Marines and sailors representing the Okinawa Single Marine Program competed in the 45th Annual Naha Dragon Boat Race May 5 at Naha Port, Okinawa.
More than 130 teams participated in the three-day festival. Local schools, public and private organizations, and U.S. military community came together and took part in this famous race, also known as the ‘Haarii.’ The SMP team placed first in their preliminary heat.
With the sound of starter pistol, the race started. Black, yellow and green dragon boats started to push forward. Marines and sailors pierced their oars deep down the water, rowing with perfect unison to the beat of the gong. The members synchronized their effort through cadence as they shouted “Osu! Osu! Osu!”
“‘Osu’ is a Japanese martial artists’ way of greeting. It also means to push aside your weakness and endure,” explains Nobuhiro Hirahara, the head coach for the SMP dragon boat team.
The history of the dragon boat races goes back more than five centuries. The tradition of dragon boat races thanks the ocean for its blessings and wishes for the safety of fishermen and an abundant harvest.
“I joined the team to get out and see Okinawa,” said Lance Cpl. Aiden Hudgell, a motor transport operator with 3rd Transportation Support Battalion. “Participating in a local event allows us to meet people. It is a great way to form comradery with Okinawa residents.”
For many of the sailors and Marines, this was their first time engaging in Okinawan culture.
“The majority of our team members have never rowed a boat in their life before,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael Ponn, a hospital corpsman with 3rd Medical Battalion, 3rd Marine Logistics Group. “It does not matter which branch, age, gender, rank, or job you have. When we put everyone on the boat, we learn how to work together as a team. It is amazing.”
The SMP members have been practicing twice a week since April and had two practices with the actual boat at Naha Port. Rowing a 32-manned boat needs harmonized paddling and teamwork. Getting the team to row on the beat was challenging, according to Hirahara.
“The most important thing about rowing a boat is timing,” said Hirahara, a Kyoto prefecture native. “The practice to get everyone together was the most challenging thing. Overall, coaching the service members has been a fulfilling experience for me.”
The SMP provides quality of life wherever Marines and sailors are at and allows them to experience local culture.
“This is a great opportunity for Marines and sailors to be outside the gate, immerse into local traditions, and see the community,” said Secoya Holmes, SMP coordinator from Charlotte, North Carolina. “I’m very happy that we’re able to participate in the race. We also got to bring a trophy home!”
Learning, participating and sharing each other’s community are important in building bilateral relationship, according to Hirahara.
“I would like to continue contributing in taking part in cultural exchanges between the U.S. military and the local community,” said Hirahara.