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.