Tug-of-War in Asia
Cooperative projects for safeguarding common living heritage

Living Heritage Series

Tugging Rituals and Games

A Common Element, Diverse Approaches

Chapter 3

The Present Situation of Transmitting Traditional Tug-of-War in Japan

Hoshino Hiroshi
Emeritus Researcher, National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Tokyo, Japan

The custom of traditional Japanese tug-of-war, or tsunahiki (綱引), can be outlined as follows:

  • It is practiced on different annual events, such as Ko-syogatsu (小正月), or New Year celebration around 15 January according to the lunar calendar), Obon festival (盆) celebrated around 15 August, the Boys’ Festival on 5 May (端午節句), or the fifteenth night of August of the lunar calendar (八月十五夜).
  • The tug-of-war ropes are made of either straw, kaya (kind of cogon grass often used as traditional roofing materials), or shobu (菖蒲 or sweet sedge).
  • A village is divided into two groups of farming and fishing areas, eastern and western areas, and upstream and downstream areas, and in some cases, the two groups are subdivided into smaller groups such as children and young adults as well as men and women.
  • The rope is tugged by these groups, or dragged around, slammed against the ground, or sometimes cut into pieces.

The purpose of this traditional event is said to forecast the volume of the coming harvest, to ward off evil spirits, or to pray for a peaceful life.
Although the traditional tug-of-war event has been handed down in many places throughout eastern, western, and southern Japan, it has been gradually declining or changing its shape, just like other folk cultures, because of the drastic socioeconomic changes in modern Japanese society. In recent years, the day of this event has been moved to weekends or to national holidays in many cases, due to the changing life styles of the performers, who used to be engaged in primary industries but are now office workers. In addition, depopulation among local communities, caused by ongoing decrease in the number of children and increase of aging population, makes transmission of this tradition more and more difficult. These undesirable changes tend to be observed especially in remote rural areas, where rather old-fashioned and thus valuable customs were preserved.
The Law on the Protection of Cultural Properties was enacted in 1950 to promote the preservation of intangible folk traditions, including tug-of-war, but a considerable number of folk traditions failed to survive against the current trend and thus declined. The former National Commission for Protection of Cultural Properties defined these folk traditions as “intangible folk materials” in 1954 and since then continued recording and documenting important intangible folk materials selected as the those “requiring documentation and other measures.” However, the Law on the Protection of Cultural Properties was amended in 1975 because of the remarkable decline of those folk traditions during the rapid economic growth in the 1960s and 1970s. In this amendment, the wording “intangible folk materials” was replaced by “intangible folk cultural properties.” Also a conservation policy was introduced to designate important folk traditions as “important intangible folk cultural properties,” and since then the policy has been enforced till this day.
The following list shows twenty cases of traditional tug-of-war events observed in Japan, including ones that are designated as “important intangible folk cultural properties,” or selected as “intangible folk cultural properties requiring documentation and other measures.” Some of them are designated as “folk cultural properties” by each prefecture: Number 2 is of Akita, 9 of Kyoto, and 15 and 17 of Kagoshima. In this manner, forty-seven Japanese prefectures were allowed to promote preservation measures regarding intangible folk cultural properties located in each administrative district, based on their own Ordinance for the Protection of Cultural Properties. (See Annex 1: List of Traditional Tug-of-War in Japan)
Chapter 3 The Present Situation of Transmitting 34 Traditional Tug-of-War in Japan