Sumo in Japan

Thursday, January 10, 2008

In wooing his mate, a male pigeon fluffs up his feathers to make himself look larger than he really is. Hey baby, look at me! I’m the biggest bird on the block!

Likewise, a sumo wrestler strikes dramatic poses when he confronts his opponent before a bout. Squatting with legs akimbo and arms spread wide, his body language says, Behold! I’m huge! You haven’t got a chance.

Then he draws himself up to his full height, which in the case of one of the current champs is 204 cm (6′8″). Leaning his enormous torso to one side, he raises his opposite leg high into the air. The message is clear. My bulk may be equal to that of your whole family, but I’m still agile enough to balance it on one foot! Prepare to lose!

At least, that’s how I’ve always interpreted the posturing of sumo wrestlers about to fight. On a psychological level I’m sure it actually works that way — the glaring titans certainly make the most of it — but I recently learned that the historical purpose of these gestures was to make the combatants look LESS threatening.

A dozen centuries ago, sumo was a form of dueling. Noblemen with a dispute would send a couple of their bodyguards into the ring to sort things out. The original purpose of the arm-spreading and leg-lifting routine was to show that neither fighter had any weapons concealed on his person. (This may also explain why they fight in a state of near-nakedness.)

I learned this interesting tidbit last month when I attended a sumo basho, or tournament, for the first time. There are six basho every year, and half of them are held in Tokyo at a venue near Ryogoku station on the Sobu Line. The others are held in different regions of Japan. Another interesting fact I learned — the hard way — is that the cheapest seats are the best. The others get you only slightly closer to the action for a much higher price. Luckily, the arena is so small that even the nosebleed seats offer a pretty good view.

At 2,100 yen ($19.80 or 19.80 euros), the cheap seats at a basho may be the best entertainment value in Japan. The first match among the lowest-ranking rikishi (wrestlers) is at 8:00 in the morning, and the fights don’t stop until the yokozuna superstars do their thing at 6:00 in the evening. You may stay for as long as you like, but if you leave the building they won’t let you back in.

Fortunately, there’s no reason to leave. There’s a small restaurant in the building, and the two snack bars provide a decent array of munchies that can be washed down with the available beer, sake, and whiskey. You can also buy a wide range of “sumo-nirs”

– thanks to my friend Tony for that awful pun — including autographed posters, framed handprints of big-name rikishi, and even a set of chocolate sumo dolls. I found sumo to be fun from the very start, but I couldn’t help noticing that my own enthusiasm increased after I had polished off a bottle of sake and a bag of shredded squid. After my sumo companions and I finished a round of salami and beer, we were well primed to root for the yokozuna.

Rikishi are divided into numerous ranks, with yokozuna being such an exalted one that there are times when no one holds it. In the past three centuries there have only been about 60 yokozuna. Currently there are four, which has led more than a few observers to conclude that the sport is top-heavy at the moment, and that perhaps the rank is being awarded too often. To become a yokozuna, a rikishi must win two consecutive basho and display certain intangible qualities to impress the authorities of the sport. A decade ago, modern sumo’s most beloved figure (and the fattest rikishi ever), the American-born Konishiki, complained that racism was behind his failure to attain yokozuna status despite the numerous tournaments he had won. He may have had a point at the time — no gaijin had ever made it as far as he had, and some officials were openly uncomfortable about it — but this is no longer the problem it was. Two of the current yokozuna, Musashimaru and Akebono, are hulking Hawaiians, and the prestigious ranks just below yokozuna include another American, an Argentine, and two Mongolians. Meanwhile, Konishiki has gone on to become a very successful television personality.

Sumo is sometimes derided by Westerners as fat men in diapers shoving each other, but anyone who actually sees it and pays attention soon discovers otherwise. Some matches are decided by mere shoving, but most involve an array of techniques such as feints, holds, and throws that are much more interesting to watch. The loser is the one who is forced out of the dohyo (ring) or who touches the ground with any part of his body other than his feet.

Sometimes a rikishi is forced to the very edge of the dohyo, which has a slightly raised border. Gripping the border with his toes, he can make one last effort to save himself from being shoved out, and he sometimes succeeds. The crowd goes wild when this happens. Another technique for a wrestler in this desperate spot is to deliberately fling himself backwards out of the ring, pulling his opponent with him. Executing a twist as he falls, he tries to make his opponent hit the ground first. Most matches are over in seconds, but others go through several reversals before being finally decided. One match that my friends and I watched was so close — the wrestlers hit the ground side by side at the exact same moment — that the judges ordered them to start over.

The notion that sumo wrestlers are fat is largely true, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. In moments of exertion it is often possible to see muscles rise out of the fat like great fish rising to the surface of the water — and then submerging again. This is especially true on the arms. Also, it is surprising how often the belt of a rikishi’ s loincloth looks a surreal dividing line between two completely different people. Since the most strenuous part of sumo is propelling a heavy opponent away from oneself, rikishi often have impressively muscled buttocks, hamstrings, and calves, regardless of the fat that may be riding around their top halves.

Ten years ago, during my first period of residence in Japan (I’m in my second now), it seemed as if sumo wrestlers would soon be muscular all over their entire bodies. The biggest star of the time, outshining even Konishiki, was a guy named Chiyonofuji. He had dislocated one of his shoulders several times, and had taken up weightlifting in the hope that larger muscles would shield the joint from further injury. As a result, he had a truly distinctive physique gave him more in common with bodybuilders than with his fellow rikishi. Everyone back then wondered who would represent the future of sumo: the ultra-fat Konishiki or the ultra-buff Chiyonofuji?

The jury is still out on that question, but the Konishiki camp has the definite edge. Most of today’ s rikishi are simply enormous, especially in the top ranks. Takanohana, one of the reigning yokozuna, is like many of today’s rikishi in that he has characteristics of both types: a roundish belly but powerful shoulders. Several others, though, are clearly in the Konishiki mold. Fellow yokozuna Musashimaru and Akebono, for example, weigh 224 kg (494 pounds) and 235 kg (518 pounds) respectively. Musashimaru looks like a bear getting ready to hibernate, and Akebono had large breasts that flow around to form silhouette-altering rolls of fat under his armpits. The up-and-coming Miyabiyama, who has scored several amazing upset victories lately, weighs 177 kg (390 pounds) at the age of 22 and has a pear-shaped body topped with a pear-shaped head.

The one wrestler in the elite division who clearly follows in Chiyonofuji’s footsteps is Terao, who is 111kg (245 pounds) of nearly solid muscle. He’s a big favorite with the crowd. He’s one of my favorites too because he’s still going strong at the age of 36, making him the oldest active rikishi by far. Terao looks like he’s 25. In contrast, the 28-year-old Musashimaru looks like he’s in his 60s and will probably have his first heart attack before his reaches Terao’s current age.

One possibly hopeful sign for the future is that the anonymous wrestlers of the lower ranks who fought in the early hours of the tournament include a many more who are muscular than who are fat. It will be a good thing, in my view, if these are the ones who move up in the seasons to come.