Back on my first week in Japan, I inadvertently joined my town’s tug-of-war team. It happened like this: One day, I heard someone yelling from outside my balcony, “Makkenji-sensei! Makkenji-sensei!” I stepped outside to find Sakamoto-san, my landlord, standing below. “You. Me. Izakaya. Now. Let’s go.” He was inviting me to an izakaya, a traditional Japanese restaurant, down the street from my apartment. I grabbed some shoes and my Japanese/English dictionary and was out the door.
A few minutes later, I was seated at a table with Sakamoto-san and three of his friends, all middle-aged Japanese men. I gathered that this izakaya was a second home for them from the way that they called the owner-lady “Mama.” Sakamoto-san took a picture of a tug-of-war match off the wall and handed it to me. “Look. Tug-of-war. Woman, woman, woman,” he said, pointing to the coordinating players. Then he pointed at me. “Woman!” And that’s how I became the newest member of Sakamoto-san’s tug-of-war team.
Tug-of-war is serious business in Japan. Regular tournaments are held and broadcast live on TV. Teams wear matching uniforms and special shoes to grip the floor. What’s most unusual is that tug-of-war is also about technique, not just physical force. You have to have balance and poise. As I mostly lack those qualities, I am our team’s anchor. The anchor wraps the end of the rope around herself, steadies it, and takes up any slack that the rest of the team is hopefully creating. It is a position for those who like to accomplish goals through brute strength and sheer force of will. I think it suits me well.
Our first tournament was last month in Kofu, Yamanashi’s capital city. I didn’t get a vote, so our team’s name was “Sutama-town, Akeno-town and Mack.” Now, I live in Sutama, and I teach in Akeno, so I’m not sure why I couldn’t just be subsumed into one of those two groups. As if I didn’t stick out enough being the only gaijin in the history of Yamanashi tug-of-war. At the end of the day, our team got fourth place in all of Yamanashi Prefecture, which I think is pretty good for our first match. We celebrated our semi-victory at the same izakaya where I initially joined into the Japanese tug-of-war experience.