Sunday, December 12, 2010

All around the Kokugikan, National Sumo Arena, in Tokyo are these banners that hang and depict almost life-size pictures (drawings) of the top sumo wresters. There's an order to it, but I'm still finding out what that is. I wonder who draws those. They kind of remind me of the velvet Elvis paintings you used to see in the 1970s.

There's so much ceremony to the sport, it seems almost like a religion in itself. Take this pic from Life Magazine, for instance. I can almost smell the chamomile oil from here.
Getting their hair done is a ceremony. Walking into the ring is a ceremony. Retirement is a major ceremony. Every aspect seems to be ceremony. Quite fascinating. I think even when they get their portrait done to hang in the Kokugikan hall as champs must be a ceremony too.

I love finding fun things to look up, just when I'm in the mood to find out more about what it must feel like to be there. The latest thing I found is just to google "Kokugikan image" or "chonmage image" or "chanko nabe image." But not "rikishi image," since all that brings up is a creepy World Wrestling Federation guy.

Fun times, googling sumo stuff. Makes me want to go see it.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

How I'm like Sylvester Stallone despite the fact I'm a housewife in rural America

Sylvester Stallone was in Tokyo this week promoting his new movie. He stopped in at the Ryogoku Kokugikan to watch the September basho--and he loved it. According to the STORY in the Japan Times, the Rocky star was impressed with the simplicity of the sport and the fury of it.

I can't disagree.

But another note--Hakuho, the Mongolian Stallion, has now stretched his winning streak into a stunning 61 wins. Wow! Way to go, Hakuho! Between Hakuho and Baruto, I'd say despite the crud in Nagoya, there's still a bright hope for us fans.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Sumo in Everyday Life

I was eating my green salad and eating my tortilla soup, minding my own business at a restaurant in the desert hills of Prescott, Arizona--a land far, far away from any sumo ring.

Suddenly my eye lighted on a poster there on the wall of the Red Robin, right above the giant poster of the Chicago World's Fair--two sumo wrestlers poised and ready for their tachiai--initial attack, each in the squat, each with a single hand on the ground, ready to spring. Between them on the ground sat some kind of Red Robin food--a burger probably. It should have been the tortilla soup, though. That stuff was killer.

Wow. Sumo--it's where you least expect it.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Food for Thought

When I was in Japan, one night at our English class a student brought a little styrofoam container of "food" for us America-jin teachers to taste.

It was crickets.
Sauteed in soy sauce and sugar.

At first I thought, no way. Not eating bugs. Not a chance. You can't make me, can't pay me enough. I'd seen these in the grocery store--in the produce section, or was it the snack section?-- before and had mentally decided the bug-eaters had to be out of their minds.

Then I asked why.
Why did Japanese people think eating crickets was such a grand idea?

My friend answered, "After World War II, there was almost no food in the country. Some families had nothing." She knew someone who had one pumpkin for their whole family to last an entire winter. "Eventually the people started going up into the mountains to scrounge for insects. Crickets were the most filling. Now we eat them to remember. Remember what they sacrificed."


She went on to tell me (and this was her opinion, so if someone has a different one, sorry. Just sharing hers.) that when the Marshall Plan went into effect and the United States sent rice and rice and more rice, the people were so thankful. (Although it surely took a lot of humility to accept it for many) that the began calling the U.S. "Beikoku"--the Rice Country.

The word for breakfast there is "asagohan." Morning rice. Lunch is "gohan." Rice. Dinner is "yuhan." Evening rice. So for America to become the Rice Country, that meant a lot.

I placed the cricket in my mouth.
I felt the spiny bristles of its back legs prick my tongue.
I chewed and swallowed...

So grateful for daily bread.
Or rice.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Kitchen Patrol

NOTE: I wrote this draft and meant to publish it at the beginning of July. When I went to check out the rankings I stumbled onto the news of the scandal (!) and got distracted and forgot to post this. It's still got some good information about the sumo lifestyle, even though it's a bit old. Apologies, sumo fans!

The July Basho in Nagoya begins this week. This is the schedule for all the basho (tournaments) of the whole year 2010. According to the Goo Sumo (Grand Sumo Kyokai) the first day of the July tournament is Sunday the 11th. The rankings were announced on Monday this week, the 5th. I think it must be nerve-wracking for the rikishi to wait between tournaments to see where they are ranked for the upcoming tournament. Even though the tournaments do happen every other month (the odd months) all year long, the rankings from the previous tournament don't get recalculated until just the week before the next tournament, so I'm sure sometimes the wrestlers don't even know which tier they will be competing in. I think that would drive me crazy.

I was reading about the rankings this week here. The tiers are divided like a pyramid, with the largest number of wrestlers in the lower ranks, and fewer and fewer as the skill level progresses. There is only one yokozuna, grand champion, but there are hundreds of jonokuchi, which are the bottom ranked amateurs.

The dividing line between the amateur level and the professional level comes between makushita  and juryo tiers. I read about the lifestyle leap between these levels, that the change between being a grunt amateur and a lap of luxury professional is a huge chasm. In fact, some of the rikishi consider the transition between these two levels to be more important and almost a greater victory than the leap into the sekitori or championship contender levels.

From what I understand, the reason for this is the life of the amateur level sumo wrestler basically bites. He has to get up early, no breakfast (as mentioned in an earlier post) has to go to work in the kitchen or cleaning somewhere, slaves for his senpai, or senior ranked person, has to do demeaning tasks for him like wipe his sweat, etc. He gets the worst of everything, only gets a tiny stipend, doesn't get paid for his wrestling if he wins, and is basically lower than dirt.

However, if he can make that big jump into juryo, suddenly our guy is  no longer the slave. In fact, he gets his own kohai, or junior level guy being his tsukebito, or servant-person. He gets paid for bout or tournament wins, gets out of kitchen duty, can sign those handprint autograph papers, and goes to practice first thing in the morning instead of good old KP. Sometimes a guy will even get his own sleeping quarters in the stable, and best of all, the hazing stops.

It sounds like what a lot of those lower level guys dream of. For sure. I myself would love to get out of kitchen duty every once in a while. I guess I'd better go put the pasta on to boil and stop thinking about sumo.

I'll check out the rankings later...

The World Sits Up and Takes Notice

Did I not post here a couple of months ago that sumo is the next big wave? That it was just poised on the cusp of being one of the most noticed new sports, that it is just about to take off?

I believe I did right here.

