Sumo-the image conjured up in many gaijin minds is that of a couple of overweight guys in adult diapers belly-bumping each other until one of man falls off a raised platform like a drunken Baby Huey. As a martial artist, I never really thought of sumo in that way, but I get why others would. Still, as a martial artist it was difficult for me to classify sumo as more than simple wrestling and not even on the level of WWF. I mean, there didn’t appear to be any punching and kicking. How can something be called fighting if there’s no punching and kicking? Like many people, I dismissed sumo as another Japanese cultural idiosyncrasy. And as with so many of my closed minded impressions, I was wrong. When I came to Japan in early 2011, I thought it might be fun to watch sumo in person. My motivation was that it was something unique to Japan and therefore something not many people in the US would know about. I saw it as a conversation starter and I’m always on the lookout for those. What I didn’t anticipate was falling in love with the sport. And although many people think that sumo fighters (rikishi 力士) are not athletes because of their apparent beer-bellies, nothing could be farther from the truth. These guys are like cheap toilet paper—“rough, tough and don’t take no crap.”
My first sumo event resulted from a kind invitation from my friends in Tokyo. It was a splendid May day in 2011 when I arrived at the Ryogoku Kokugikan (Sumo Hall) in Tokyo for the Natsu basho or summer tournament. The train ride to the stadium from Hamamatsucho station was like every other train ride—crowded and on time. But it was after the train ride that the magic began. And it affected all eight of the people in our group. The area outside of the Kokugikan was full of activity; a symbol of the events about to take place inside. There are murals of sumo wrestlers outside and of course we all had to have our pictures taken. Then a couple of the guys I was with started to play wrestle even though they were half the size and twice the age of the real sumo wrestlers. But it was something in the air that brought out the feeling of being more than an observer and the feeling was infectious. Inside, we stopped at one of the many vendor stalls and to my surprise each of us was given two shopping bags full of food and gifts. Thankfully, our Japanese host was able to explain that these bags came as part of our package. We made our way to our ‘seats’ which weren’t seats in the usual sense. They were cushions on a floor surrounded by a low metal rail. There were four cushions to a box and they were definitely not size-allocated for Americans, especially Americans toting two shopping bags full of goodies. But we squeezed in and whatever discomfort we felt was soon demolished by the actual event. We watched in awe as rikishi after rikishi slammed into each other with the force of freight trains colliding. And then they had enough energy to grab the belt (mawashi) and throw, twist or shove the opponent down or out of the dohyo (raised clay sumo ring). We were a few rows up and I was glad we were when one of the 150 kg giants rolled onto the people in the rows right next to the ring. I was surprised no spectator was crushed during the event and certainly it wouldn’t work like this in the US. In the US there would be ambulances on hand and lawsuits after the fact if some giant athlete fell on somebody other than another competitor. But that’s part of sumo. Like many things in Japan, one takes personal responsibility for their own behavior, including being crushed by a sumo wrestler when sitting in the front row. As the bouts progressed during my first sumo experience, I realized the athleticism and the skill required to do sumo. From my own martial arts knowledge, I could see the many intricacies involved. Beyond the initial rush (tachi-ai) and then the reaching for the mawashi (I imagined it took somebody with a master’s degree in mechanical engineering had to tie the belt so it didn’t fall off during the bout—which would be an embarrassing wardrobe malfunction), there was a battle for leverage and a display of strength uncommon to most sports. In sumo, there are 82 different kimarite （決まり手） or winning techniques. I didn’t know this at the time of my first tournament but I was so intrigued after what I had seen that I needed to learn more. And learn I did. I learned the names of the wrestlers from the great and powerful Yokazuna Hakuho to the relatively diminutive Takanoyama who is about half the weight of Hakuho. I ate chankonabe, the sumo stew used to put on weight (but I only had one bowl so I’m not quite sumo-sized…yet). I studied the 82 winning techniques and tried to call them out before the announcers on television did. I researched and found that the best rikishi can make a couple of a million dollars a year while those in the lower echelons make nothing unless they win. I found out that all sumo wrestlers can be demoted except the highest rank (yokazuna) who are made to retire if their performance slips. I also learned that although sumo is called Japan’s national sport, relatively few Japanese have actually been to a tournament even though there are three per year in Tokyo and three more throughout Japan. Some watch it on NHK, which can also be done in the US, but actually going and watching live should be considered a rite of passage in Japan. Hearing the sounds of the initial clash or the crowd chanting the name of their favorite wrestlers doesn’t translate well on television. You have to see it in person to feel the full effect and gain the real appreciation.
I could go on for hours talking or writing about sumo and if you ever meet me you might have to endure that. In this case, I’ll spare you any more of my enthusiasm for sumo and advise you to take a look at this video:
I wasn’t at that particular tournament but I did see it on NHK. To me, it illustrates the raw and visceral moment that is sumo. And it has my favorite sumo wrestler—the great Hakuho.
I hope to see you at the Ryogoku Kokugikan during my next visit to Japan. Until then, go see sumo. It can be life changing—especially in the front row.