On Okinawa, American military bastion in the Far East, is staged the world’s most unique rodeo.
An outgrowth of one man’s imagination and the homesickness of hundreds of G-I’s, the rodeo is given annually at the Flying O Ranch, owned and operated by Roger James, in Naha, the capital city of the island.
The horses and performers are Americans, thousands of miles from their native plains. The bulls and calves are Japanese black cattle. Association rules apply to all events, and, while no records have been broken, the roping, bulldogging and bronc riding is worth the 80 yen (70 cents) admittance price, for many of the performers, presently in the armed services, were once professionals.
Well, they have quite a history. Originally, they came from Wyoming, Oklahoma, and Texas and are stamped on the neck with the government purchase numbers. In 1949, the United States bought nearly a thousand two-year-old colts — Quarter Horses, half-Thoroughbreds, Morgans, Arabs, and plain range horses — and shipped them to Okinawa to improve the native pony. Five years later, less than half survived. The Okinawans killed and ate many of them before the price of meat declined. A large number succumbed to the diseases of an Oriental, semi-tropical island. The Okinawans used them to pull two-wheeled carts and to grind sugar cane. Five years ago, Roger James bought the first horse, a flea-bitten gray mare which he trained as a roping horse. Now he has 40 horses in the Flying O stables which he uses for roping and bulldogging. About a dozen serve as bareback and saddle broncs.
Roger James is well-qualified to stage the rodeo. Born in Hawaii, he broke horses on the big Parker Ranch, and in 1939 was champion all-around Hawaiian cowboy, and later participated in many shows in the States. In one way or another, he has been connected with rodeos for 27 years. James makes no money on the Okinawan rodeos. After expenses are deducted, profits go to local charities. One of the first rodeos was given on May Day as a counter attraction to a communist rally. The crowds swarmed to the rodeo. The rally was a dismal failure.
The easiest part of the rodeo, James says, is finding performers. Among the Marine, Army, Air Force, and Navy men on the island, there are always plenty of ex-cowhands to try for the prize money. This year, the all-around cowboy was Jerry Cargill, Third Marine Division, originally from Brownfield, Texas. Jerry was flown down from Japan to participate in the rodeo. Last year’s winner was Mike Landris from Oakley, Idaho. Both Cargill and Landris have taken part in many shows.
The most difficult part of the Okinawa rodeo, according to James, is keeping the stock in shape for the one performance daily in the hot, humid weather. No grain is available on Okinawa, and the horses are fed a diet of freshly cut grass and boiled sweet potatoes which lack much of the needed food value. Despite the handicaps, everyone enjoys the rodeo, that most typical of American sports, on this far away island in the Pacific.
This article was originally published in the July 1958 issue of Western Horseman.