Last weekend let me cross another big ticket item off my list of things to do: sumo!
A sumo tournament is something I can whole-heartedly recommend attending if you come to Japan. It’s a chance to see the locals let their hair down – barracking for the top-tier matches is passionate, with spectators yelling out the names of the favourite wrestlers. Reportedly, if one of the top-ranked yokozuna is defeated by a lower ranked wrestler, the audience all throw their seat cushions at the wrestlers in the ring, but sadly, the yokozuna won his bout the day I was there.
When it comes to watching man-mountains hurl each other around, it certainly doesn’t disappoint on that front:
Lots more photos and stories of sumo after the jump!
This is actually a very interesting time in the history of sumo in Japan. The top sumo stars are as highly regarded in Japan as just about any sports star you would want to name. The best-of-the-best live the high life – money, houses, actress / pop star / model partners, the lot. This all sounds good, but the guys who get this rock-star lifestyle take the very few available slots at the top of the tree. A novice wrestler entering a sumo stable is, of course, at the very bottom of that tree, and is required to do the most menial work. Most infamously, one of their duties involves assisting the senior wrestlers wash those hard-to-reach places that weighing over 140 kg kilos brings. It’s little wonder there were no new recruits to the sport this year. So, sumo is in a bit of crisis, and has to rely on foreign talent; mainly from Mongolia, but interestingly, ex-Soviet Bloc countries like Bulgaria, Russia and Estonia are also represented at the top levels.
Currently, there’s one of the biggest scandals in the history of sumo breaking. It involves one of the two most senior ranked wrestlers in the whole of Japan – one of the yokozuna. Here’s one of the current yokuzuna, Hakuho, performing the special ring-entering ceremony reserved only for that rank. The rope he wears around his waist has been the mark of a yokozuna for many years.
These guys are household names in Japan, and are expected to be dignified ambassadors of the sport. Asashoryu, already considered to be one of the “bad boys” of the sport – at least, as far as sumo goes, but they honestly don’t have a patch on say, rugby league players – had claimed he had to sit out a tournament this year through injury. Shortly after, a video emerged from his native Mongolia of Asashoryu actively playing in a charity soccer game, in a kind of worker’s comp sting. The sumo association was not impressed, and gave Asashoryu the honour of being the first yokozuna to be suspended in the ancient history of the sport. This scandal received massive media coverage in Japan and it would be hard to find someone who had not heard of it. Asashoryu is still currently suspended, and was reportedly on the verge of a mental breakdown.
But enough sporting politics! Going to a sumo tournament is quite an experience. A tournament runs for fifteen days, and each wrestler has only one bout on each of those days. At the end of the tournament, each wrestler’s win-loss record from their fifteen bouts determines their progression up or down the ranks. (Side note: the Freakonomics book has a fascinating section on the concept of match-fixing in sumo). Tickets are not cheap – around $100 for a seat towards the back and $150 for ring-side seats – but every seat provides a great viewing experience.
There’s a lot of ceremony to sumo bouts – the more senior the bout the more ritual seems to be involved. In fact, there is easily far more ritual happening than actual wrestling. This often increases the anticipation of a bout, though, especially if one of the wrestlers is a bit fiery. Most accept wins and losses very stoically and gracefully – it would be difficult to tell using expressions alone who the victor had been after a bout.
One of my favourite bits of ritual was the salt-throwing, a symbolic purification of the arena. It was also a bit of a key to the wrestler’s personality: some reservedly threw a small handful on the ground almost as an afterthough:
…while some threw a massive fist-full for their pre-bout psyche-up, to the obvious delight of the audience:
Another important part of ritual is announcing each match. This fellow reads the names in a sing-song voice, written on a special fan:
Sad to say, one thing that hasn’t missed sumo is one of the world’s oldest professions: advertising.
Much like Super Bowl advertising, ads for the upper-tier bouts features more and more advertising, beginning with three banners for later-stage bouts, and a ridiculous thirty-seven banners for the final bout. And just like any major sporting event, you could buy most any piece of sporting memorabilia: a sumo bento lunchbox, perhaps?
The day ended with a bout between the only currently-active yokozuna, who won quickly and unfortunately, anti-climatically after all the build-up. The winner of each bout receives a cash purse of their winnings immediately, presented ceremonially by a judge: the winner of the final bout receives around $20,000 as a fat stack of cash. Not bad for what ended up being around eight seconds work.
So next time the sumo tournament entourage is in your area, make sure you get along. Trust me, you can’t miss them.
Lots more pictures of rather large gentlemen at the gallery.