Where Giants Dance and Crash in Japan
By ALIDA BECKER
Published: January 20, 2010
AT the edge of the balcony, a tiny woman was screaming. The elderly couple in the next row were jumping up and down. Below us, all around the ring at the Kokugikan, Japan’s national sumo stadium in Tokyo, a roaring crowd hurled seat cushions into the air. My husband and I looked at each other in amazement. After two weeks of travel among the intently well-behaved, rigorously unflappable Japanese, were we about to have a peek behind that decorous facade?
Well, yes and no.
Certainly the huge, nearly naked wrestlers had little to hide. But even in their diaper-like loincloths, they maintained a dignified swagger. And while the crowd erupted in spontaneous shouts and demonstrations, the competition was carefully choreographed, full of rituals and pageantry. Nobody argued with the referee, not even the loud fan in the back who had brought an ample supply of beer. As for the apparently no-holds-barred wrestling — a flurry of pushing and grappling, like a skirmish between the schoolyard’s two biggest bullies — it was preceded and concluded by courtly bowing.
Like so much we’d already encountered in Japan, sumo turned out to be a mix of the seemingly approachable and the utterly confounding. It’s hard, after all, to let your hair down when it’s arranged in a topknot whose traditional shape hasn’t changed for centuries.
If cricket is a slow-moving mystery to most Americans, then sumo — in which bouts are usually over in a matter of seconds — is a puzzlement of a whole different order. The basic goal is simple: force your opponent to be the first either to step out of the roughly 15-foot-diameter ring or touch the ground with anything but the soles of his feet. The sport has been based in the Ryogoku neighborhood of Tokyo, on the east bank of the Sumida River, since the 17th century, although the 1980s-era stadium, which seats 11,000, looks as if it might have been teleported from Cleveland or Omaha. Except, of course, for the drum tower out front, a flimsy box on stilts where men bang out a fierce rhythm high above the crowds.
Inside, past the women handing out souvenir fans and the concessions selling hot dogs, a first glimpse of the ring brings back memories of the old Spectrum in Philadelphia. But unlike Mike Tyson or Marvin Hagler, these gigantic brawlers retreat to their corners not to be toweled off and patched up but to toss around handfuls of purifying salt and sip water from a bamboo ladle, then delicately pat their mouths on a folded cloth. The referee, dressed in a brilliantly colored kimono complete with a tall black headdress and a ceremonial fan, might have wandered in from the set of a Kabuki play. Up above him, where a Jumbotron might be, is the stylized roof of a Shinto shrine.
And that’s where the real explanations begin: sumo’s roots lie far back in Japanese history, as a performance to entertain and appease the spirits of Shinto, the animistic native religion whose shrines are still tended throughout the country, often co-existing with Buddhist temples. Established as a court ritual in medieval Japan, sumo wrestling gradually became a means of employment for samurai warriors in times of peace and emerged as a professional sport in the early 20th century.
Even now, though, it can seem to the outsider like a highly stylized kind of performance art. There’s a strangely lulling rhythm to the parades of contestants, the marching displays of the sponsors’ banners, the solemn recitations, even the ferocious stomping and high sideways kicking before the individual wrestlers square off. Then, in an instant, the pace changes: there’s a flurry of movement, and one wrestler is hurriedly sent off in defeat. (To add insult to injury, the loser is called the shini-tai, or “dead body.”)
Sumo is both high-stakes and hierarchical. The wrestlers live in training stables near the stadium, each one run by a master who regulates everything from what they can eat to what they can wear. Junior members act as servants to more highly rated wrestlers and enter the sport at the lowest level of its six divisions. They can move up only by performing well in the half-dozen tournaments held throughout the year — and, in the same way, their superiors can be bumped down.
Each tournament lasts 15 days, with the lowest-ranking entrants beginning competition at 8:30 in the morning. The audience grows as the day progresses, with the top two divisions competing from midafternoon until around 6 in the evening. There are no weight classes, but finesse can sometimes foil sheer bulk: an agile smaller wrestler, if he’s sufficiently skilled, can catch a 400-pound behemoth off balance. Then again, that jelly-bellied guy who looks like Santa on steroids may have the arms and legs of a body builder. Good luck getting him to move even an inch.
Foreigners can be admitted to sumo stables, but the sport’s governing body has acted to limit their numbers. The two currently active yokozuna, or grand champions, are from Mongolia, and among their strongest challengers are wrestlers from Bulgaria and Georgia. In 1993, Chad Rowan, a Hawaiian fighting under the name Akebono, became the first foreign-born competitor to achieve grand-champion status.
And what about the tournament we attended in September? That pillow-throwing melee was caused by the upset of a Mongolian favorite, who on the final day ended up tied with his rival at 14 wins and 1 loss each. In a playoff, the baby-faced yokozuna called Asashoryu celebrated his 29th birthday by collecting his 24th championship cup, using what The Japan Times described as “an underhanded frontal belt grip” and a “beltless arm throw.”
I’m still not entirely sure what that involves. But I am sure it’s not the sort of thing you ought to try at home.
DRUMS, PAGEANTRY AND BOWS
Championship sumo tournaments are held six times a year, rotating among Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka. For the current Tokyo tournament, which ends Jan. 24, tickets ranged in price from 14,300 Japanese yen, or about $154 at a rate of 89 yen to the dollar, for ringside boxes with Japanese-style seating (on the floor) to 2,100 yen, or about $23, for general admission in the balcony, where the seating is Western style. The next tournament starts March 14 in Osaka.
The English-language Web site of the Grand Sumo Association (sumo.or.jp/eng/) has detailed — and somewhat mind-boggling — information on how and when tickets may be bought. The Lawson and FamilyMart convenience stores in Tokyo also sell tickets, as does the Japan Travel Bureau, a national tourist agency with offices throughout the country (jtbusa.com/en/default.asp). In addition, hotel concierges can usually arrange tickets for early tournament rounds on fairly short notice.
The Web site of The Japan Times, a daily English-language newspaper, provides useful background reporting as well as maps and directions to the sumo stadiums, at japantimes.co.jp/sports/sumo_schedule.html.