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Travel Note: Sumo

We spent a whole day at Tokyo's Ryogoku Kokugikan, The National Sumo Stadium, watching day 13 of a sumo tournament. There are six of these 15-day tournaments each year, held in different cities. Each wrestler fights one match each day. The tournament days run from 8 or 10 am until 6 pm. Junior players fight in the morning. The higher ranking Juryo and Makuuchi divisions have their matches in the afternoon.

From what we saw, Sumo is as much sport as ritual. There is definitely a dramatic physical and psychological athleticism about sumo that is easy to overlook if you are exposed only to the Western stereotypes of fat men wrestling in diapers.

Each match lasts around 2-5 minutes, but the great majority of that time is ritual, and and a kind of posturing and mind wrestling. This part is itself broken up into rounds. The junior players simply step in the dohyo (the ring that defines the boundary of play) and after some ritual postures towards the audience, do some posturing (stretching, body smacking, crouching) for about a minute and then get to the actual wrestling. The middle division (Juryo) players enter the rink the first time purely for posturing, then step out, grab a fist full of salt which they throw on the dohyo then re-enter, posture some more and then get it on. The senior (Makuuchi division) players, after some initial jedi sumo, step out of the dohyo for the first time to have a drink (which they spit out), throw salt and re-enter the dohyo. More mind-wrestling, stepping out, more salt, mind wrestling again, back out, this time wiping their faces and various parts of their body with a wet towel (this seemed to be up to the individual, some did just face, others nearly a complete sponge bath - the loin cloths always stayed on though).

The stress was pretty apparent at this point, even from our seats on the far outer edge of the balcony, next to a little old man whose persistent heckling (for the full 7 hours) echoed through the entire hall. At the sponge bath stage, especially with the bigger celebrity rikishis (the wrestlers) the crowd, especially a few groups of very high pitched women (but also the aggressive little old men) started to go crazy. The rikishis throw more salt, step back in, posture briefly and stare off, crouch into their starting positions and carefully lower their fists to the ground. The moment both rikishis have both fists on the ground the match begins. Some rikishis put both fists downs right away and waited for their opponent to make the call. This seemed more the case in the early matches. I wonder if it was a way for the more experienced junior players to give the novices a slight advantage. Among the ranked players they usually put one fist down first, pause and then almost simultaneously touch the second lightly to the ground and charge immediately.

You can watch this on You-tube (I highly recommend you do) but until you have seen it in immense quivering flesh, even from a near birds-eye-view, I suspect you'll have a hard time feeling the rush of it. To see people that size (average about 350lb) move so fast with such balance is truly incredible. It reminded me of Forest Whitaker in Ghost Dog, Way of the Samurai (A Jim Jarmusch movie which really made me want to steal cars for a long time - I should mention, for my NSA readers, that I didn't actually steal any cars).

The rules of the match are deceptively simple. If any part of the player touches outside of the straw boundary of the dohyo, or any part other than the souls of his feat touch the ground anywhere then all is lost. No hair pulling, eye gouging or grasping of family jewels but other than that almost anything goes (unless you are a Mongolian player - I'll get back to this). These simple rules give rise to a very complicated subtle game, which is impossible to grasp with just one days viewing by someone so illiterate in Japanese culture as I. The match itself rarely lasts more than a few seconds. 10 seconds is considered long. We saw a few that seemed to last as long as 20 seconds, but that was after watching over a 100 matches. In three of the matches the winner was unclear. The judges (one on each side of the dhoyo, with two on the side where the referee stands) got up and convened on the dhoyo for almost a minute. In every case they announced a rematch. Many times players got thrown or fell onto the judges or the ring-side audience.

Aside from the microphone used by the announcer (and occasionally the head judge) and the cameras used by journalists there were no other electronics involved. The Dhoyo was prepared and resurfaced meticulously by a group of men in colour coded traditional dress who with a variety of brooms and sprinkles of water would resurface the clay in flowing elegant movements, quite mesmerizing on their own.

Sumo is big money. The matches are usually sold out even though most are during weekdays (most of the seats remain empty though until the early afternoon when the ranked players come in). While the junior players seem to live in near poverty, the senior players have salaries on the order of 100 Million yen ($1M USD) plus various sponsorships and merchandise deals. Towards the end when the highest ranked rikishis are fighting, the mental wrestling rounds are interjected with a group of attendants walking around the ring holding printed banners of advertisers, some with 2 or 3 identical banners in a row. No LCDs or permanent posters. Usually there were only one or two but for the last couple of matches there were almost ten.

One interesting and controversial aspect of sumo that exposes Japanese xenophobia is the inclusion of foreign players. This started in the 1980s when a few Hawaiian and Samoan players entered the stables (the training schools are called stables and from what I've read the conditions can be similar) and reached high levels mainly due to their heft (~500 lbs; average in general is ~350lb), but none was ever allowed to reach the highest rank. Currently Mongolian wrestlers dominate the highest ranks of the sport. Both of the current Okozuna, the highest ranking players, are Mongolian. To protect the 'Japanese essence' of the sport the government only allows one foreign ranked player in each stable. If not for that rule the sport would likely be take over by Mongolian players at every level, in part due to their remarkable skill (they grow up wrestling the way Brazilians grow up playing football - many of their moves, despite meeting original sumo rules, were banned by the Sumo association to even the playing field) and their high interest in the sport (for a Mongolian youth the economic and career prospects of sumo far outweigh most currently available options) compared to the lack of interest from dwindling Japanese youth population. Mongolians are not the only group of non-Japanese players. Of the top 25 players almost half are not Japanese. Yesterday we saw Mongolian, Czech, Chinese and Brazilian players, all well concealed behind their Japanese names. One specially interesting guy to watch should you be so inclined is Takanoyama ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Takanoyama ), a Czech wrestler (now slightly past his prime) who weighs only 90 kg -so sumo wrestling is still a possible career move for me- but has defeated wrestlers three time his size. He is also seems to be a favourite of the high-pitched Japanese ladies.

Finally I should mention the crowd of rowdy American businessmen with fists full of cash, betting on the matches.

See also: The Globalization of Sumo or Why Fat Guys From Around the World Want to Wrestle in Diapers and Why That's a Good Thing by Ethan Zuckerman ( http://www.slideshare.net/ethanz/sumo-16107966 )