Well, dun-dun-dun! My prediction came true! Maybe not in the way I originally imagined, but like politicians often say, no press is bad press. When public awareness goes up, it goes up.

The August 12 issue of Time Magazine featured a fantastic slide show on sumo's woes entitled "The Changing Face of Sumo Wrestling."  Included is a great black and white pic of Baruto in the ring (love the smiling sumo.) Plus, there are a lot of the pictures of young men who are going into training. I love that the reporter calls the mawashi diaper thingy a "loin cloth belt" and that the high school kids are going shirtless at school. Who knew?

Go to the link and check out the pictures and captions. A lot of it repeats what I've posted about below, but the pictures really make it come alive!

There was a second article this week called "Cleaning Up Sumo." It's not available in its entirety online yet, but the blurb gives a hint about the way wrestlers come up through the training process, beginning even as pre-teens. It's a little disturbing. I had no idea they "farmed" them so young. Kinda icky in the text.

The phrase that struck me most was a quote from the high school sumo coach when he said parents used to send their sons to the sumo stables to make sure they got enough to eat. Now Japanese kids get plenty to eat at home and are too soft to sumo. (I'm paraphrasing.) They don't want to work that hard, he said. Times change.

High school sumo teams.

Maybe it's coming soon (in the next three decades!) to a high school near you.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Yes, this is still Earth

So, way back when, I was walking up and down this street in Japan. I was looking for something (can't remember what, but then, I can't remember much of anything that happens, now that I've become a mom. Brain power: zero.) I was on this street, which was a covered shopping area about a block long. The cover high above was opaque but let through a filtered sunlight and had a pink tint to it, bathing the whole area in a pink light. Intermittently, there were brilliant green slats, and they broke up the rose colored world.

The shopping venues seemed like a carnival, with mylar Hello! Kitty balloons, everything available in all pastel choices, and playing be-bop happy music as I walked. Stores had designer clothing, raw fish with their eyes staring out at me, pachinko parlors, ceramic good luck cats with a single paw held up by the cats' faces in greeting. There was a little shrine in one alcove.

Teenagers squatted in clusters, low on their haunches, with spiky and wildly colored hair and skin tight jeans, smoking or playing jan ken po (rock paper scissors) competitively, and laughing raucous laughter--for Japanese people, who are generally pretty soft spoken.

One street vendor had a cart like a hot dog cart, and atop it in steaming tins of water floated white tubes and triangles and circles. They were spotted brown, like tortillas are. I didn't dare try them--and when they were lifted out with tongs, they instantly shrunk to about 2/3 their size. (Later I learned they were something like fish stick hot dogs, but I didn't find that out while I was in Japan, so I never got brave enough to try the magical shrinking geometry.)

Every few feet there were vending machines--with bottled beer, rice, batteries, beetles, cigarettes, huge bottles of Fanta soda pop, underwear, farm fresh eggs. You name it, it could be had from the vending machine.

The music piped in through the street's speakers switched to "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother." The place smelled of incense and fish and old rain.

It was so different from the dry, broad-sky place where I grew up. So far away, in so many ways. And beautiful and strange at once. I tried my best to take it all in, and I am sure there are a thousand details I can't recall, and maybe some I'm blending in from a different street, but it was a feeling and a place at the same time.

Beautiful and foreign and strange.

I can't wait to go back.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Back in the Saddle Again

It sounds like the sport is trying to get itself up and going again after the scandal.

The annual "Summer Tour" of the outlying parts of Japan (also called Natsu Jungyo) is underway. Each summer the sport goes on tour to take the excitement to fans who live in outlying areas. Often the rikishi only give a faint show of effort during these bouts, as the outcome does not go toward any official ranking. Most people believe these bouts are just for show. However, as they try to ramp up back to respectability, reports say the wrestlers are not just phoning it in, but instead are giving it their all, even during these tour bouts.

I think that's good news. A complete humbling is necessary for real repentance, I believe.

There have been some glitches. The first stop on the tour was in the northwest of the island of Honshu in Niigata Prefecture. The suspension of some of the top wrestlers, like that of Chiyohakuho and Toyonoshima, already came to an end and they performed for this event this week. I wonder, however, if a suspension that does not even last past the end of the rest period between tournaments is a suspension at all.

Fans must have wondered something similar, too. Only about 60% of the tickets for this event were sold. Another city's stop of the tour, the city of Aomori at the very tip top of Honshu, canceled their event completely out of disgust with the scandal.

Other cities are still on the roster. Fukushima, Akita, and Kitaakita are upcoming.

If the wrestlers do not rally and clean up their act, I wonder if the fans will even allow the sport to survive in its present form. Even if they do, it's a little iffy.

Still, they have to start somewhere. The tour coach reminded the wrestlers, both juniors and high professionals, that the fans are their reason for being, so to give their best effort. Those guys can clearly give a big effort. I hope it's enough.

Also, there's an update on the resignation of the chairman. He did resign, for like 10 minutes. Then he was back. Now he's mad about leaks that he plans to resign due to the fact he is undergoing surgery for stomach cancer. Not due to the fact that the sport over which he should be on the watchtower is imploding. I, for one, am suspicious.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

A Bodyslam of Epic Proportions

The whole sport is getting rocked.
Yesterday the Chairman of the Japan Sumo Association (the sport's governing body) stepped down. Resigned. Shocking. Here's a link to the story. The article also reads that there will be reformed instituted, reforms recommended by an independent panel, which they hope will cut the ties between sumo and the mafia and baseball betting via the underworld.

It's shocking for a lot of reasons. The main shocker to me is because I have heard how much money it costs for someone to buy a spot on the JSA. It's *millions* of yen. And they don't come up very often. A member of the JSA has to have been a former champion. These are guys with huge ego and huge bank accounts. They aren't simply appointed bureaucrats or middle managers. They have been the big guns for years.

The other reason is that to resign is to lose face. Losing face in Japan--well, now, that's a big deal. It could have repercussions on his family for a long time. It's not like in America where we are shocked for about six months, then the famous person can reinvent himself or herself and rise like a phoenix. They remember there, and forgiveness doesn't seem to exist. Even if it did, I think the person who felt like he/she had lost face would remember and feel shamed into a life of obscurity.

Ooh. The look on his face is bleak. But, it doesn't look like this guy used to wrestle. Everything I've read says the JSA is only allowed to be the former wrestlers. I need to dig deeper, considering this guy's normal looking size. That, or else he ended his fighting career and he went back to normal eating and sleeping habits and dropped the poundage. Ii, na. That would be nice, wouldn't it.

