From: Peter Rivard
Date: Tue Mar 25, 2003 12:01:02 AM Japan
To: Newsletter
Subject: Sumo

Hi, all,

       Well, I've finally taken in one of the "must-sees" of Japanese life--sumo. I spent a day at the big spring tournament in Osaka. Although I'd seen enough of it on TV to be sure I could survive a whole day of it, I was surprised at how interesting and enjoyable it was. The more I watched (and I watched from the beginning of the lowest ranked wrestlers, starting at 11:30, all the way through to a bout with a yokozuna, a grand champion, a little before 6), the more I saw that there is indeed strategy and technique involved. The earlier bouts give a good opportunity to figure out what's going on, since the lower-level wrestlers aren't allowed any ritual screwing around. The announcer chants an invocation (to them? to the gods? to his kids listening at home?), the two men step up to the dohyo (a fifteen foot ring of small rice sacks set on an 18 foot square clay platform raised about 2 feet off the stadium floor, centered under a shinto shrine roof suspended from the ceiling by cables) and bow to each other (having earlier bowed to the ref and the judges), the elaborately garbed referee barks a command and shakes his fan, and the two men go at it. Using a variety of techniques for gaining control of his opponent's momentum, or sometimes just brute strength and bulk, one pushes the other out of the ring or forces him to the ground, usually within 30 seconds. Either they both charge and the bout ends quickly, or they lock together in a test of strength and agility; sometimes, there's an impressive amount of open-handed hitting; a favorite technique is to grab your opponent by the sides or back of his mawashi (thong/loincloth) to try to twist him off balance. Generally, after all this, at least in the lower ranks, if the two are within about 70 pounds of each other, the guy with the bigger boobs loses. Don't know why (this correlation didn't hold for the higher ranks). During these earlier rounds, I saw a few wrestlers not much larger than me (which was distressing), but they mostly got steamrolled. One 200 pounder did manage to force a 400 pounder out, though--everyone gasped with shock at that. Besides smaller and vastly less-skilled wrestlers, the early rounds also feature more homey touches. After the second bout of the day, the winner's mom called out from the mostly empty arena, "Yay, Takashi!" She didn't even remember to use his sumo name. How embarrassing!
       From about 2:45, the lower ranks of the true pros come in. This is where the "ritual screwing around" mentioned above comes into play. The pros have various rights and duties. First, they get to have a little ceremony before the wrestling; after some chanting and to music, they form a circle around the ring, facing each other, and go through ritualized motions, some of which seem clearly designed to show that they're not carrying weapons. I noticed than that they were wearing more than just the usual thongs--they had aprons, another right restricted to the pros. They are also allowed a more elaborate hair-style. And, of course, they are much bigger fellas. On entering the ring, they are allowed to throw salt to purify it and protect them from injury. Another of their rights is to start the bout when they feel like it (within reason, which in sumo is 4 minutes after the ref first says go). They square off, hunched down like bulls about to charge, glare at each other, then abruptly stand, waddle off to their corners, ritually rub themselves down with paper, and toss more sand (as nonchalantly as they can manage) as they reenter the ring and square up against each other again. They do this several times, up to the 4 minute limit (you can tell by the ref's stance when they're at the end of the allowed time and will actually start). The interesting thing is that the audience pays close attention to these glares and aborted starts; after an especially skillful decision to back off and get more salt, the audience roars its approval. After another hour of their bouts, the top four ranks have their entrance ceremony (same as above) and start to wrestle. The top two of those ranks (I think) are further allowed a mini-version of the entrance ceremony whenever they enter the ring to fight, featuring an impressive leg lift into a ritual stomp, and the top rank (usually only two or three are active at any point), the yokozuna, has quite an impressive one for his first entrance. He is accompanied by a sword bearer and a something-else bearer and wears around his apron a 6"-thick rope from which hang zig-zag strips of paper. As yokozuna are generally the size of taxicabs, their entrances are especially dramatic.
