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TokyoTreat Japanese Snacks BlogDragon Boat Race: Dive into the Tradition of Okinawa!

Dragon Boat Race: Dive into the Tradition of Okinawa!

James LauJames Lau
Published Time
Posted on 
June 30, 2023
A dragon boat in Okinawa. It's blue, red and yellow.

Okinawa is a breathtaking island prefecture in Japan. It is renowned for its picturesque landscapes and vibrant cultural heritage. One of the highlights of Okinawa is the thrilling sport of the dragon boat race, known as hari!

These exciting races occur at fishing ports and locations across Okinawa, captivating locals and visitors. The day of the dragon boat festival is always on the summer solstice—June 22nd-23rd.

Origins of the Dragon Boat Race: Tracing the Historical Narratives

The origins of Hari, deeply rooted in the history of the Ryukyu Kingdom, now known as Okinawa Prefecture, are comprised of fascinating legends and narratives. According to the historical text “Kyuuyo,” three theories are presented regarding the origin of Hari:

Theory of Thirty-Six Clans’ Arrival 

The theory suggests that thirty-six Min (China) clans migrated to the Ryukyu Islands and assimilated into the local culture. People believe these clans introduced the tradition of Hari, which they then carried out in the Naha River.

A dragon boat race in the Ryukyu Islands.
Even the international community participates! Image via DVIDS

Theory of Nagahama Dafu’s Arrival 

This theory revolves around Nagahama Dafu, who purportedly learned dragon boat racing in Nanjing and later returned to Ryukyu, where he built dragon boats and organized competitive races.

Theory of Wang Yingzu’s Arrival  

According to this theory, Wan Ooso, the younger brother of King Nanshan, studied in Nanjing and, upon his return to Ryukyu, became the lord of Toyomichinjo. Inspired by the dragon boats, he witnessed in China, Wan Ooso constructed dragon boats. As a result, he held competitive races in the rivers of his domain at the beginning of May.

Initially, Hari races were solely competed by fishermen, offering prayers for safe voyages and bountiful catches. Over time, the races expanded to include team members representing businesses and organizations all over Okinawa.

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The Thrilling Races of Itoman, Naha, and Tomigusuku – A Display of Strength and Unity

Presently, where ancient traditions thrive in Okinawa, three exciting races take center stage: the Itoman Hari, Naha Hari, and Tomigusuku Hari. Deeply rooted in the island’s cultural fabric, these races captivate participants and spectators alike with their exciting energy and fierce competition. Wan Ooso, King Nanshan’s brother, went to Nanjing to study. When he came back to Ryukyu, he became the lord of Toyomichinjo. 

Itoman Hari: A Battle of Waves in the Southern Seas 

A colorful, reptilian like boat in Itoman.
Many locals prepare all year for the races. Image via Shutterstock

In the southern reaches of Okinawa, the Itoman Hari race takes place with unrivaled grandeur. Against the backdrop of the vast ocean, dragon boats adorned in vibrant colors gather, poised to conquer the waves!

Once the sole participants in this thrilling race, fishermen have led various local businesses and organizations to form their teams. They honor the sea gods with every oar stroke, seeking bountiful catches and safe voyages. Itoman Hari symbolizes the island’s fishing community’s indomitable spirit and enduring connection to the sea!

Naha Hari: A Majestic Spectacle in the Capital City 

Venture into the heart of Okinawa’s bustling capital city, Naha, and witness the awe-inspiring Naha Hari. At the prestigious Naha Port and the New Naha Port Wharf, this dragon boat extravaganza is the island’s largest and most iconic race!

A dragon boat race in Naha.
Naha is also home to some of these events. Image via Shutterstock

Teams of rowers, passionately driven by the beats of the gong and drums, glide through the waters, showcasing their strength, agility, and unwavering unity. People cheer, and the Naha Hari race brings happiness and friendship to the city.

Tomigusuku Hari: A Return to the Birthplace of Hari 

The Tomigusuku Hari race takes place in the historical city of Tomigusuku, the birthplace of Hari. This exhilarating tradition dates back 600 years, making Tomigusuku proud of its heritage. 

Participants enter dragon boats adorned with impressive dragon heads and tails, symbolizing the ancient origins of this event. Together, they embark on a journey through time, reliving the legacy of Wan Ooso, the lord of Tomigusuku, who drew inspiration from the dragon boat races he witnessed during his studies in China. This race is a tribute to the enduring spirit and timeless allure of Hari in Okinawa!

A dragon boat race in Tomigusuku.
Tomigusuku is one of the most historical places for dragon boat races. Image via Visit Okinawa

The Magnificent Hari Boats: A Fusion of Tradition and Splendor

Hari boats are the focal point of Okinawan races, representing a fusion of tradition and splendor. These meticulously crafted vessels hold great significance in the spirited dragon boat races, carrying the hopes and aspirations of the rowers.

The importance of Hari boats profoundly resonates with the Okinawan people. Historically, these boats were used for prayers, seeking safe journeys at sea, and abundant catches for fishermen. With centuries of heritage, these colorful boats have evolved, reflecting the island’s unique customs and traditions.

The dragon heads and tails adorning the boats symbolize mythical creatures associated with strength, protection, and good fortune. Each rhythmic stroke of the oar is a heartfelt plea, invoking blessings from the sea gods and ensuring a prosperous voyage!

Why do people like hari boats?

Beyond their symbolic value, Hari boats are visually captivating, showcasing Okinawa’s exceptional artistry and craftsmanship. Adorned with vibrant colors, intricate carvings, and majestic dragon heads, they are a testament to the island’s artistic expression!

While modern Hari boats incorporate durable materials like fiberglass, they balance tradition and practicality. Ranging from four to six feet (1-2 meters) in width and approximately 48 feet long (15 meters), these boats exemplify the harmonious blend of form and function!

A dragon boat race in Okinawa.
It’s a tradition that dates back hundreds of years. Image via Oh! Matsuri!

Success in Hari races relies not only on the rowers’ strength but also on the synchronized efforts of the supporting crew. Drummers, gong-beaters, and flag-bearers play vital roles in maintaining rhythm and fostering unity. The resonating beats of the gong and drums propel the rowers forward with a shared purpose!

Smaller boats called sabani also play a significant role in local communities with fishery ports. These sturdy boats, traditionally used by fishermen for long-distance travel, contribute to the vibrant Hari races, showcasing the inclusivity and diversity of the tradition. Have you ever been to Okinawa to watch the Dragon Boat races? Where did you go? Let us know in the comments below!

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