smashing into the fence right in front of my seat, Tamariseki, and sands flew in the air reaching my seat. My notebook for the coverage was buried in sand and the smell of the earth filled the air. I noticed that all the seats were now full. The atmosphere felt somehow other-worldly.
In the match between “Mr. Goriki” vs. “Taishin Moa” before the last match, a Seko was blown away right in front of our eyes by a tackling bull that could not stop. He was carried out of the ring by people around him. Mr. Endo later told me that the Seko had broken his leg. I could really feel that both humans and bulls are in this for a real fight.
The winning bull is decided when one side runs away. Some matches finish in just few tens of seconds while some matches go on for over 20 minutes. As soon as the matches were decided, the cheering group who were sitting in their seats poured into the ring all at once. They jumped on the winning bull screaming “Waido! Waido!” while dancing with their hands and feet, whistling through their fingers to express their joy. It was as if they were expressing uncontrollable joy using their entire body.

Picture: When entering the bullring, bulls enter with people marching with their flags, drumming their drums, and shouting “Waido! Waido!.”
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The yellow and orange of the cheering groups, matching happi coats and towels in black all stood out very nicely in the bullring. The confetti in the air after a victory were also very brilliant.
As I was watching the all fired up matches, I started to wonder about what Seko were shouting. I then had a chance to interview Mr. Tatsumi Fukuyama who happened to be there to watch the match. He was a well-known Seko on the island and also owned bulls for bullfighting. Mr. Endo was a co-owner of one of the bulls. He told me the shout “Haine! Haine!” was an abbreviated Japanese phrase which meant “Ok, now go!” This was the most commonly used phrase by Seko. He said some of the other phrases were “Hii ya” (OK, push!), “Tsukka mon!” (Thrust your horns!), “Keh ram!” (Hook the horns and push!), and more.
You don’t need any qualification to be a Seko so the exact number of them is not known but he said there were about 100 of them. However, among them, only about 10 veteran Seko often get requested to participate. Mr. Fukuyama told me he was injured and did not participate in this tournament as Seko.

Picture: As the confetti rain down for the celebration of the winning bull, adults and children are dancing.
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Whether you win or lose, you are hooked.
Mr. Fukuyama said he had his own bull since he was in grade six. The reason why he lives in Tokunoshima was pretty straightforward. “I wanted to do bullfighting. That’s all.” Whether you win or lose, you are hooked and that’s the appeal, he laughed.
After the match I interviewed junior high school and high school students who were bull owners taking care of a bull every day. There was the son of Mr. Fukuyama whom I interviewed earlier, and there were friends of Mr. Fukuyama’s son as well.
They were Ryuki Fukuyama, in the second year of junior high school, Junya Nao and Wataru Maekawa in the second year of high school. The name of their Wakya Ushi was “Shinohara Sasshi Ryuki.” The bull participated in the tournament on the day before and won it, which made it an amazing three consecutive wins in a row.
I found that Ryuki’s older brother Kazuya and Junya were in the same grade and both were in the same Kendo club. That’s how Junya started visiting the cowshed often and as he wanted to raise a bull for bullfighting, he asked Wataru to join, and they started taking care of the bull. After the school on weekdays and on weekends, the three of them were fully taking care of the bull.

