Sumo wrestling poses a great question.
Is it an ancient and revered martial art that is adored by its aficionados and greatly respected in Japan? A true martial combat that is all about strength and manoeuvring; with participants that are honoured and respected individuals.
Is it a sport where two fat guys slap and push each other?
The answer is it is both and it is fantastic.
Saturday the 15th of March (yeah, sorry it took so long to get this post up) I had the great privilege to watch a live sumo wrestling game in Osaka. I was immensely excited. Although sumo itself is not something I came to Japan to see it is exactly the kind of thing that I came to Japan for. Unique experiences of another culture that I simply couldn’t have anywhere else.
Sumo is a sport unlike any other in that it hasn’t become tainted by commercialism and the desire for money. Instead all the ancient rituals and pseudo-religious ceremonies associated with the sport remain intact and it is a much more arresting visual spectacle and a much more interesting sport for it.
The one concession I saw to commercialisation was that some wrestlers have endorsements. However even these are wonderfully arcane and ceremonial. Before matches begin several attendants walk around the ring carrying flags and banners on which only kanji and embroidery are permitted. This is all the advertising he is allowed and then the game resumes. There is something brilliantly ironic about a mobile phone company resorting to waving cloth banners around in order to advertise. Other than this though Sumo is the most ceremonial sport in the world.
And make no mistake, to the Japanese people sumo is more than a mere sport. According to Japanese legend sumo is part of the very origin of the Japanese people.
As legend would have it the Japanese were just one of many people’s living on the islands of Japan. The right to supremacy over the island was decided by a sumo bout between the god Takemikazuchi and the leader of a rival tribe. I know football is important in the U.K. but we certainly don’t have any legends of Viking conquerors winning fair albion off the Saxons in a penalty shoot out.
The intrepid explorers off to witness this most ancient of sport consisted of myself, Fran (my girlfriend), Ryan (well known to readers of this blog), Yuko, Farrah, Dustin North, Ovando and his wife Memery (whose name is quite easy to remember). We set off with high hopes and not much knowledge (bar Ryan who is a bit of a sumo –fan) to Osaka.
The excitement began long before we actually got inside the stadium because no sooner should we arrive than a taxi should pull up and out would emerge one of the most enormous men I have ever seen with my own eyes. The wrestlers pull up in cars and arrive at the front entrance as adoring fans take quick photographs of their heroes. This early in the day nobody truly important or famous was arriving but they were all still impressive sights. They are absolutely huge buggers, tall, wide in fact the most accurate expression is probably “great of girth”.
This provided the first laugh of the day as one taxi pulled up and an endless stream of enormous men emerged from it. Honeslty it was like one of thos clown cars at the circus. We simply couldn’t believe how many sumo wrestlers you can get in one taxi.
Their hair is also incredibly impressive. It’s absolutely rock solid and tied up in a kind of top-knot. Apparently this offers some sort of head protection in the case of falls but it is mostly intended to look fierce. Up close I can tell you it certainly does that.
Sumo wrestlers must wear traditional Japanese dress at all times in public. They can never just step out to a club in a pair of jeans and a shirt but must always wear Yukata and Kimono. This isn’t to say some sumo wrestlers don’t go wandering around in normal togs but it is highly frowned upon. This kind of dedication to your chosen profession, to the extent that it influences aspects of your life at all times, is something I think is uniquely eastern. Can you imagine if footballers had to wear their team colours at all times for example? But sumo wrestlers (or rikishi) aren’t just athletes they’re living emblems of the martial culture of Japan and the pressure on them is enormous.
We wandered into the arena and took our seats (good seats too right smack dab in the centre, shame it was on the wrong side) and began stage one of sumo enjoyment.
Sumo bouts only last a matter of seconds but to compensate there are a lot of them. The tournament lasts 15 days and on the day we went matches were being played from 8.30 in the morning until 6.00 at night. The quality and rank of the rikishi progressed throughout the day and as the rank of the rikishi changes the nature of the match changes. The early wrestlers are all professionals but are fairly junior and a lot of the ceremonial aspects of sumo are denied to them because of this. This means that the junior matches are, if anything, even quicker, and a good 40 bouts flashes by in only a few hours.
Stage one of sumo enjoyment then is marked principally by sitting around with friends drinking and eating and having a laugh, punctuated by short periods of paying attention to girthy men hitting each other and then resuming the general amiable air. As ways to pass an early afternoon there are few finer.
During Stage 2 concentration on the actual bouts become more focused as the quality of the wrestlers improves and the nature of the game changes dramatically.
Firstly there is the ceremony of the entrance of the rikishi, also known as the dohyo-iri. The dohyo is the area on witch the bout is played. It is a clay platform 18 feet square and 2 feet high. Bag of rice are buried in the clay to form a circle and 2 starting lines. Above the dohyo is suspended a roof that is made to look like the roof of a Shinto shrine (originally sumo was fought on the platforms in shrines). In each corner of the roof is a tassel denoting one of the four seasons.
In the dohyo-iri rikishi from the East and West teams enter the dohyo and form a circle facing outwards. The rikishi are dressed in the traditional garb of sumo. They are wearing a silken loincloth called a mawashi that is very similar to the fundoshi that I wore for the naked man festival. The main difference is that the mawashi is made of silk and has decorative strings dangling from the front. During the dohyo-iri the rikishi have a patterned cloth dangling from their mawashi like an apron. These are fantastically ornate things inlaid with embroidery and sometimes gold. The sight of all these brilliant ornate costumes is both colourful and impressive; two words that pretty much sum up sumo for me.
