The first time I did Tug of War in Japan was amongst a bunch of fathers of kindergarteners at a sports festival almost seven years ago. Sports festivals are a staple among annuals school activities, and Tug of War, or Tsunahiki as it is called here, is a stable of sports festival games.

“Is this your first time doing Tsunahiki? It can get pretty rough!”
“No, we have it in America too. I did it when I was a kid.”
“Eeeeehhhhh?”
“I thought it was just a Japanese thing.”

Given the ceremonious use of straw ropes (shimenawa) through Shintoism and the game’s ancient use in harvest festivals and centuries-old, famous Tsunahiki events throughout the country, I cannot blame them for thinking it was unique to Japan, but a game with such a simple and straightforward objective has been found among ancient cultures all around the world, with no discernable first origins.

Of course, in modern Japan with its array of infamous game show stunts, a straightforward game is often adjusted to draw a crowd, especially if there is a big cash prize like 100,000 yen up for grabs. I’ve been dragged (no pun intended) into similarly reinvented team competitions before, and this time when I heard we were going to the beach for Tsunahiki on Marine Day (a public holiday on the third Monday of July designated for enjoying and appreciating the ocean), I thought we’d be standing in the water as we pulled. That was what the “shoes that can get wet” warning was for, right?

What? No? This “on the ocean” thing was literal??

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Kitaura Beach, facing the Sea of Japan on the Mihonoseki Peninsula portion of Matsue City, hosted the its 18th annual Ebisu Cup: Tsunahiki on the Ocean Competition. There were 18 teams with partipants from as far as the Kansai region, Kyuushuu, and… well… in my case, America. Though only five people could pull on behalf of the team at a time, there were about 590 participants signed up.

Unfortunately for our team of eight people called “Hippare! Global Girls”, only five of us got to try it out because we lost on the first round to the women’s team that wound up winning first place. We put up a really good fight, though! It was really close, and none of us fell off the slippery floating platform for the 30 second competition. After our defeat, we had to jump into the salty water and swim back to shore (as did the victors, to save time on boat rides back and forth). At the shore, there were TV cameras and reporters waiting for me (should have seen that coming), and it turns out I got a brief sound bite on national TV. I would add the link here, but the page has since expired. Translated, my comments were, “It was fun, but it’s a little vexing (to have lost).”

It turned out to be a very, very long day at the beach with matches all day long, but our consolation prize for waiting around and playing in the gentle and clear waters and barbecuing and bashing watermelons while blindfolded was a box full of very sweet melons. Such is how these sorts of competitions work in Japan.

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Well, my slipper table tennis game improved since last year, so maybe our Tsunahiki and Suikawari (watermelon-spliting) skills will improve by next year too. After all, it’s a global game and we’ve got a lot of other countries to represent!

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