Japan’s Autumn Grand Sumo Tournament

Originally printed in Clear Lake Courier — 28 October 1998

When I moved to Japan, one of my sailors told me I’d soon be a sumo fan. I couldn’t imagine getting excited about those excessively obese men pushing at each other, and I still can’t. However, when my boss acquired tickets to a performance of the Autumn Grand Sumo Tournament in Tokyo, I agreed to go. It would be a cultural experience.

Six grand tournaments are held each year in Japan. During fifteen all-day sessions, every rikishi (wrestler) fights a different opponent each day. We attended the final three hours of the eighth performance.

Tokyo’s Ryogoku Kokugikan looked like any other arena set up for a performance in-the-round, except for a roof suspended on cables over the dohyo (sumo ring). The roof resembled a Shinto shrine with four giant tassels hanging from each corner to signify the seasons of the year.

The dohyo itself, which is considered sacred and off-limits to spectators, was constructed of a special kind of clay and covered with a thin layer of sand. It measured 18 feet square and two feet high. The actual bouts took place in an inner circle, fifteen feet in diameter.

Another difference from American arenas was that the main seating section contained cushions, not chairs. Three double rows of cushions on the floor surrounded the dohyo. Tiered quarter segments went up thirty rows, with horizontal aisles separating every four rows. I was grateful we had balcony seats, with real chairs and space to put our legs.

We watched the two highest-level matches, each consisting of eighteen individual bouts. Both were preceded by an “entering the ring” ceremony. Down an aisle in reverse order of rank marched one team wearing ceremonial aprons. These silk aprons, richly embroidered and hemmed with gold fringe, cost $4000-5000 apiece.

After the team entered the ring and performed a traditional sumo ritual, it headed back down the aisle and the other team entered from the opposite side. During the match itself, only the next two rikishi on the schedule were seated at the edge of the dohyo.

Professional sumo in Japan has 800 rikishi, ranging from trainees to champions. They fight naked except for a heavy silk loincloth called a mawashi. Approximately ten yards by two feet, it is folded into sixths and wrapped around the waist 4-7 times, depending on girth.

Most of the seventy winning sumo tricks involve getting a grip on the opponent’s mawashi and maneuvering him out of the ring. A rikishi loses his bout if he is forced out of the 15-foot ring or any part of his body touches the ground.

Upon entering the dohyo, the opposing rikishi bow to each other and immediately go to their respective corners. There each symbolically cleanses his mind and body by rinsing his mouth with water, the source of purity, and wiping his body with a paper towel before returning to the ring.

What looked to me like squatting, clapping hands and stamping feet actually had a ritual meaning. In unison they clapped their hands to attract the attention of the gods, then extended their arms with palms turned upward to show they had no weapons. They lifted each heavy leg to the side and upwards, bringing it down to stamp the ground and symbolically drive evil from the dohyo. They then moved back to their corners and grabbed handfuls of salt, which they tossed to purify the ring and protect themselves from injury.

Watching them squat and face each other in the ring, crouch forward as if ready to start the match, and then stand and return to their corners, followed by more squatting and stamping and throwing of salt, I wondered when the match would ever begin. But I learned this was part of the ritual. They had four minutes to intimidate each other, trying to get a psychological edge by glaring and stalling, building up the excitement level for themselves and the audience.

Finally the referee called time. The rikishi rushed together and the match was over in three to fifteen seconds. They usually tried to grab either other’s mawishi and lift the opponent out of the ring. Some fell, some were shoved, some struggled. The crowd seemed to cheer for the smaller fighters, whose muscle usually defeated bulk.

In every case it was necessary to watch closely or miss the actual fight. Keeping score, I had to watch closely to notice when one of the eighteen bouts ended and another began. The Japanese words that blared constantly from the loudspeaker were no help.

At the end of each bout, the two wrestlers politely bowed and stepped off the dohyo. The loser immediately left the arena, while the winner stayed long enough to offer water to the next member of his team.

Only three rikishi currently hold the top sumo rank of yokozuna. Excitement increased as time for their bouts approached. Two are brothers and the other is 29-year-old Hawaiian-born Akebono, weighing 560 pounds and almost 7 feet tall.

In the last–and possibly shortest–match of the day, Akebono shoved his opponent out of the ring with two sharp pushes. Rival brothers Wakanohana and Takanohana also won their matches, to continue a three-way 7-1 tie.

Akebono came to Japan ten years ago to begin his career as a sumo wrestler, and quickly rose to the top. Promoted to yokozuna in 1993, he became a Japanese citizen in 1996. He completed the Autumn Grand Sumo Tournament in third place, after losing the championship match to Takanohana, who is 26 years old and only 320 pounds. (The next weekend he married the Japanese-American mother of his baby daughter.)

No, I won’t become a sumo fan. But I enjoyed the tournament and acquired a basic understanding of this popular Japanese sport.

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