This whole scandal is getting me down. Where's the integrity, the purity of the game? As the Japanese say, iya da, na. Yuck.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Scandal. Ew.

First off, as a fan, I find little joy in reporting this. It's a huge disappointment. It reminds me of the summer major league baseball went on strike and then spent nearly a decade trying to get their fans back. Only this could be worse.

As of yesterday, the first arrest of  yakuza (Japanese mafia) members was made in connection with the betting scandal that came to light just before the Nagoya basho (touranment) last month. It sounds like this is just the tip of the iceberg.

The yakuza gangsters were part of the Yamaguchi-gumi, the nation's largest crime syndicate. The story of that can be read here.

The information began to come to light late in June, and as details emerged, Japan was shocked to discover that a number of the stars of the sport, including the top ranked Japanese native rikishi, Kotomitsuki, who got SACKED on the 4th of July. Whoa. He allegedly placed millions of yen worth of illegal bets through the mob, not on sumo bouts, but on baseball.

And Kotomitsuki was ranked really high--Ozeki. That's champion. Just below Grand Champion, Yokozuna. He was one of the deities..

Not only Kotomitsuki went down, though. A couple of dozen wrestlers, officials, and stablemasters bit the dust in the scandal, including a stablemaster named Otake, who borrowed nearly 30 million yen from Kotomitsuki to pay off the debts he himself had stacked up against the gangsters. Yikes.

The NHK is the Japanese national television station. For the past 57 years they have televised every sumo tournament. But, in light of the corruption, they opted to not broadcast the July basho in Nagoya. Shame is a big leverage tactic in Japan, I noticed while I was there, and this is evidence of how shameful the revelations were.

According to the story, in recent tournaments yakuza were given front row seats to the tournaments. I read in a different article that prior to the Nagoya tournament bouts each day, an announcer came over the loudspeaker and invited "anyone associated with organized crime to exit the building," which made me laugh at the image of a guy in an expensive suit looking around, pointing at himself, shrugging and then voluntarily getting up to leave. But it's a nice show of effort, right? Bless their hearts.

The sport has been rocked over the past three years with reports of horrible hazing (like that poor kid who got killed in training by the beer bottle beating) and bout-fixing.

I hope the sport can survive. Fans' tolerance level only goes so far. In Japan, there's a fan mentality pervading almost every aspect of life. If something is popular almost everyone likes it. If it goes out of favor, it can go out BIG time. Kind of precarious and teetering time for the national sport where the main skill necessary is balance.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Nagoya! and SCANDAL!

It's annual sumo time in Nagoya!

Every summer, the whole sumo contingent shuffles out west to Aichi prefecture, the city of Nagoya for the July tournament. And it's happening right now. Here is a great explanation of the fun going on there this week. When I read this, I was shocked to realize how CHEAP tickets can be for a tournament. As low as 200 yen? Stop. That is just insane.

Of course it probably means sitting on a cushion in the balcony, but seriously? Who cares. I'd love to be there.

Today, Thursday, is closing in on the tail end of the tournament. And WHOA. This month has been ROCKED with scandal!

I can't believe it. The highest ranked native Japanese rikishi has actually been KICKED OUT of the sport. Seriously. Kotomitsuki is gone. Done. Get the skinny on that HERE.

A gambling scandal it is. Fuji Xerox has dropped their sponsorship of the sport. And they weren't alone. They were the fifth company to drop out. Plus, shockingly, NHK, the national radio corporation, dropped theirs, too. They aren't broadcasting the July tournament.

I'm going to research this whole thing more and get back with a more complete explanation tomorrow.

Sheesh. I go on one little sumo vacation, and BAM. The whole sport practically falls apart.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Kanji part Deux

Just a short kanji post today. Summertime fun is keeping me too busy to be a blogger.

This is the kanji for "power." Chikara is one way to read it. It also can be read ka. It's part of the word katana, which is the word for sword. It's also the kanji for the number nine. I don't really know why the number nine is powerful. Wish I did. It's kind of fun to draw. Make the left stroke first. Then the thin horizontal stroke, and then without lifting the pen/brush, sweep downward. Three strokes, but only one pen-lift.

Simple, beautiful. Powerful.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Kanji time, boys and girls, get out your calligraphy pens

It's about time I did a little kanji lesson here. I'm no expert at the Japanese pictographs, but I did learn a few, mostly names at the time, while I lived there. They say there are about 6,000 in total, but about 20 years ago there was a governmental decision to narrow down the number to 1500 that would be required in order for a person to be literate, to be able to read a newspaper. Now, in literature and in older texts, many more are necessary, but 1500-1800 is pretty much the minimum.

I know nowhere near that many. I think at my peak I probably picked up about 250. Most of those are long gone from the old bean. It's something that's easy enough to study, though, because flashcards are available at bookstores for a reasonable price and someone could learn several hundred pretty well with effort if they wanted to. After a while you can see patterns in the hen-scratches, and certain things are clues to what the general meaning of the kanji is. Like I say, I'm not really up to speed on that...I just want to throw out a few beginner kanji today.

Here's my favorite one.
This is "ichi." It's pronounced "ee-chee." It means "one." Two is similar. It's one line on top of this, but a little shorter. Pronounce it "ni." Three is three horizontal lines, and it's "san." Four changes, though.

The symbol for man (or person) is like this:

It's pronounced "hito" with the accent on the second syllable. I remember it because it looks like two legs, like a person walking or standing.

Another good beginning one is "chu," which means center. It's also pronounced, "naka." That's the thing, though. There are often more than one or two readings for a single symbol, so reading the exact word gets kind of tricky. Still, if you know what the symbol means generally, you can get the drift of the meaning of the word even if you don't know the exact way to say the word. Here's "chu."

Chu means "center" or middle. If it's followed by the kanji for "country" (read koku or goku) it is the first symbol for the name of the county of China. This always strikes me as interesting because Japan itself calls China the "center country." It refers to itself as "Nihon," which is made of the two symbols that mean "sun" and "origin." Here's "sun."

So, if Japan is the country where the origin of the sun is, it's the "country to the east" and they aren't technically the center of their own culture. Strikes me as interesting. So, that's why the term "land of the rising sun."

Just a few factoids and a few kanji today. I'll post more another time. There's also a specific order in which the strokes are performed, but again, it's a topic for another day. For now, I think I'll ponder whether or not I'm the center of my own world or not, or if I'm somewhere off to the east or west.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Life of Luxury?

