The bull was big and black and brave and he pawed the ground and tossed his head and bellowed his defiance as the men sweated and wrestled with him. But you could see that his horns had been altered, the points sawn off, and he would be no danger, and there would be no blood on the hot grey sand of the bullring that day. No matador was standing there, no Cayetano, arrogant, sighting down his sword, swinging his cape to entice the bull with a slow, beautiful faena, the way the great ones do before they go for the kill.
The attendants led a second bull into the ring and forced down his head, until their horns locked, and then their eyes rolled and their flanks heaved and the two bulls began to thrust against each other, while the men shouted at them and slapped their necks, until one dominated, and the other ran away in defeat. This was not bullfighting, but this was how it was that summer on the Japanese island of Uwajima.
THE POLITICALLY correct bullfights that attract the crowds to this town in the boondocks of Shikoku Island will never inspire a Japanese Ernest Hemingway. In fact, they are not really fights, but rather a kinder, gentler sort of contest – a bovine sumo wrestling. And that’s how the locals like it.
“I have seen videotapes of bullfighting in Spain,” shudders Yoshio Nakahata, the 86-year-old chairman of the Uwajima Bullfighting Association. “We would never do such a cruel and violent thing here. We have never had a bull killed. Even when they are too old to fight, they are looked after and fed in their old age.”
This unique sport has survived at Uwajima – and in a couple of other remote parts of Japan – for at least 500 years. legend has it that the ancestors of the fighting bulls were given to the islanders by the grateful survivors of a Dutch shipwreck.
The fights began as scratch contests between local farmers, who used the bulls to pull ploughs through their rice paddies. Twenty years ago, the civic fathers built a special 3,000-seat arena for the fights – the first covered stadium in Japan, boasts Nakahata.
In its heyday, when Nakahata was a child, there were 3,000 fighting bulls on the island and contests were held several times a month. But the drift to the cities and the introduction of tractors has cut a swathe through the herd- there are now only 200 bulls left, just enough to sustain three contests a year.
Trainers prepare the bulls with a diet of eggs, rice-cakes and the powdered essence of death adders. The animals are taken for four-hour hikes along steep mountain tracks to strengthen their legs. They are groomed until they gleam, as they should – a champion is worth anything up to $40,000.
The bulls are ranked like sumo wrestlers, with the bouts building up through the day until the mighty yokozunas (champion wrestlers) are led out, wearing cloth-of-gold capes and preceded by attendants carrying purple banners and scattering salt for the ritual purification of the ring.
It is quite a show. Unfortunately, on the day I went, the grand champion -a magnificent beast named Ichigo Shirokuchi, 1,100 kilograms of pure aggression – so terrified his opponent that the hapless animal turned tail a bare second or two after they locked horns and ran away.
The normally docile Japanese crowd – inflamed with sake and illegal betting- erupted in a chorus of complaint, demanded a rematch and, when it was refused, hurled cushions, sacks of garbage and abuse into the ring.
As for cruelty, we did see one bull slammed against the rails and gored, a streak of blood running down its shoulder. It was no worse than you would see at a typical Australian rodeo.
“These bulls have a great life,” says Nakahata. “They are selected for fighting when they are calves. The ones that aren’t chosen get castrated and turned into steak. Tell me what is crueller.”
Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Saturday 22 October 1994
Section: Good Weekend
Sub section: A Sporting Life
Word count: 808
Caption: 6 Illus:
A bullish market
1. opponents lock horns at the arena in Uwajima;
2. attendants urge the bulls on;
3. the yokozunas (champion wrestlers) are paraded before the bout begins;
4. garbed in cloth-of-gold capes, yokozunas are worth up to $40,000;
5. Uwajima Bullfighting Association chairman, Yoshio Nakahata.
6. The sumo of us: champ Ichigo Shirokuchi, with owner Masami Shirokuchi