Picture: From left: Ryuki Fukuyama, Junya Nao, and Wataru Maekawa. They are seen pictured with their favorite bull “Shinohara Sasshi Ryuki.” You can see fresh wound on the bull from the previous day.
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Their lives revolve around the bull: feeding, cleaning up the feces, taking the bull for a walk, and never missing the daily brushing. There are other cows in the cowshed and usually when you are in charge of one, you are in charge of taking care of it on your own. When I asked “Is it a lot of work to take care of a bull?” the three of them responded, “Well, I like the bull.”
Ryuki grew up from a young age looking up to his father. He looked at me straight in the eye and told me, “My father is cool.” Junya also told me he looks up to Mr. Fukuyama as well. On rainy holidays when they can’t take their bull for a walk, they told me they go around with Mr. Fukuyama to visit other cowsheds to check out other bulls. It was striking how much passion they had for bullfighting.
While they worked, Junya asked Ryuki, “Did you remember to feed it?” I could see Junya’s support as a friend not marred by the age difference. They had a bond from their affection of bulls. I could imagine their friendship continuing to adulthood. That was a pleasant thought and I also felt they were a reliable bunch.
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In Tokunoshima, there is a celebration on the day before a bull participate in a tournament. It is called “Mae Iwai” (pre-celebration), a celebration to pray for the success of the participating bull where relatives, friends, and acquittances bring gifts and gather at the house of the bull owner. With Mr. Endo’s introduction, I could make special visits to two of the homes.
It was 7:00 p.m. About 20 people had gathered in the building right next to the cowshed. They were in a great mood enjoying food laid out on the table and drinking. The bull owner was a 19-year-old named Shoya Morita. On the next day, his Wakya Ushi “Taisho Kozo” was having its debut match.
Mr. Morita started working from the spring of this year as a temporary worker at the Amagi Agricultural Cooperative. He had always loved bulls since he small. I heard although he doesn’t remember it that much, he snuck out a bull from the cowshed when he was 5 years old causing a tumult. “I just want the bull to do its best tomorrow. That’s good enough for me. Although I think I will be too excited to sleep tonight (laughter).”

Picture: Mr. Yasuoka greeting guests who came to celebrate. The lively Mae Iwai continued to midnight.
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Next, I visited the Mae Iwai at the home of Mr. Morimitsu Yasuoka. He was participating in the Yokozuna battle for the All-Island title as the challenger. On top that, this was the first time in several decades from Mr. Yasuoka’s community so many people came and it was very lively. Inside the room was decorated with towels, posters, and polo shirts inscribed with the name of Wakya Ushi, “Yasuoka Dai Shingen.”
When I greeted Mr. Yasuoka, he was already slightly drunk. Someone who was present told me, “It is a great honor to even participate in the All-Island title match. But he has to put up a decent fight and that pressure is enormous.”

Picture: You can see the letters inscribed on the back, “A certain victory Dai Shingen Go”

Match Day 3

  • Match Day 31
On the third day of the tournament was “The 10th All-Island Title/Lightweight Championship Flag Competition Tokunoshima cho tournament.” This was finally the match day to decide the “All-Island title” winner, Yokozuna among Yokozuna.
Anticipating many spectators, we arrived about an hour early at the venue called Ito Kanko Dome. About 60-70% of the seats were already filled in the venue. I could confirm that the All-Island title was very popular. The dome featured blue pillars and roof and the inside was surprisingly bigger than it appeared from the outside. When I checked with Mr. Endo who arrived after us, he told us the venue can accommodate about 3,000.
Before the matches, a ceremony was conducted. Author Teruyuki Kobayashi, who widely promoted bullfighting in Tokunoshima through his book “Togyu no Shima” (the island of bullfighting) presented the Sanekuma Cup named after the legendary bull Sanekuma Gyui, which was referred in Tokunoshima as the “divine bull.” It was announced the cup will be presented to the bull who wins the All-Island title from this tournament.
As the ceremony was going on, the venue became full. Although the match hadn’t started yet, there were already people standing and watching. With a little delay than schedule, the match started at 1:05 p.m.
On the fourth match, Mr. Morita, wrapping a pink towel around his head inscribed Taisho Kozo, entered the venue confidently with “Taisho Kozo.” At the cheering section, the group that appeared to be his classmates wearing matching towels were looking intently at the situation. Mr. Morita leaned forward and shouted his voice out. On the day before, he told me, “I don’t think I will be a Seko” but I noticed that Mr. Morita was standing right beside Taisho Kozo.
Maybe the bull could feel his spirit. They had an amazing victory after 5 minutes and 14 seconds. Mr. Morita, having won his debut match went on the back of his bull and tried to shout something in vein as he was overwhelmed, then he lifted up his fist. I could feel the uncontrollable excitement and joy like there couldn’t have been anything better.