More evidence that sumo is everywhere, as soon as you start noticing.
My sis in law just notified me of a very funny starburst commercial with sumo theme. Ha.

I was thinking about how different the sumo life is from the life of a professional athlete in the United States. There are even TV shows (not that I've watched any, sadly) about lifestyles of the rich and famous and athletic. They live in mansions, drive multiple sports cars/SUVs, party hardy, etc.

By contrast, the life of the rikishi is truly ascetic. They sleep in a dorm type situation with futon mattresses on the floor. They don't eat breakfast (!)* They aren't allowed to drive cars. Their training is rigorous and year-round--no off season to "let themselves go." (Ha ha ha ha ha.) They have to do chores to earn their keep in the stable until they are promoted to the higher levels of the sport. They wear only certain, traditional clothing in public--including those painful looking shoes that must certainly hobble them to an extent. They have to eat what they're told.

I'm sure they do get out some. I saw a video recently of the (former) yokozuna, Asashoryu drinking and doing karaoke, but I'm told he isn't the pinnacle of sumo manners-perfection, either. Their lives aren't the fast lane of the American athlete.

Partially I would guess this is attributable to the fact that the sport is steeped in religious ceremony, history. Its roots are Shinto. The opening ceremonies, etc., are all Shinto related. The Japanese people I knew--very few were practicing Shinto. Most claimed to be Buddhist, and throngs hit the local temples during festivals and on religious holidays, but on the whole they weren't a particularly religious people on a daily basis. However, the old Japanese religion was still revered by the people I met, and it was everywhere in their architecture and weddings and culture--if not written on their hearts, per se.
Anyhow, to me the most important lesson I take from all this is: eat breakfast. If the tubbiest athletes on earth--tubby by design--are avoiding breakfast religiously, I should definitely make it part of my beginning to a healthy, thinner day. Yes? I think I'll use it on my kids when they want to skip it. "Sure, sweetie. You can skip breakfast. That's what the sumo wrestlers all do. And look at them!"


Tuesday, June 8, 2010


I think I remember an awesome Def Leppard song from the 80s called "Autograph." (And why couldn't those hair banders spell? Huh?) I never went to their concert or even wanted their autographs, and I'm pretty sure they're all driving minivans now and busy on the weekends painting lawn furniture with spray paint cans...

Autographs in the sumo world happen, like everything else sumo, big time. Instead of a mere signing of the name, the guys make an actual hand print with either black or red ink. It's called a tegata, which means hand shape. I don't know, but I'd guess they do it on rice paper.

This one belongs to Kotomitsuki, who (as of today) is the highest ranked Japanese wrestler in the lists. He's an ozeki east, "champion," ranked 4th overall. Only the top tiers of wrestlers are allowed to make and distribute the autographs. The squiggles on the side are the kanji (Japanese/Chinese characters) for the name Kotomitsuki. No, I can't read those particular characters, I'll freely admit. But don't they look cool? Here's another one (I grabbed it from wikipedia) with the red ink.

These are for sale at sumo matches, and originals can be pricey, but photocopies are for sale cheap. I have seen them on e-bay, even for big time champs like Konishiki.

I bet the ink gets on their kimonos. And I bet it's hard to get out in the wash.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Hmm. What to wear, what to wear

Sumo wrestlers have very limited wardrobe choices. Much like myself.

Whenever a sumo wrestler is seen in public, he must wear traditional Japanese clothing, either the yukata (which is the lightweight version of a kimono) or a regular kimono. This is required for the entire time he belongs to a stable. So, if a rikishi happens to go out clubbing and hits the karaoke machine, you won't see him in a Mickey Mouse t-shirt and skinny jeans. In a way, I guess, it's kind of a mercy.

For shoes, they must wear traditional Japanese footwear. The lower ranked rikishi wear geta, the wooden flat shoe with the strap between the toes like beach flip flops. The platform for the foot is supported underneath by two wooden, sideways slats, one at the ball of the foot and one near the arch. They're not the best running shoes, and some say they were invented to prevent runaway slaves. This makes sense that the lower ranked wrestlers would have to wear them, as they basically act as the slave-servants of the upper ranks. I guess you don't want your sweat-towel wielder to get any ideas of escape.

The upper ranks wear something more comfortable, like a slipper bootie thing. Ah, the perks of class.

I tried to walk in geta a time or two while I lived in Japan. They created this rackety feeling in the joints as I walked. It's probably much worse for guys who weighed three times as much as I did at the time. Ka-chonk.

I guess they have a variety of bathrobe looking yukata they could potentially choose from in their closets, but basically that's it. My heart goes out to the more fashion-minded of them. If there be such a thing. Bless their hearts.

Of course we all know about their "evening wear," the mawashi diaper of the ring. I found out today it is made of silk. SILK. Who'd'a thunk.

Oh, and yesterday I talked to my brother in Texas. TEXAS. He said a guy came up to him at a Boy Scout thing and was passing out flyers for a sumo class he was starting. The guy looked tall, but not sumo. I'm telling ya. It's everywhere. Even Texas.

Friday, June 4, 2010

In Case You Don't Have X-Ray Computer Vision

The text of the White Collar Sumo game is really super hard to read (since half of the graphic is missing!) on the post below. But it's worth re-typing here, in case anybody is in the mood for a rousing Friday afternoon match of office sumo.

"Office sumo is a face-off between two colleagues called rikishi, in a ring 6 meters in diameter (dohyo.) The circle is drawn with toner, and freshly shredded paper is spread over the ring after every bout. The rikishi will mount an office chair, his chest against the back of the chair. A rikishi loses the bout when he is pushed outside of the ring."

Many thanks to whomever designed this awesome game. Bless your heart, wherever you may be.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Blog Traffic! Summer Treasure Hunters!

A hearty, sumo welcome to any blog readers who come my way via the "Summer Treasure Hunt" contest. Sumo. It's not the usual topic of conversation, I know. But...think. It could be!

I wish you all the best in your treasure hunting. Hope you win the prize of your dreams. I'm glad my one loyal follower, Jen in AZ, steered you my way. Bless her heart. If you find sumo strikes you as a thing to revisit, feel free to follow my blog.

I'm not really in this to become the "top blog in all the world." With a topic like this...I'm aware of my shortcomings. But sumo--it's coming into its own. Soon. I can feel the world is poised for it. You can be on the cutting edge by becoming a follower here!

Bah hahahaha.

