There are a huge variety of clubs in Japan. Table-tennis clubs and social dance clubs, hostess clubs and clubs where you can polish up your karaoke. But there is only one club devoted to the art of bullfighting.
Once a month the members of the Tauro Tokyo Club get together to spill their shared passion for blood and sand. Out come the bullfighting videos recorded from satellite TV, the waving of the red capes and the explanations of the differences between a natural pass and a derechazo.
Yuji Saito leads the charge among an international group of 90 that includes a veterinarian, an ex-cowboy and a French language professor. One of the club’s founders and creator of its Web site, Saito used to follow a humdrum routine working as a branch manager for a gyudon-ya (beef bowl shop) in Tokyo.
“I was so busy working that I felt as if I wasn’t living,” recalls Saito. “The little spare time I had I was reading novels with titles like ‘Coin Locker Babies’ and feeling very empty.”
But then Saito came across the novels of Ernest Hemingway, and his life changed direction. Curious to see real bullfighting, he went to Spain, saw his first bullfighting festival and became an aficionado.
Sitting at the restaurant at Venta de Batan, a training ground in Madrid for young bullfighters and a temporary display area for the best bulls before they are transported to the ring, Saito explains that he wasn’t immediately converted to the sport. In fact, his first few experiences as a spectator, at the 1991 Festival of San Isidro in Las Ventas, Madrid (one of the most important bullfighting festivals and rings in the world), left him cold.
“It was so boring that I yawned through the first 12 days,” he says.
Then, on the 13th day of the festival, Colombian bullfighter Cesar Rincon stole the show with the sixth and last bull of the evening, and was carried out of the Puerta Grande, the main door of Las Ventas, on the shoulders of his delirious supporters.
Saito, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of bullfighting trivia, remembers the day well.
“Everybody was shouting ‘Torero! Torero! Torero!’ (bullfighter) and ‘Ole! Ole! Ole!’ I kept hearing the chants in my head at night and couldn’t sleep for a week.”
Saito has since attended hundreds of bullfights, and has become such a fan of Cesar Rincon that the bullfighter himself has come to recognize the fortysomething Japanese man with the round face and square glasses.
Rincon has even granted Saito two personal interviews, every detail of which Saito eagerly reported back to his bullfighting club in Tokyo.
“Saito’s a stalker,” jokes close friend Atsuhiro Shimoyama. Otherwise known as the Son of the Rising Sun by his fans, Shimoyama was himself an active bullfighter in Spain five years ago.
At that time enjoying a meteoric rise through the ranks of the traditional sport and making headlines in both Japan and Spain, Shimoyama’s career was cut short when he suffered a freak accident in the ring that left half of his body paralyzed.
Still based in Seville and traveling with Saito over the past few months to numerous corridas (bullfights) in Spain, Shimoyama’s injuries have not dimmed his sense of humor.
“I call Saito the president of the (Tauro Tokyo) Club, even though he’s not officially the president,” says Shimoyama, referring to his friend’s passion for bullfighting.
Wearing a T-shirt of a bloodstained bullfighter triumphantly holding aloft a pair of cut-off bull’s ears, with a slogan reading, “To live is to spill blood,” Saito explains the controversial act of the killing of the bull. Known as the hora de verdad (hour of truth), the sword thrust (or a series of thrusts if the bullfighter keeps missing) is seen by many as barbarous and behind the times.
“It must be done with respect and skill, and a recognition of the primal instinct within all human beings,” he says. “Without coming to terms with the fleetingness of our existence, represented by the death of the bull, we cannot be fully alive.”
Saito concludes by adding that the killing of the bull is not something that he can explain logically. Passions run hot in the bullfighting world, and Saito is one of the infected.
With his gyudon days far behind him (“The thing about working in the beef restaurant was merely coincidence,” he says) he is now working for a security company that allows him more holidays. When they come, he immediately heads for Las Ventas in Madrid with his coveted and difficult-to-obtain season pass, to indulge the passion that has transformed his life.