Photo/IllutrationTwo bulls lock horns during a traditional bullfighting event in Nagaoka, Niigata Prefecture. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

This year's "ushi no tsunotsuki" bullfighting season kicked off in early May in the Yamakoshi district of Nagaoka, Niigata Prefecture.

The traditional event is typically described as "bull sumo," as the contest mimics sumo wrestling and the husky contestants also have "ring names" like their human counterparts.

On the day I saw them in action, their brute strength took my breath away; there were bulls with tough-sounding names such as "Sanno," "Akamusha" and "Yakushi Dairiki" grunting menacingly as they locked horns.

"This Japanese form of bullfighting has a 1,000-year history. But right after the Niigata Chuetsu Earthquake of 15 years ago, I feared this tradition would die," said Tomie Matsui, 37, the head of Yamakoshi's bullfighting association.

The quake triggered a landslide that caused the local river to flood, submerging Matsui's home and destroying the cowshed. All roads to and from Yamakoshi became blocked, and the entire village had to be evacuated.

Matsui was working away from his hometown at the time, but rushed back in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. He and his father scrambled to save their cattle.

Matsui quit his job the following spring and came home to devote himself to reviving the bull sumo.

Last spring, his association allowed women to enter the dohyo ring for the first time in history. Photos of a female bull owner, leading her animal to the ring with a big smile, graced many a newspaper page.

The occasion coincided with a major controversy that was brewing then over the Japan Sumo Association's long-established policy to keep women out of the ring.

According to Matsui, his association's lifting of the ban met with zero opposition from the public.

In "Nanso Satomi Hakkenden" (The Eight Dog Chronicles), author Takizawa Bakin (1767-1848) portrayed bullfighting aficionados of the Edo Period (1603-1867) who were so rapt with watching the huge beasts locking horns, they lost all sense of time, even forgetting to eat or drink.

I myself had a similar reaction to my first bullfight-watching experience: So awed was I by the clash of raw power that I literally forgot time.

Even before the Chuetsu Earthquake, there actually were times in the past when this ancient tradition came close to dying out owing to the drastic depopulation of cattle farmers.

But the tradition was revived thanks to the dedication and hard work of residents.

Young people are now being groomed to continue it, and the ranks of bullfighting fans are swelling among women. These positive developments must owe to the flexibility and openness displayed by event managers.

I pray that this tradition will continue to flourish for 100 or even 1,000 years.

--The Asahi Shimbun, May 13

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.