Love y'all. Thanks a bunch for visiting. Domo arigato (Mr. Roboto--oh, honestly. Who doesn't hear that in their minds EVERY SINGLE TIME they hear the Japanese word for thank you? Please.)

Happy hunting! could be everywhere, man

This afternoon I was talking with a couple of guys, and I happened to mention sumo. (How do these things come up? Because I'm obsessed? Probably.) It never ceases to amaze me that pretty much everyone out there has some (albeit distant mostly) connection to sumo. The one guy said his high school teacher just loved The Sport, and he showed his class clips from matches all the time.

Later, I dropped a kid off at Cub Scouts. The leader reminded me about a recent Shakespeare play made into a movie. Okay, not that recent, but in the last 4-5 years. This version of "As You Like It" was set in Japan, and in the background in some of the scenes (it was during the Victorian Age as a setting, if I remember right) there's some sumo wrestling going on.

I think my favorite episode of "The Office" was the work party where Michael makes the whole staff go to the lake for the work party and he rents the inflatable sumo suits, and Andy (fresh from management school, anger management, that is) ends up floating on his back in the suit, like a trapped, sunny-side up cockroach, floating away on the lake, calling for help and no one can hear and no one notices him as the sun goes down.

So it's like most things--it's everywhere once you start noticing it.

And believe me, I'm really starting to focus on this thing.

It's awesome.

Here's a clip of some of the Day 2 matches from the May basho (tournament) in Tokyo. It shows why ringside seats are probably not preferred. Risky spectator sport. Once I was at a rodeo on my hometown and the bull jumped into the crowd during the bullride at the end of the night. This reminds me of that.

Now that the May tournament is over, there won't be another official set of match-ups until July, and those will be held in Nagoya. Tickets are on sale already for that. In the meantime, the rikishi will be going on tour to the northern regions of the country, Aomori prefecture, Niigata, and other spots on the northern end of Honshu, the main island. From what I hear, the Aomori people are big fans, and historically a large number of sumo wrestlers have come from this small prefecture. I had a really good friend while I lived in Japan from Aomori, the town called Hachinohe. She in no way resembled a sumo wrestler. She was even shorter than I--and I'm towering in at five-foot-one. (Yeah, yeah, I fit in really well there. I could reach everything on the grocery store shelves! Yay me!)

The between-basho tour gives the lower ranked rikishi a chance to wrestle in public, and it gives the public who live in outlying areas a chance to see the champs up close and live. The results don't count toward any kind of ranking. It's just for show. It's called hana sumo, or flower sumo. Just for show.

Still, show or not, it would be fun to see.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

How do you say...?

I know I hate reading along and coming across a word in a different language and not knowing how to pronounce it. Ugh!

So, I think I will post a little bit about how to pronounce vowels in Japanese.

There are basically 5 sounds. A I U E O. They're pronounced ah, eee, ooo, eh, and oh.

Each vowel gets its own syllable. For instance sake. We don't pronounce it sake, as in "Oh, for Pete's sake!" It's pronounced "sah-keh." The letter "e" is a trick for us English speakers. We expect it to be pronounced eee, or else to change that middle vowel.

Another example is my name. Hana Bijin. Hana isn't the same as Hannah Montana. It's Hana, (which means flower) and pronounced Hah-nah. Neither syllable seems to have a stronger emphasis than the other, if that's possible. Then my last name Bijin doesn't rhyme with Bert's favorite bird, doin' the pigeon. It's more like Barry, Robin, Maurice (and Andy before his untimely demise, so sad, he had such magnificent hair). Bee-jeen.

The letter o sometimes has the "long o" sign over it when its written out in romaji (or the English alphabet.) That "long o" is sometimes written out differently as "ou." It means the same thing. Tokyo, for instance. If I could figure out how to make the "long o" line over the o's on this dumb blog I'd put them on both o's in Tokyo. It would also be correct to spell it Toukyou. Of course, that looks kind of weird, correct or not.

So the letter U sounds like "oo." Think Mt. Fuji. It doesn't sound at all like fudge.

So this might be a good guide for pronouncing the sumo wrestlers' names. Akebono. It has 4 syllables. No aches. And the long o keeps him from being connected to any Irish politically vocal pop stars. (My sister would argue that U2 isn't really "pop." But I was there in the 1980s when they sang "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." Fairly poppy, I think. They played it on our cutesy pop station. I sang along. Feel free to disagree.)

Ah ee oo eh oh.
Kah kee koo keh koh.
Sah shee soo seh soh.
Tah chi tsu teh toh.
And so on, as the kids learn to say their alphabet. It's so cute!

And the (May 2010) Winners Aren't....

Or, as the Japanese word for it is, "Shokk-ku!"

Of the three featured winners for the 2010 May Tournament in Tokyo NOT ONE OF THEM IS JAPANESE!

I find this very surprising. As a pretty new follower of the sport, I don't know how many times this has happened in the past. All the big sumo-stats fans probably could set me straight on this, but for now I'll just sit here with my jaw dropping open and eyes peeled  back, bugging out.

In FACT, these guys barely look like sumo wrestlers. The two who won the fighting spirit prizes look a lot more like pro wrestlers in the fashion of Jesse Ventura and Hulk Hogan. Aran is from Russia, and Tochinoshin is from Georgia. Check them out here on the official page of the Goo Sumo Grand Tournament. (I just love that the first word in their title looks like goo. I'm pretty sure it's pronounced "go" with a prolonged long o. Less chortle-inducing; too bad.) If you have QuickTime you can watch the clip of their interviews. Funnnn!

It looks like it would be pretty inevitable for the champs these days to be foreigners. Out of the Makuuchi ranks (of which there are about 42 total unless I miscounted) eleven (count 'em, eleven) are from Mongolia. That's a hefty chunk.

And that Hakuho! He's the man these days. He walked away from the May tournament with his 6th win of 15-0. That means he never lost a bout. Not one. Whewee. He's tough.

So, why all the gaijin? If this is the national sport of Japan, why aren't the Japanese men dominating this sport? Shokk-ku, right?

I guess I'd better do some digging, so I can relieve some of this shock. Meanwhile, here's a link to the results of the whole tournament. And here's a link to a video of highlights of the matches on day 9 of the tournament, along with some great commentary involving the phrases, "Hakuho keeps his cool," and "Baruto avoids biting the dust." Lovvve it.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

How do you stay so un-slim?

