A byte of life from the Land of Sumos and Sushi

Friday, March 24, 2006

Last weekend, a posse of Fukui foreigners made the short train journey to Osaka city to behold the wonder of a sumo tournament. The small stadium meant that there really wasn’t a bad seat in the house, and though we were in the cheap stalls, we had a great view of the battling behemoths.

Sumo is said to have originated around 1500 years ago. In its early stages the sport was a rough and tumble affair that combined boxing and wrestling, and had few rules. For a long time it was regarded primarily for its military usefulness in hand to hand combat, and in the age of the samurai, the martial art of Ju-Jitsu was delveloped from sumo.

Now it is a highly ritualised affair, with strict rules of engagement and etiquette, and duties that extend even to outside the ring. For example, the top ranked sumos are only permitted to appear in public wearing traditional attire (kimono and yukata that is, not mawashi - the g-stings!). In fact, last year a sumo wrestler caused huge controversy when he showed up in public in a suit rather than a kimono, and the sumo association threatened to strip him of his status for not upholding the honour of the sport!

To Japan’s ongoing disappointment, the current sumo champion (termed the yokozuna), is not Japanese, but Mongolian. There are also a few other high ranking sumo foreigners, including two Russian brothers, and a Bulgarian, Kotooshu, who is a big crowd pleaser, and has been dubbed the “David Beckham of Sumo”, due to his dashing good looks.

The Bulgarian certainly put on a good show for us. As the bout started, he put in a nifty little side step, dodging his attacker. He then was almost forced out of the ring, only managing to evade a loss at the last split second, and then after some fierce grappling and "hundred hand slapping" (E. Honda from Street Fighter 2 style) came back with a sweet throw, depositing his opponent outside of the ring, and winning the bout.

A day of sumo is very much like a day of cricket, i.e. a lot of build up, but only short periods of sporadic action. Indeed, the average bout lasts less than 15 seconds, yet the watering and sweeping of the ring, throwing of salt, slapping of thighs and stomping the sand lasts for several minutes, and precedes each fight. The highest ranking fighters will put on quite a show before actually fighting, which serves to psyche up themselves, and get the crowd in a frenzy.

Tiny details are scrutinised here. By throwing the salt a little further into the ring, or by slapping the chest with the little extra pizazz, the crowd can been driven into yells of excitement.

In fact, originally, there was no limit to the length of this “psyching up” period, but when spectators were sitting around waiting for an hour for a fight to actually start, they decided to bring in a limit, which now stands at four minutes.

A tournament lasts for 15 days, during which each wrestler fights just once a day. The lower ranks start earliest, and the big boys of the sumo world enter the ring later on in the day. Promotion is granted if a wrestler wins more than 8 of the 15 bouts, but the top position of yokozuna is only granted to a sumo who is not only an exceptional wrestler, but also a man of great character, worthy of holding such an exalted position.

To finish off the day, one sumo is picked to perform the yumitori-shiki – or bow dance. Here, a specially made bow is twirled about the head and body, similar to a baton in a marching band, but somewhat cooler. This is said to have originated when a winning sumo was presented with a bow, and then performed the dance to express his satisfaction.

Overall, a solid afternoon of watching giants in g-strings, highly recomended, and well worth the £25 ticket price.


Post a Comment

<< Home