Sumo! Last week we all headed into Tokyo to check out Sumo for ourselves. We arrived at the sumo arena called the Ryōgoku Kokugikan and (eventually) found our seats. Which wasn’t so easy, at least for me.
I had two seating options when purchasing tickets. The first tier seats offer better and closer views–but also the chance to sit cross-legged on a backless cushion for hours, which thrilled me not at all. I opted for the higher seats in the second tier. While we sat a little further away, I appreciated the actual seats with backs.
Sumo goes back about 1500 years, making it the world’s oldest sport that is still played. Unlike the complicated rules of sports like American football, cricket, or baseball, sumo’s rules are pretty simple: the first wrestler to exit the ring or touch the ground with anything but the bottoms of his feet loses. Of the roughly 30 bouts we saw, most of the losing wrestlers either touched down inside the ring or stepped just outside of it. I only saw one or two really dramatic, get-thrown-into-the-audience losses. These straightforward rules made it easy for us to follow the bouts, even without any Japanese.
That said we rented radios to listen to English commentary by Murray Johnson, an Australian journalist who has been the English voice of sumo for over 20 years. He called the bouts in a play-by-play manner that immediately reminded me of horse racing–and sure enough, that’s where Johnson got his start. He introduced the wrestlers with information that clearly showed his familiarity with the sumo scene. I followed along with a program of bouts, but unfortunately I couldn’t really tell which wrestler was which because they’re wearing silk loin cloths and nothing else. So the commentator would talk about, say, Myogiryu versus Nishikigi without mentioned which guy was in blue silk and which was in red.
We saw a few recognizably-foreign wrestlers who looked possibly European (I later learned that Bulgarians have dominated for several years now). Out of curiosity I wanted to look these dudes up online, but since they all take Japanese wrestler names I couldn’t tell who was who. Remember, no numbers, and just silk loincloths. While I recognized a few non-Asians, there were likely more non-Japanese wrestlers than I realized at the time. The Japanese word gaijin means non-Japanese foreigner–so those Mongolian wrestlers are gaijin too. Japan’s sumo fans have lamented for years the steady decline of Japanese dominance in their own sport.
In the following photo, what do you notice about the spectators right in front? How about the fact that a 200+ kg wrestler is splayed out on his back right in arm’s reach, and may have landed right on them? Even while watching through a zoom lens from about 27 kilometers away I flinched when I saw a wrestler get tossed from the ring. Not those spectators, though. They are as calm and collected as if they were waiting for the bus.
The matches started in the morning with the lowest divisions going first, and our tickets were valid for the whole day’s matches from 8AM to 6PM. I had heard that the best matches and highest divisions occur late in the day, so we arrived around 2PM and stayed until the end at 6PM. I guessed that four hours of sumo was plenty, and I was right. The first dozen or so matches were of the Juryo wrestlers, the second highest division.
Each bout begins the same way. The next wrestlers receive a ceremonial ladle of water called a chikaramizu and rinses his mouth with it. He also receives a slip of paper–perhaps with the name of his opponent? The winner of the previous bout and the sumo’s trainers handled the paper and water. Then the wrestlers grab a handful of salt to scatter and purify the ring.
Around 3:40 the real action began. The wrestlers of the highest division, Makuuchi, paraded into the arena with great ceremony wearing colorful cloths around their waists. They slowly turned around, gave those colorful cloths a wave up and down, then performed what I called the Sumo Hokey Pokey.
The Makuuchi wrestlers definitely cranked up the drama and showmanship in the arena. As soon as both wrestlers assume the crouch with one fist on the ground, the bout can begin. The Juryu (second highest) wrestlers got to their matches fairly quickly and without too much delay. Not the Makuuchi. Every time the bout looked about ready to begin, one wrestler would almost-put his fist down, then stand up, stretch, pose, preen, posture, and go through the salt and water rituals again. Some of the wrestlers went through three or more cycles of almost-starting before getting down to business. Makuuchi are allowed up to four minutes of preening, glaring, and almost-starting; in many cases, the lead-up to the bouts lasted far longer than the wrestling itself. The crowd loved it, though.
We did too! I’m so glad that I had the chance, and four hours is just about enough. I hope to go back at least once more before we leave Japan.