Because of the size of the sumo wrestler, I would think that the men eat better than pretty much anyone else in the country. When I lived in Japan, I almost never saw anyone overweight. In fact, I think I lost about 30 pounds while I lived there myself, possibly because I had to ride a bike everywhere for 18 months and didn't have a lot of time to sit around and eat brownies and ice cream like I do nowadays.

But sumo wrestlers are definitely the exception, as everyone knows. So, how do they do it? What's their "weight gain secret?"

(Ha ha, I have to say, wouldn't that just be the most shocking headline on a magazine cover as you stand in line at the grocery store?)

How do they stay so un-trim? They eat a heavy stew every day. It's called chanko nabe. It is made of vegetables and meats, including eggs and seafood. Having lived there, I will just bet a bunch of soybeans get in there in some form or other. Here are a couple of possible versions.

There is no set recipe, but during tournaments, they supposedly only serve it with chicken, because a chicken goes about on two legs just as a sumo rikishi should, not on all fours as with beef cattle, etc. They cook the chicken with the skin still on it for an extra calorie punch.

The food itself isn't that fattening. Yeah, there's protein and a little fat, but it's soup. The key is portion control, and I mean BIG portions. Quantity is key. They serve it with rice to amp it up, too, and the guys pair it all with lots of beer. So, yes, in a way, they are beer bellies they are sporting, hanging over that diaper.

Strangely to me, the guys skip the most important meal of the day. Breakfast. Then they go hog wild on lunch and then take a long nap. Siesta to let all that food settle into them. Makes me never want to skip breakfast again.

One thing I've heard is that most of the champs didn't start out really heavy. They started out strong and with excellent balance. Then, as they joined sumo and advanced, they put on weight during their career. Balance is the main asset, and then weight. But who can deny that in a shoving match a guy who weighs 450+ pounds is going to have an advantage over a guy 130 pounds dripping wet, no matter how good the little guy's balance?

The neighborhood in Tokyo where the Kokugikan is located is called Ryogoku. It's the sumo epicenter (of the world, right?) and supposedly the best place to go if you want to try a steaming bowl of chanko nabe yourself. Restaurants serve it steaming hot, and it's possible to get a glimpse of a favorite rikishi.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

White Collar Sumo

My brother in law sent me this. Does it prove sumo is a bigger part of American culture than I thought?

The link to it is here. 9GAG also has lots of great sumo pics here, including a fantastic one of Asashoryu receiving the Emperor's Cup (enormous) from the Prime Minister.  Good times. Good times.

This is my favorite.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

'Tis the Season

In America it's like apple pie: baseball season, football season, basketball season. The sporty minded folk all get their hearts pumping about the season of their favorite players and plays.

In Japan, for the sumo fan, it's more like those elementary schools who don't have the traditional, agrarian-minded "summer vacation" break. It's year-round, baby.

The Nihon Sumo Kyokai, or official Grand Sumo organization, runs the show. They schedule tournaments every other month during six months of the year. It's pretty set. January is Tokyo. March is Osaka. Then in May, it's back to Tokyo. July takes the big guys over to Nagoya in western Japan. September is Tokyo again. And in the fall, November's tournament is held in Fukuoka. And the next year it starts all over again.

Tournaments are 15 days long, and each wrestler (in the upper tiers) wrestles once each day of the tournament. The lower ranks often will just wrestle every other day. Events are televised and radio broadcasted. As a gaijin, I found the play-by-play announcement on NHK (radio) of the sumo match fascinating. I didn't understand a ton, but it was great!

It seems to me that the Tokyo dwellers get the lion's share of the sumo fun. Their arena is the national arena, the Kokugikan. (Which means national arena.) It is in the Ryogoku neighborhood of Tokyo, kind of in the south and east quadrant. There's a train station (Japan Rail Sobu Line) right near the arena for fans to arrive via. The building is square and has a traditional Japanese tile roof. You can see it on Google Earth if you zero in. Here's a picture of the outside, then what it looks like inside. And the seating is all square inside, with the dohyo, or ring, in the center.

I just looked it up here and all the ringside tickets are sold out for the May tournament in Tokyo. If somebody is lucky enough to be going to Japan (I wish it were me!) tickets are available by phone, internet (both with English options), and in various stores like Circle K (in Japan, of course), and at the box office of the Kokugikan. ii naa. (Which means, "I wish...")

In spite of the fact that the Tokyo folks get a lot of sumo there, the outlying prefects do get the blessing of the sumo show in the off months. This is called Hana Sumo (or flower sumo.) Rikishi (wrestlers) travel to the various geographical areas of the country. For instance, the northern/eastern part of Japan is called Tohoku. The rikishi will take a couple of weeks and do exhibition tournaments in Tohoku prefectures like Aomori and Akita and Miyagi prefectures. Then a different interim month they will travel to the Kanto region and tour Chiba, Gunma, and Tochigi prefectures just for show. The champions draw the crowds, but it is also a time when the newbies can debut in the ring. These tournaments don't count toward ranking, but they are great for practice and experience for the younger ranks. Sometimes the champs don't take these very seriously, and it's just for show. The fans don't have to wait long, however, for a real display of sumo power. In Japan, sumo is never out of season.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

King of the Ring

Hakuho has been a professional sumo wrestler since he debuted in 2001 at the age of 16. That's SIXTEEN. Whoa. He achieved the highest rank (yokozuna/grand champion) in 2007 at the age of 22.

Here's a link to a video (with English translation) to an awards ceremony in March 2007 where he gets the Emperor's Cup--possibly the most enormous trophy (fitting, eh?) in the world. It includes an interview with him after his big yusho (victory.)

I was wondering about their personal lives, and came across this great picture of Hakuho on his wedding day.

Isn't their wedding attire fantastic? I love it. Here's a link to an article about their 2007 wedding, complete with pictures of their pianist. She's a Japanese girl who was a college student in Tokyo. It's another world.

Finally, I wanted to include a link to a video of Hakuho. Here's one of the man beating his Mongolian rival Asashoryu before Hakuho also became yokozuna. The audience throws their seat cushions (zabuton) at the end of the bout because a non-yokozuna defeated a yokozuna. It's technically against the rules for the audience to toss them, but it's tradition and the rule isn't enforced.

There are a lot of interesting personalities in sumo today--although the most controversial rikishi took his final bow in March. I guess I'm like the Japanese and prefer a tamer champ. Hakuho is awesome. Look at that power.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Hakuho's Go

Alone at the Top
There's a new boss in town. With Asashoryu's departure in March, a different Mongolian now holds center stage alone. Hakuho.