After standing around for a bit looking mean the rikishi do a very short dance (including one adorable bit where they all lift up their little aprons simultaneously, somewhat detracting from the warrior image) and then leave the dohyo so the FIGHTING can begin.
In a sumo bout both players start on the lines inside the circle in the dohyo. When both wrestlers are psychologically prepared they crash into each other and begin to grapple. A player loses if any part of his body except his feet touches the floor of the dohyo or if he steps outside of the circle.
However before this the rikishi engage in a short bout of psychological warfare.
First both players scatter salt (a ceremony known as shio-maki) to purify the ring. This is solely the right of the more experienced sumo and junior wrestlers are not allowed to do this. Rikishi will also wash their mouths with water and wipe themselves with a paper towel to purify their bodies.
Secondly both players stamp their feet on the ground to chase away evil spirits and do several gestures known as chiri-o-kiru to demonstrate to the gods that they have no concealed weapons.
Thirdly the rikishi approach the mark and adopt a posture of peaceful submission.
Fourthly when both players have reached the mark each player crouches low to the ground and prepares to strike. A rikishi may place one or both hands on the dohyo.
Finally when both players have touched the ground with both hands one player may raise his hands and power forward for the initial strike known as the tach-ai. If the player being struck does not raise his hands to defend himself he is deemed not to be ready and both players resume the procedure again.
The beauty of this ceremony though is that at any time between stage 4 and the tachi-ai a player can simply start the process again. Getting up to go scatter more salt, glaring fiercely at his opponent, deliberately charging early to unnerve him anything goes and it’s all intended to psyche-out the other rikishi and win before a single blow is exchanged. Well anything goes for 4 minutes anyway, after which time the match must begin, but during which time the crowd get psyched up.
As I say sumo matches are over in seconds, but what makes them so watchable is all the ceremony beforehand. A good rikishi is as much a showman as sportsman. Building anticipation until the crowd is in an absolute frenzy awaiting the tachi-ai.
Actual combat varies from player to player. Some favour grappling techniques, grabbing hold of the opponent’s mawashi and manoeuvring to throw him to the ground. Some simply use brute strength and force their opponents back or use their opponent’s strength against them leveraging his momentum into a throw (one guy simply stepped backward and the over-balanced attacker fell over). Still others favour a form of combat that, well my friend Dustin probably put it best when he asked why they were cat fighting.
As you can see above, it is a very slappy game.
Stage 2 of sumo enjoyment was marked by an increasing focus on the actual sport we paid to see but no less talking, camaraderie or drinking. However stage 3 was much more intense.
Up until now we had only been watching the very junior wrestlers and the lower ranked rikishi (known as Juryo). However now it was the time for the big boys, the Makuuchi.
The Makuuchi dohyo-iri was the same as for the Juryo with one marked difference. After the Makuuchi entered the ring it was the turn of the two highest ranked wrestlers in the tournament, in fact two of the highest ranked wrestlers in Japanese history. Hakuho and Asashoryu the Yokozuna.
To become a Yokozuna one must win two tournaments consecutively. In the 300 years since the formation of the Yokozuna class only 60 rikishi have ever been awarded the honour, and here we were lucky enough to see two of them on the same day. Oddly enough both Mongolians.
Being part of the Yokozuna class has two major benefits. Firstly a rikishi in another class may go up or go down a class depending on his performance. Do badly and you get demoted, do well and promotion beckons. However a Yokozuna is a Yokozuna (or grand-champion) forever and can never be demoted. The flip side to this is that if a Yokozuna is doing badly it is tacitly understood that he should resign before he embarrasses the sport. Fortunately neither of the two Yokozuna I saw shall be resigning any time soon as both won their matches with ease.
The second advantage is that Yokozuna have a special version of the dohyo-iri. Flanked by two attendants, one of which carries a samurai sword (katana) and dressed in a special mawashi with a knotted rope at the back and zigzag paper on the front the Yokozuna performs a special dance to cleanse and purify the ring.
You can watch Asashoryu do the dance above.
The Makuuchi matches were much, much more intense than the previous bouts. The arena had been largely empty all day but by this point it was absolutely packed and full of Japanese people screaming encouragement to their favourite wrestlers. The atmosphere before each clash was unbelievably tense and it was impossible not to get swept up in it all.
A particular fan favourite was this guy. Takamisakari also known as Robocop due to his strange way of walking. The crowd absolutely loved him, especially one little girl whom Fran thought was really cute, and he really got them pumped up. Won his match too.
Another fave was Kotooshu a Bulgarian also known as “the David Beckham of Sumo” which must be a little bit demeaning. Rikishi choose their own names when they become rikishi and Kotooshu as a Bulgarian chose “Black Sea”. Ryan likes him so much he got his picture.
Following the actual fighting a final ceremony is performed. This is known as the bow dance or yumitori-shiki. In anicent sumo tournaments winning rikishi would be awarded a traditional Japanese bow (known as a yumi). In gratitude for this prize the rikishi would perform a ceremonial dance with the bow. Now the dance has endured and has come to symbolise gratitude by those rikishi that were victorious this day.
Yumi are absolutely enormous by the way. Longer even than most longbows at a whopping 2 metres plus in length. The yumitori involves twirling the yumi round and making striking gestures with it as if it were a sword. This was actually one of my favourite parts of the whole day and it was really interesting to see such a huge guy move so gracefully.
Enjoying sumo Stage 4.
Leave, buy souvenirs, go into Osaka, argue about where you want to eat, eat huge and delicious burger, play taiko drumming game in Namco land, go home and generally enjoy a fantastic sport that I feel privileged to have seen.
All in all a pretty fantastic experience.