Picture: Mr. Morita raising his fist while riding on the back of Taisho Kozo. He would never forget his debut match victory.
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It was finally time for the final match. The voltage in the venue naturally went up. Mr. Yasuoka, with a slightly nervous expression made an entrance with “Yasuoka Dai Shingen.” The current champion “Ito Kyodai Ten Ryu Oh” defended the title successfully for the first time in the January tournament. It boasted a gigantic body weighing 1,100kg.
As soon as the match started, the champion went on the offensive. The challenger Yasuoka Dai Shingen was withstanding the intense attack looking for an opening. You could hear the sound of cheers and screams by spectators mixed up. The vigor of Seko from both sides were almost frightening. Both weighing more than a ton, the two giant bulls fought, glared at each other, thrusted at each other, and the intensity increased.
After 5 minutes and 31 seconds since the start, Yasuoka Dai Shingen, almost pushed against the fence, turned around to counter with a thrust on Ten Ryu Oh’s chest. The game was decided. At that moment, there was a great buzz in the venue and all the spectators were on their feet. Mr. Yasuoka, with both of his arms up in the air, hugged some staff. The cheering group stormed into the bullring like an avalanche. It must have been the greatest number in this tournament.
Excitement went on in the venue. You could hear the calls “Waido! Waido!” Over the past two days in the tournament, quite a few spectators started leaving as soon as they saw the outcome of the match. This day though, most of the spectators were still there, praising the bull and the bull owner who clenched the honor of the All-Island title.

Picture: “Yasuoka Dai Shingen” (left) and “Ito Kyodai Ten Ryu Oh” (right) glaring at each other. Their fighting spirits were smashing into each other.

The last day of the tournament

  • The last day of the tournament1
Even if it rains, or a storm comes, the fighting bull is not defeated.
This day was the final day of the tournament. As the closing of the four days tournament, “Spring All-Island Young All Stars Bullfighting Tournament” was going to be held from 10:00 a.m. at Isen Bullring in Isen-cho. To our great disappointment, it was heavily raining this day. On top of that, bullring this day was outdoors. This fact made me a bit gloomy but the photographer and I tried to take it positively and said, “This is what coverage is all about!”
Today, we were scheduled to interview the kickoff ceremony of the participating bull before the tournament. We met up with Mr. Endo at 8:30 a.m. and headed to a cowshed close to Isen Bullring.
As rain and wind increased in intensity, inside the cowshed, Keiji Tomi, the caretaker, poured sake and salt on both of the horns of “Shoyo King.” After that, files and sandpaper were carefully used to polish the horns. Once the tips of the horns were nicely sharp, he took sake and salt again in his hands and rubbed them many times into the horns. During all this time, the bull’s body was also carefully brushed.
I think they were of course thinking about victory, but I think this ceremony was also about praying for the safe return of the bull. Shoyo King, after appearing for the first match, fought its opponent desperately for 19 minutes and won, marking its 3rd consecutive wins in a row.

Picture: Polishing the horns with prayers. It’s an important kickoff ceremony.
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However, the condition in the venue was as bad as it could get. The continuous rain had made puddles everywhere and it was muddy. It was as if the matches were being held in a paddy field. Spectators were wearing raincoats or holding umbrellas but were drenched as they were watching. I think suffering through this and still watching show how much they love bullfighting.
After the fourth match, there was a “fun raffle” because it was “Kids Day” that day. The chairman of the bullfighting federation Fumihide Sameshima also defiantly announced, “Rain or storm, we will do bullfighting!” This really was an island of bullfighting; I was impressed with such spirit.
Rain may not have been the cause of it, but in the fifth match between “Daiken” vs. “Sakura Horyu,” there was an accident where the left horn of Sakura Horyu broke off right after the match began. It was pushed against the fence and the pressure had made it snap. The broken off horn rolled off onto the spectator seats mercilessly and Daiken had claimed victory.
After about 1:00 p.m., the last match of the day had finished. This marked the end of the All-Island tournament that went on for 4 days. Mr. Endo and his camera, taking pictures in Tamariseki, were both covered in mud. Mr. Endo’s expression though, was that of satisfaction from fully enjoying bullfighting.