Hakuho has been in sumo in Japan for a while, long enough to rise to the rank of Yokozuna, grand champion. However, because he has been less flashy (read: controversial) he's been overshadowed by Asashoryu. Now, though, he has the top spot alone, and despite the fact that he, too, is a foreigner he possesses much more of the expected demeanor of an honorable Yokozuna.

Picking Up the Language
I saw an interview with Hakuho. My Japanese is a little rusty, but his was pretty rudimentary, and so I could understand a lot of what he said. Partially he spoke through an interpreter. He said a lot of the things, basically, that American athletes say after a game or a match. It kind of sounded like, "Yeah, I just give 100% out there and do my best, and the other guys are giving 100% as well." Blah blah blah. The sports cliches. Fun to know there are some universal things.

It surprised me to see the limitations of his Japanese, I guess. I mean, he has lived there a few years. I saw in interview with another foreign wrestler (maybe it was Baruto, I can't remember now.) It was shaky Japanese there, too. How could they live there so long, surrounded by it, and not just pick it up eventually? In Japanese the word for their language is "Nihongo." For short, my American friends and I called it "go." If somebody got better at Japanese we told them, "Dude, you have rocking go!"

Then I got to thinking, as hard as it was to pick up the language when I lived there, it would be much harder as an athlete. My little life in Japan brought me into contact with loads of people, and I ended up talking with Japanese people in Japanese all day long most days. In their cases (Hakuho's and others') the job is physical, and the language jargon a lot less varied. He likely doesn't have to make a lot of small talk with a wide range of people. He just does his wrestling, tries to figure out what the coach said, perhaps has an interpreter for parts of it, etc. My situation required me to spend an hour each morning studying the language--on top of the idle chit chat I practiced all day long. Still, in spite of incremental improvement, there were dozens of entire conversations I never even began to follow. It was pretty isolating at times.

Hmm, I bet for a lot of those foreign guys there, including Hakuho, it's pretty lonely, even at the top.

Monday, May 10, 2010

A Flock of Seagulls

I am like a giddy high school girl when I start talking about sumo. It's ridiculous. I think my eyes light up and I can't suppress a smile, my heart beats faster and my hands get all animated. It's just the coolest sport, and I feel like a member of a secret club because I like it so much, and no one else seems to have caught the fever yet, but I'm absolutely certain it's going to catch on and I'm going to be able to think with self-satisfaction, yeah, I was there and knew about it and loved it right from the beginning of this massive wave of popularity. It kind of reminds me of being a fan of new wave music in the late 1980s, when there was the stuff they played on the regular radio--pop, country, rock--and then there was the stuff all of us really listened to, the British synthesizer music. Erasure, New Order, Pet Shop Boys, Depeche Mode, OMD. Well, a few of those finally went onto the regular billboard charts and I thought to myself, I knew them when...

So, hang on, everyone. Sumo is probably the next wave.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Smiling Sumo

The banzuke are in for May!

For each Grand Sumo tournament (which happen every other month), new lists are published about two weeks prior to the first day of the tournament. I was really interested to see which rikishi would be ranked where this time. Why? Because there was a surprise retirement in March by the controversial yokozuna (Grand Champion) Asashoryu.

Now, another surprise! (Surprising to me.) The newest ozeki (Champion) is Baruto. Baruto Kaito. He's an Estonian, and his real name is Kaido Hoovelson. I love it that he chose the sumo name (shikona) Baruto. Sounds like Bart. Excellent.

Baruto is 25 years old and has been doing sumo since 2004, so he's been around a while. The JSA website lists his official weight as 187 kg, which translates into 411 pounds. Shazam, that's big. According to one source, as of 2010, that makes him the heaviest guy in sumo right now.

And he's tall. 198 centimeters. That's 78 inches tall. That's 6 feet 6 inches. He's enormous! Awesome. I only clock in at 5 foot 1, so that sounds like a towering mountain of a man. I once heard an American commentator watching a sumo match live gush about just how huge the wrestlers really are. No kidding!

The rankings came in on the 26th, and he was promoted to champion after an impressive 14-1 win-loss record in the March basho (tournament) in Osaka. Each basho lasts 15 days, and the top division rikishi wrestle once each day. Since he is in the top tier, that means he only wrestled other top wrestlers, regardless of their weight. To go 14-1 means a lot at that level.

When he won, he said he wanted to be a "cheerful" champion. Reportedly he is liked by the other wrestlers because he is always smiling.

Props to the smiling sumo! Way to go, Baruto!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Cool and Gigantic

So, confession: I have only really been interested in sumo for a little less than a year. Sure, when I was in Japan a few years ago (time flies!) I heard about it a little from my Japanese friends, but it wasn't a big part of what I was doing at the time. One time I was in a car and the play-by-play of a sumo bout was being broadcast on the radio. I didn't know any of the technical sumo jargon, so the words went whizzing past my ears and made no sense at the time. The friend driving explained a little about what was going on. She was really excited about the match, saying it was a big one, and she had a favorite for the win. At the time, such a thought boggled my mind. I was an American--and we were just not going to go there.

Then, I heard about a guy, an American, who had been there in Japan, but then went home and gained a bunch of weight. He was a big guy to start with, pretty tall, red headed. Rumor had it he had returned to Japan and was wanting to try to get into a sumo stable. My Japanese friend said, "Wilson is back! And he is gigantic!" I loved hearing her say "gigantic." (And I don't remember the guy's real name. Lucky to remember my own most days. Suffice it to say, he didn't become a big star of the sumo ring.)

Still, the moment sitting there in the back seat of that sedan with the enthuisasm of the sumo announcer calling the plays made an impression, and I can still remember how much energy emanated from the moment. Sumo has an energy, that's what I'm convinced of.

My brother in law and I were talking sumo the other day. He had a description of it where he will be sitting there flipping channels on his satellite and he will get into the upper ESPN channels, flip-flip-flip-flip, and suddenly light on a sumo match. Pauzzzzzzzzzze. "Whoa. What is that?" He got this mesmerized look on his face to show how he stares at a sumo match. "Coooool."

I think he's right. I am dying to see a real match--in person would be "coooooool." Or "gigantic."

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Yes, We're from Out of Town, and We'd Like a Career

Sumo is quintessentially Japanese. The wrestler is the ideal Japanese man: showing great strength, personal discipline and honor. For centuries, foreigners (gaijin) participated. Then, little by little, the door opened. The pioneer was Takamiyama Daigoro, a Hawaiian. He was the first to break into the upper ranks, and the first to have his own sumo stable, and did some foreign recruiting.

