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Photos from Japan's Ancient Bullfighting Ritual

In Spain, matador vs bull often ends in at least one gory death. Japan's centuries-old tradition sees two bulls peacefully wrestling one another.

av Luke Van Aurich
2016 06 30, 12:00am

All images by Luke Van Aurich

Tsunotsuki is an ancient Japanese tradition, dating back hundreds of years. It is a bullfight, based on the philosophies of the Shinto religion. Unlike the classic bull vs matador seen in Spain, tsunotsuki pits two bulls against one another in a display of spirit.

Luke Van Aurich recently traveled to Japan's Yamakoshi region to document the event. VICE caught up with the Melbourne-based photographer to ask him about what he saw ring-side.

VICE: What is tsunotsuki and how did you first hear about it?
Luke Van Aurich: Tsunotsuki literally translates to "bullfighting." It's a long held Japanese tradition dating back to the Edo period (1603–1868 AD). Unlike the Spanish style, the Japanese bulls combat one another, like sumo wrestling. At the time I had plans to travel to Japan, so I was just looking for some interesting fringe topic to take photos of.

What happens during a fight?
Matches are considered to be a test of a bull's fighting spirit. When they get tired the master, called a seko, calls for the other sekos who oversee the fight to spring into action. They pull the bulls apart using ropes tied around a hind leg and then through their nose. Then, they walk the bulls on a lap of the stadium to compose themselves while everyone claps.

It's also important to note that if a bull becomes injured or falls it's considered a great loss. Bulls must knock each other over as a bull loses his fighting spirit. If it happens, the sekos will stop the match and pray.

Why do they stop and pray if a bull gets hurt?
I think that's part of the Shinto religion, which is a Japanese thing. It's kind of based on the balance of life, I guess. The Shinto religion plays a cardinal role in the matches—sekos pray at the beginning, cleanse the stadium with salt and drink, and spray their ropes with sake. Most sekos are also local farmers who raise and train their own bulls alongside their livestock and other crops.

Do you know if a bull has ever been killed doing this?
Not that I know of.

So the seko is like a referee for the fight?
Yeah, totally. There are heaps of them in there, and then there's the Master Seko—essentially he controls the fight. When he calls the end then all the other guys come in and separate the fight.

How do the bulls react when the seko decides to break up the fight?
So there's a ranking from lightweight, to heavyweights at the top. The lightweights are pretty submissive but the heavier bulls are big dominant males who have heaps of energy. They're a bit harder to calm down. Essentially, when the fight has been called, the guys chuck a rope around the bull's hind leg and start separating the two. Then two other guys come in and put a rope through the nose. I think the nose is one of the most pain-receptive areas on a bull, so they chill out straight away after that.

Is the atmosphere something like a soccer match?
It's kind of similar to watching a movie. Everyone gasps and stuff without yelling but then at the end everyone is pretty pumped and cheering. There are food stalls. In Yamakoshi village, it's the only place where you don't bet, and there is no winner and loser.

Is anyone welcome or were you a bit of an outsider?
I think it was pretty chill, everyone was welcome. But I was probably the only Westerner there.

What did you think of tsunotsuki, personally?
For me, I kind of wanted to go in there with an open mind. Obviously I know the connotations of having two animals fighting each other for entertainment, so I thought it could be a bit weird. When I got there I saw how it was more of a ritual. I'm still kind of on the fence about it, but the people who live in the region raise the bulls themselves and compete against other people in the region.

It seems like they want to keep the bulls safe. They don't want them to get injured even though they're fighting.
Yeah, the dynamic is weird because they're fighting, but it has these almost religious undertones to the whole thing that make it ritualistic. They really care about the bulls, they don't want them to die or anything.

Interview by Scott Renton. Follow him on Twitter.