On the 20th of November I went with my friend Miss Y and her sister Miss N to view the Grand Sumo Contest in nearby Fukuoka. This event was supposed to be the event when the current grandmaster (Yokozuna), Hakuho, was due to set a world record for consecutive victories; unfortunately he got beaten on the Monday before, so no record viewing. Also, Misses Y and N are teachers at the same Ninja High School, and as you know Ninjas never rest, so they could meet me until 13:30 on the day, which meant we didn’t get to view the full day – we only saw the Makuuchi, the most important Sumo wrestlers, in the last 1.5 hours of the day. Sumo is a bit like a Japanese version of cricket, which means that it is a full-day event where you lounge around, drinking and talking and occasionally noticing that there’s a sport happening in the background. Here is an example of what I mean when I say lounging: Miss Y and I got a “Pair Seat”:
Had we been here all day then just like in an Aussie cricket day, we could have spent the day drinking beers and enjoying the view. Instead we sat on the edge of our seats while the various wrestlers tried to tear each other apart. Here’s an example of two wrestler’s in preparation for the titanic clash:
For those of my readers who aren’t familiar with Sumo (is there any such person left in the world?), the preparatory rituals often take longer than the actual fight, which typically is resolved within 10-20 seconds of its commencement. Some wrestlers make a big show of the preparation, and the crowd is generally as appreciative of the stand-off before the bout as they are of the actual fight. So you see a lot of salt-throwing and not so much person-throwing.
There are certain things about Sumo that I find surprising. Here is a short list…
- Sumo Wrestlers are really big: you get to stand near them at the match (there’s not much security or separation) and they really are big, bigger than the few rugby players I’ve met, giants among men. This is even more striking for Japanese people – I’m small in my own country but big here, and these guys make me feel small.
- The constant flux: Sumo is a serious business – that ring they’re standing in is a significant religious object, kind of like a shrine, and every aspect of the sport is steeped in ritual. But as they prepare for and conduct the fight, there are constant distracting mundanities happening around them – men cleaning up the salt from the ring, new wrestlers entering the area around the ring, people running by. It’s strange to see this holy activity surrounded by such a buzz of normal life
- Lack of professional distance: The Sumo wrestlers move around the outside of the hall with almost no separation between themselves and the crowd – you can actually stand right next to them and take photos as they line up, and see them wandering around the halls around the changing rooms. This is quite different to western sport
- Weakening of the sport: A lot of the victories I saw were oshidashi, that is one person pushing another from the ring. I think this is the easiest way to win a fight and I think it indicates a slow loss of skill in the sport. I think in previous eras there was more agility and skill, and I wonder if the size-related arms race has led to a loss of delicacy and finesse in the sport
- Intrusion of the everyday: As Hakuho, the grand master, was preparing for his bout lines of men entered the edge of the ring and walked around carrying banners advertising Tea Rice and McDonalds. These men were so numerous and their line so long that they actually interfered with Hakuho’s preparations – he was retreating to the salt bin but had to wait for the advertisers to pass! This happened twice in the run up to his bout. I’m surprised that even though the ring is like a shrine and he is the most revered participant, mere advertising is allowed to intrude on his preparations (see the picture below). I can’t figure this out
Sumo is Japan’s national sport, but the top ranks are top-heavy (literally!) with foreigners, but during the day I didn’t get any impression of racist abuse or comments being yelled at the wrestlers. In fact quite a few of the top flight’s most popular members are foreign (e.g. Kotooshu), and my friend Miss Y was recently mortified when a gambling scandal overtook Sumo, but only the Japanese wrestlers were implicated. I don’t think you’d see quite the same attitude in European soccer, though it seems to be common in rugby. For all its many charms, even in NZ rugby is not a religion, though, and if it were I can’t see the English-speaking world being as accommodating of foreign involvement as the Japanese are. But this will never be tested, it’s just supposition on my part.
I’m generally of the belief that sport is better watched on TV than live, but if you get the chance I do recommend a visit to the Sumo, particularly if you go with some friends and spend the day eating and drinking and making merry while Big Men smash into each other in the far distance. Especially if you like the sport, as I do. But ultimately, like every other sport, Sumo is probably better seen on TV.
fn1: People unfamiliar with Sumo, that is. I know that there are a few people in outer Mongolia who are as yet unfamiliar with my blog
fn2: Though in a strange coincidence those people already are familiar with Sumo. Maybe this post will complete my saturation coverage of the globe?
fn3: I think this is for the simple reason that Yakuza hate foreigners and won’t deal with foreign wrestlers, not any particular moral superiority of the foreigners
fn4: Though I do think that Sumo is an environment of bullying and abuse that probably encourages only the people with the worst characters to join or stay. So maybe foreign wrestlers raised in foreign sumo schools – e.g. in Mongolia – avoid this culture? I don’t know how they train though, or if they train there or here…