Konishiki (born Saleva'a Fualui Atisano) was a Hawaiian-born Japanese-Samoan wrestler. Takamiyama recruited him, and Konishiki was the first gaijin to reach Ozeki (champion) status. (He retired in 1997. I hear he now hosts a TV show and is a DJ. Kind of a cool life. Check out the link for more info.)

After that, more gaijin wrestlers got in the game. Arguably the most successful was Akebono Taro (born Chad Rowan.) He was a Hawaiian, too, and dominated the sport (along with his Japanese rival Takanohana) throughout the 1990s. He had a longstanding and strong career as Yokozuna (grand champion). Like Takamiyama, he was honored to be allowed to join the JSA (Japan Sumo Association) and worked as a coach in the Azumazeki stable. In fact, he trained Asashoryu, the recently departed Mongolian Yokozuna (grand champion).

Asashoryu is another story for another day, with his controversial style, but there's no question he plowed a wide swath to the top for other Mongolians and other nationalities (Bulgarian, etc.) to stomp through.

I guess I never thought of Sumo (also referred to as Ozumo, which puts the honorific prefix of the O in front of sumo) as being populated by anyone but Japanese men. But now it seems the JSA has had to start putting caps on the number of foreigners a stable can recruit. Like a lot of Japanese things, the Japanese like sumo to remain "unique" in the way only Japanese things can be unique.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Dreamiest Hair

Before each bout, a sumo wrestler needs to have his hair specially styled. The topknot is the traditional hairstyle for all sumo wrestlers. It can be plain, or in the case of a rikishi in a more advanced rank, the topknot can be shaped like a ginkgo leaf (a fan shape.)

It takes over an hour to do up a proper chonmage (topknot.) The hair needs to be fairly long. It is then oiled generously and This is accomplished by a professional sumo hairstylist, or tokoyama. The tokoyama trains for years before becoming an official hairstylist to the athletes. The Japan Sumo Association ranks the tokoyama according to experience and skill, and only the best are allowed to style the hair of the top-ranked (sekitori) wrestlers.

The hairstyle is symbolic. If a wrestler loses it, he is expected to resign voluntarily. Because sumo wrestling is so rigorous, however, the styles often get loose during practice and during bouts. This makes the job of the tokoyama vital--and pretty constant.

Here is a picture of the ginkgo leaf style worn by the sekitori. (Champion level wrestlers.)

A site (that looks Dutch or German) I found about the chonmage said the type of oil the tokoyama use is called Bintsuke, and it is chamomile oil. The wrestlers must smell dreamy.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Squat of the Sumo

Sumo wrestlers come in many sizes. Unlike in American wrestling, there are no weight classes. The heaviest and tallest man may be pitted against the lightest in any tournament. Naturally, being heavier does have its advantages. However, weight alone isn't king. Balance can trump weight.

Anyone who has seen a smidgen of a sumo bout has likely seen the wide-leg squat stomping that happens at the beginning of a bout. This stomping is, on one hand, ceremonial. The sound of the stomping is said to scare away demons. On the other hand, this stomping is a major part of how sumo wrestlers train.

The reason for this squatting is to improve a rikishi's balance. The rikishi (wrestler) squats low, with legs wide apart. Then he will stomp each leg, lifting it as high as he can in the stomp. He then practices lifting each leg wide to the side in a series of kicks.

A wrestler in training will do around 500 of these kicks and squats each day to improve his balance.

In recent years, the sumo squat has caught on with fitness enthusiasts. Some say it is not only effective in balance training, but its a great workout because it works every muscle group in the body.

Maybe I should give the squats a shot.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Winning the Game

The rules of sumo are simple:

The first rikishi (wrestler) who can get his opponent to touch the ground with any part of his body other than the bottom of his foot, or step outside the ring, wins.

The area where a bout takes place is called the dohyo. This is a raised stand, square, a couple of feet high, made of a hard packed clay. Atop it is painted a ring. The two contenders begin on opposite sides of the ring. A referee in fancy dress gives a ceremonial signal and the match begins.

The initial thrust, called the tachiai (pronounced tah-chee-eye), can be very fast. The distance between the contenders is narrow. Often, one will come at another with slapping the face and chest.

Slapping is allowed; however, punching with a fist is not. The mawashi (the diaper-like garment) is fair game for pulling, and some of the strongest techniques for victory involve one rikishi grabbing his opponent's mawashi with both hands and shoving him out of the ring or to the ground.

In fact, almost anything is fair game besides punching. The exception to this is the top-knot, or chonmage. Any grabbing of the top-knot is off limits.

A sumo wrestler has to be fast and strong to win, and often times the victory goes to the man with the best balance. Even if a rikishi outweighs his opponent by as much as a hundred pounds, his victory is not assured if the smaller man has exceptional balance.

Then again, there's the risk that no matter how good the balance, the stronger man can wrap his arms around the weaker one and hoist him off the ground, tip him sideways and throw him down.

Now that's something fans of American wrestling can get into.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Americans, I have to say, a lot of us look at sumo wrestling as gross. I mean, what is it but a couple of obese men wearing diapers and shoving each other? How could something so icky be the national sport of any country, let alone a country as staid and understated as Japan is?

Every country is like this, probably, but we tend to knock things before we try them. How many of us has actually seen a sumo match? There's a drama to the sport that's addicting. It's fast paced. It's man against man. It's sheer strength and brute force on display. The men are disciplined, and (usually) reverent about the sacred nature of their sport.

Most of us wouldn't know that a typical match lasts less than 10 seconds. And unlike in American wrestling, there are no size categories. The lightest man can be pitted against the heaviest--and the heavier man has the advantage but no guarantee.

Over 70 official techniques are recognized by the Japan Sumo Association, and fans keep stats on which wrestler used which technique to defeat whom, just like baseball fans know which pitcher uses which pitch to strike out a batter.

I'm not a long time fan, and I still haven't seen a live match, but thanks to the wonderful world of youtube, anyone in the world can see the competition. There are official, two-week long tournaments six times a year, and new footage is being posted all the time (so I won't post a specific link here, as it will be outdated soon.) It's fascinating, and while it may never catch on here in the U.S. where we celebrate all things lean, there's something to appreciate about the strength of a man trained in hand to hand (or shoulder to shoulder) combat.