HENOKO, OKINAWA, Japan --
A U.S. Marine and Okinawan silently face off, grasp each other’s colored belts, and wait for the signal. The referee taps them on the back, and the bout begins.
Cpl. Morgan Howard, who had no prior experience in kakuriki, or Okinawa-style sumo wrestling, didn't know what he'd gotten himself into. On June 10, he competed with a joint-service team in the Henoko Okinawa-style Sumo Tournament, which has been hosted by the Henoko Young Men’s Association for the past 50 years.
Unlike Japanese sumo, Okinawa-style sumo competitors wear heavy “gis,” or martial arts outfits, tied with red or white cloth belts. Throughout the bout, they maintain a two-handed grip on each other's belts. The objective is to score a point by forcing their opponents to fall on their backs, into the “dohyo,” or sandy pit. Two points wins a match.
“Okinawa-style sumo, which is a combination of western wrestling and traditional Japanese sumo and judo, [is] the most powerful [competition] on Okinawa,” said Fumio Iha, the Camp Schwab community relations specialist.
The tournament was a novel cultural experience for participating Marines like Howard, an automotive maintenance technician with Headquarters Battalion, 3rd Marine Division, III Marine Expeditionary Force. Howard said he jumped at the opportunity to face Henoko residents, who have been participating in Okinawa-style sumo since they were children.
However eager Howard and his teammates were to compete, they weren't necessarily prepared for their friendly foes. Seconds after facing off against his opponent, Howard landed on his back, ending the match as the crowd erupted with cheers.
The victor helped him to his feet. They faced each other, bowed, and returned to their sides as the crowd continued to applaud.