Picture: In the rain and covered in mud, still giving all it has got to claim victory.
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We went back to our accommodation to change, then visited the exhibition room of materials at Nakusami Kan. Here, it introduced not just about bullfighting but traditional culture of the Tokunoshima Island such as folk performing arts, etc. There were pictures of past All-Island Champions and easy to understand explanations about the shapes of horns and types of techniques. Me and the photographer regretted not visiting here on the first day.
Mr. Endo also showed us the Kamezu Bullring. This place was not being used but this was the place that was referred to as the sacred ground of bullfighting in Tokunoshima. Now weeds were growing and claiming the area and it was a bit difficult to try to imagine what this place must have been like. Even then, this was also part of bullfighting history in Tokunoshima.
At night, we drank with Mr. Endo, people who love bullfighting like him, and people who came to watch bullfighting from Okinawa, etc. The brown sugar Shochu went around my tired system and I slept like a log that night.

Picture: The exhibition room showing materials about bullfighting history and culture in an easy to understand manner.

Last day of coverage

  • Last day of coverage1
Friendship deepened through bullfighting. That’s the treasure of the island
It was the last day of coverage. On this day, I interviewed Mr. Morita and Mr. Yasuoka whom I visited for the Mae Iwai about their feelings after the tournament.
Neither of them had the intensity during the tournament. They told me winning was of course good but was also glad that the tournament finished without any accident and said that they felt a renewed sense of appreciation of the support they received from those around them. “I don’t really remember clearly about that day (laughter). I think I had a bit too much of a pressure. When my work was busy, my friends and colleagues were there to support and do the training. If I didn’t have the support, I think I wouldn’t have probably won. (Mr. Morita) “The All-Island match was decided in February and of course there was enormous pressure… one can never predict victory or defeat. I still can’t believe I could win. The thing that gave me the most joy was how happy everyone got when we won.” (Mr. Yasuoka)
Both of them looked at their Wakya Ushi kindly. Mr. Yasuoka laughed and said, he will take a bit of rest until the next match.
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The last place Mr. Endo took me to was Kedokubama, a beach where many bulls go to train or take a walk for relaxation. Although it was not common on weekdays right after the tournament, but we still pushed Mr. Endo to bring us a bull there.
The bull owner was Mr. Junya Oosawa. The name of Wakya Ushi was “Totsugeki Typhoon” He said he often brings the bull to Kedokubama on his car. He also said walking on the beach was good training for the legs and loins and it was less likely to cause injury than walking on the concrete. Also, the sea water could disinfect the nails of the bulls. He said it was like killing three birds with one stone training here.
Mr. Makoto Maeda who usually take care of the bull led the bull for about an hour taking a walk. Sometimes, Totsugeki Typhoon poured sand over its whole body, and stood by the shore looking surely comfortable. How it walked calmly on the beach would have made a good postcard.

Picture “Totsugeki Typhoon” walking calmly with Mr. Makoto Maeda. It is what you see everyday in Tokunoshima.
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And so it was the end of all the coverage in Tokunoshima. Why did bullfighting only develop in Tokunoshima continuing on to today? I could not figure out the clear reason why.
However, I could feel the infinite passion and love of bull owners and spectators towards bullfighting. At the same time, this spirit was certainly being passed onto the young generation.
I could see clearly in the eyes of children watching adult Seko, the sense of admiration. Looking up to strength and toughness was something that could even be described as purity.
Unfortunately, the number of people who are involved in bullfighting are less than it used to be. It certainly creates more economic burden to own a bull and it was becoming more difficult to continue it just for the love of bullfighting. This trend may become more dominant in the years to come.
Still, I would say bullfighting will remain on the island. As Mr. Endo said, it is impossible for bull owners to raise a bull for bullfighting without any support. It is with much support of family members, relatives, and friends that makes it possible.
It is the bond between people through bullfighting that supports the history and culture of bullfighting in Tokunoshima. I could clearly see the pride on the faces of all the people I interviewed for this coverage.
Bullfighting is the way people live or life itself beyond just winning and losing between bulls. It could be that people find something in common between bullfighting and themselves. It may be this that makes bull owners and spectators wild with enthusiasm. That was my thought as I looked down at Tokunoshima Island from the departing airplane.

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