SENDAI, Japan (Reuters) - By day, Kenichi Watanabe runs an insurance agency. By night, he’s an arm wrestler -- and on a recent Saturday, he’s preparing to do battle.
Under a moonlit sky, Watanabe and his opponent face off across an arm wrestling table in a bustling pedestrian street in Sendai, a northern Japanese city hit hard by the March quake. Watanabe is lean and cut, like a lightweight boxer, but his rival looks a couple of weight classes bigger.
They grip hands and adjust elbow positions. Biceps bulge, forearm veins pop. Lights from arcade and karaoke signs dance across their faces as they lock eyes and await the “Go” signal.
“Come on, you can do it!” says a female voice among the crowd of some 30 onlookers.
Welcome to “Street Arm,” an event held in the middle of Sendai’s entertainment district, in which anyone from beginner to pro can step up and take a shot at arm wrestling.
Organized several times a year, Street Arm helps spread awareness of the sport as well as amp up weekend nightlife.
Uniting people is especially vital in Japan’s disaster-hit northeast. In Sendai, the nearest big city to the epicenter of the massive March 11 quake, the downtown area survived relatively unscathed but the coastal areas suffered major tsunami damage.
“With arm wrestling, people can become closer more easily because they’re grasping hands,” the 34-year-old Watanabe said.
“You can’t survive on your own, people need to stand together,” he said, recalling banding together after the quake to struggle with shortages of food, water and other essentials.
Watanabe started arm wrestling nine years ago. Confident in his strength, he entered a local tournament -- and lost. Determined to win, he launched a club that practiced weekly, and eventually won an East Japan regional tournament.
“KEEP ON FIGHTING”
Anybody can take part in Street Arm, and many do.
Mai Takahashi and her two friends were out on the town to hit the bars when they came across the event.
“It looked like so much fun and I knew I’d be strong enough, so I gave it a try,” said Takahashi, 24, who works for a cell phone parts manufacturer. She added that she was “totally excited” after beating her friends.
Watanabe and his club mates teach techniques such as positioning the elbow for better leverage, hooking one’s thumb under the fingers for a better grip, and pulling back on the opponent’s hand like a bicep curl to generate more power.
They get a diverse group involved, with participants from middle-aged men and hip-hop guys to exchange students and women decked out in party dresses after a wedding -- people who in normal times probably wouldn’t be interacting with each other.
“I could meet lots of different people, people from other countries,” said Kakeru Yamada, 20, a university student.
But it’s the expert grapplers who attract the most attention, like Watanabe and the big guy from the rival club.
Force collides with force. It’s an even match early on but Watanabe gets the edge. The tension cranks, the crowd moves in.
His opponent starts coming back and gains momentum. Gritting his teeth, Watanabe summons all his strength and unleashes a final burst, sending his rival’s hand thudding to the table.
In the end, when you’re on the verge of losing and all hope seems lost, the key is to dig in mentally and stay strong, Watanabe said -- a message that echoes in post-disaster Japan.
“I never let myself feel defeated. If you don’t give up and keep on fighting, you never know, you sometimes end up coming out on top,” he said.
Editing by Elaine Lies