       From a lot of these details and others--the chanting, the elaborate rituals, precise rules on how to move before and after a bout, the ancient dress--not only the wrestlers' thongs (which the wrestler can neither change nor wash during a fifteen day tournament) but the refs' shinto priest outfits and the judges' kimonos in the style of lords a thousand years ago--the zigzags of paper, the shrine roof, the chanting and music--it becomes clear that sumo is more than just a sport. Although most people watch it for the sporting aspects--will their favorite win?--sumo is at heart a religious ritual, and the religious aspects of it contribute significantly to the spirit of the event. The ritual doesn't get tiresome because it becomes an integral part of the mood of the event, a calm counterbalance to the excitement of the bouts. I appreciated the spirit of the ritual, but I honestly don't have much idea what it all means.
       The ritual aspects contribute greatly to the experience, but other sights and sounds are striking, too. The most obvious is the spectacle of a hundred or so really fat guys in thongs. After a few hours, one becomes quite an expert on the several types of man-boobies. One realizes that the claim that only women get cellulite is, indeed, a myth, and that some Asian men do, indeed, manage quite a crop of body hair. I'd guess that 350 pounds is a decent size for an upper-rank wrestler, but there were a couple of men a good hundred pounds beyond that. And what they do is indeed athletic, and they do indeed carry a lot of muscle under all that dripping, jiggling fat; however, when a bout at the upper levels goes for more than a minute, you can tell that those fat bodies are being strained beyond what they can really handle--one finds oneself wondering how much the heart of a 450 pound man can take, and if that limit is about to be reached. A sports arena with ashtrays is another Japanese touch (as is cramming a couple thousand people into a small arena on plywood scaffolding with buckets of water for fire protection). Most of the audience sits on the ground, on cushions in little boxes of four (even at the same height Japanese have shorter legs than most other people; my 6'6" friend's legs alone would fill one of these four person boxes, while my own are long enough that two of me would be a tight fit). You can bring an entire meal with you, or buy a deluxe box lunch there, which I did. While I had only one beer to wash down my lunch, the guy next to me consumed at least a six-pack over the last three hours; other people had sake and rice whickey. Finally, as the tension builds toward the final fight, the same chant rings from all four sides of the arena: "aisukurimu wa ikaga desu ka" ("How about some ice cream?"). These people eat squid at baseball games; I was surprised to see that the only snack food sold in the arena for the most traditional Japanese sport is vanilla ice cream. I was also surprised that the ice cream girls (I'd guess high school students) were allowed nearly drown out the chanting and the ref's calls and grunts during the most eagerly watched fights of the day.
       After all that, I have to say that sumo was much more enjoyable than I'd expected; I'd gone in order to experience some culture, but I'd actually go again just for the fun of it. If you're ever planning to do this, I'd recommend showing up about 2 to watch the best bouts of the sub-pros without all the ritual, just so you can see a lot of bouts and figure out the basics of the sport itself, then stay through the rituals and the much better fighters who come out an hour later.


      Oh, yes, my "Japanese" moment of the day. I stepped out to the lobby to buy a bento (box lunch) and saw that they had only one choice. There are all sorts of different bentos: stinky fish, sushi, shrimp, crab, regional specialties, all tofu, fish head surprise, etc., so I asked the seller what kind of food was in the box. She looked me up and down and then said, without the slightest trace of attitude, "Japanese food."
      As a plus, I ran into two wrestlers on the stairs as I was heading down to the lobby--interesting to see them from two feet away. It's probably the closest I've ever been to a nearly naked man of that size.
      The last bit of information. As it is formally considered a religious ritual, sumo can follow ancient religious laws that might run against the normal spirit of the country's laws and the powers that be. In this case, the power that was, the governor of Osaka prefecture, was for the umpteenth time denied a request to open the ceremony--the honor going to a lower-ranked official--because no woman, be she the governor or the emperor, can be allowed to pollute the sacred dohyo (and, yes, a female emperor is in the pipeline).


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