Seeing Sumo tournament an excellent introduction to traditional Japanese sport
My friend Jessie is the kind of person who doesn’t think twice about calling before 10 a.m. on a Saturday to ask if I’d like to spend $150 on a sumo ticket.
And I’m the kind of person who wakes early on weekends, fully prepared to invest in performances involving large men in silk underwear.
Thus, in September, we headed to our first honbasho, 15-day sumo tournament at the Ryogoku Kokugikan stadium in Tokyo. The tournament was the fifth of six annual competitions that determine rankings among the 700 or so wrestlers in Japan’s professional sumo league.
It was the first time the four of us — Jessie, her husband Matt, her brother Scott, and I — had ever seen sumo in person. It also marked the first time we’ve ever paid oodles of money to squeeze into a square on the floor the size of a yoga mat and watch wrestling matches that involved more pomp and circumstance than actual stomach-on-stomach action.
First, let’s get this out of the way. Yes, the wrestlers are naked, save for a tiny slip of silk. If you don’t believe me, consider these three words: No tan lines. Enough said.
Second, and more importantly, the beer was cheap and the whole thing ended on time. I love sports that respect time management and eschew pesky things like commercial breaks and fanatic chickens. I was a little homesick for a T-shirt cannon, but I got over it.
Sumo began centuries ago as a religious ritual that became a part of court ceremony and battlefield prowess. Nowadays, it’s a professional sport complete with corporate sponsorships, fantasy leagues and scandals.
The latest scandal involves one of the two current “grand champions,” a Mongolian man with the wrestling name Asashoryu. He, apparently, feigned injury earlier in the year and didn’t take part in an exhibition tour, only to be filmed playing soccer in his homeland.
As of mid-September, he was suffering fromsome mental illness and had been ordered by sumo officials to stay put at his parents’ spa. There was no mention of how many massages he could have each day.
All this meant that Hakuho, a fellow Mongolian, ruled the dohyo in Tokyo this September. Hakuho is the latest to be named grand champion, or yokozuna. In all of sumo, he’s only the 69th yokozuna, a title that comes with great distinction and absolute tenure. (You can see why the powers-that-be are a little worried about what to do with Asashoryu.)
But before Hakuho entered the ring, we caught about 40 or so other matches. Grand tournaments last 15 days, each one beginning at 8:30 a.m. with the least experienced wrestlers and leading up to the final bout just before 6 p.m.
Our tickets entitled us to the all-day event. Needless to say, we got there at about 3 p.m.
We sat on the outer ring of the ground level, close enough to get excited about the bouts without worrying that one of those massive men might squash us. (Other people apparently paid many oodles more for that luxury.)
Once squeezed into our box, we promptly set out to discern whether we got free stuff. Many people around us had bags full of food, souvenirs, beer and sake. Our tickets, however, did not include a special corporate stamp that entitled us to goody bags. So we settled into the wrestling.
It was fantastic.
Sumo involves quite a bit of grandstanding, something Americans, such as us at least, could fully appreciate. Thighs and stomachs are slapped, salt is thrown, brows are wiped and things are scratched. It’s all in an effort to stomp out evil, prevent injury and fire up the crowd. As is the way with these things, the proudest tummy-whackers were invariably the first to fall.
And when chests and stomachs actually smacked into opponents, we had no trouble hearing the impact from the back of the room. Most matches were over in a matter of seconds, but it was stunning to see such strength. Some men picked up their opponents and tossed them out of the ring. Most losers were pushed out with sheer force. One man managed to hook another man’s leg with his own and up-end him. The loser flew up quickly and landed hard.
On that note, I went looking for beer and found four large bottles for about $20. What sumo lacks in seating it makes up for in souvenirs, and our drinks came with beer-sipping cups emblazoned with sumo wrestlers gone by.
As the afternoon went on, the matches became more important, which means there was money involved. Toward the end, when Hakuho entered the ring, more than 20 banners from sponsors were paraded in front of the crowd. People oohed and awed, and Hakuho quickly dispatched his opponent and collected a pile of white envelopes, all full of money.
At sumo, everyone stays until the end, so we all slowly filed out together. As we sorted our recyclables and waited our turn for the exit, I noticed the time.
“It’s 6:01,” I told Jessie. She smiled. We both love a sporting event that ends on time.
More information on Sumo wrestling
in the beginning: Sumo began as a religious ritual and by the 8th century was included in ceremonies at the courts in Naha and then Kyoto. Over time, it developed from no-holds-barred to a more regimented style of sparring. When the samurai established their capital in Kamakura in 1192, sumo skills were incorporated into the military. In the 1600s, during the Edo period, the merchant classes began to grow in Tokyo and professional sumo groups organized to entertain the masses.
the pros: There are about 700 professional sumo wrestlers divided into six divisions. The highest division is called the Makuuchi and contains only about 40 men. Wrestlers, or rikishi, rise through the ranks by winning the majority of their bouts at six major tournaments each year. The tournaments last for 15 days and each of the top wrestlers competes once a day. Each man competes based on his record, not on his weight or height. The Makuuchi has five levels. The highest level is called yokozuna, grand champion. In 300 years, only 69 men have risen to this rank. A yokozuna cannot lose his rank, but he must retire if he starts performing poorly.
going pro: Life as a professional sumo wrestler is a bit like baseball before night games — basically, the stable owns you. It can set rules about curfews, driving privileges, even chores to be done. Most wrestlers are 20 to 35 years old. They spend their days working out, eating and sleeping, preferably in that order so as to ensure weight gain. They follow strict behavior rules as representatives of the sport.
and you thought Nomar had rituals: Before each bout, wrestlers partake in a series of flesh-slapping, salt-flinging and sweat-wiping activities. First, they drink water to cleanse mind and body. Then they towel off. Next, they scatter salt to purify the ring and protect themselves from injury. Then things get serious. To get the gods’ attention, each man claps his hands together and extends his palms up to show he is carrying no weapons. He lifts one leg dramatically to the side and quickly brings it down to drive evil from the ring. Finally, the two men square off — they squat on their toes and put their fists to the ground. But this initial standoff is still part of the warm-up, and the higher ranks repeat it twice before plowing into each other. This “cold warfare” is intended to psych up each competitor; it’s also meant to raise excitement in the crowd.
don’t blink: Most matches are over in a matter of seconds. To win, the wrestler must either push his opponent out of the ring or cause him to touch the floor of the ring with any part of his body other than his feet. Despite the short duration, there are more than 80 prescribed moves that can bring down an opponent. This kimarite menu and other sumo information can be found at sumo.goo.ne.jp/eng/index.html.
some sumo terms:Banzuke The official listing of rank in ozumo.