Clash of the Titans

The city of Tokyo is well-connected by air, road and rail with the rest of Japan. The city’s international airport is an hour’s drive from the heart of the city. Tokyo has plenty of hotels from traditional capsule hotels to five-star hostelries. Three sumo tournaments are held in Tokyo in January, May and September. Other venues are Osaka (March), Nagoya (July) and Fukuoka (November). Sumo matches take place in a ring or dohyo made of rice-straw bales on top of a platform made of clay mixed with sand; a new dohyo is built for each tournament. For details, visit the Japan National Tourism Organisation: www.jnto.go.jp

Rainbow Bridge (Photo by Luke Ma)

Rainbow Bridge (Photo by Luke Ma)

 

The Pre Fight Rituals

With measured steps, the two giants lumbered into the sumo ring or dohyo. The enormous bulk that was their thighs, each one the girth of an average man’s waist, meant that they walked with a wide, yet not ungainly gait. With only the ring bathed in bright lights, we, like most of the audience that packed the dimly-lit two-level arena, were focussed on the protagonists dressed in nothing more than colourful loin cloths and thick belts around their massive waists.

 

Photo courtesy of Eugene Flores

 

We watched them go through a now familiar routine: a crisp bow when the referee or gyoji, dressed in a beautifully-embroidered kimono of brilliant colours, announced their names, a curt acknowledgment of the opponent across the ring, the squatting and raising of hands over their heads and the exaggerated stomping of feet. The oversized warriors then lumbered to the side of the ring to ‘purify’ themselves by rinsing their mouths with water offered to them in a wooden ladle, then sauntered back, tossing purifying salt with deft flicks of their wrists. As they went through their pre-fight routine, attendants circled the outer parameter of the fighting circle (14.9 ft in diameter) with long-handle brooms obliterating all traces of the earlier contest.

Preparing for fight (Photo by Kim Ahlstrom)

Preparing for fight (Photo by Kim Ahlstrom)

 

The Fight

The orchestrated sequence built up to a crescendo as the two man-mountains faced off, glaring at each other across two short white strips that separated them. The referee in his beautiful kimono, extended a delicate Japanese fan that seemed to have some kind of magnetic force that kept the two behemoths from crashing into each other. There was an element of grace in how they conducted the elaborate ritual and built up to the impending flash of violence.

 

The moment the fists of the two wrestlers touched the ground, the mystical powers of the fan dissolved and they hurtled across the space that separated them with an agility that belied their immense size. Mountains of lard collided into each other. Shove, slap, push, heave… This was their moment of truth; when all the gorging on food to put on weight and the strenuous morning hours working out in the gym was on the line.

 

Photo courtesy of Eckhard Pecher

 

Given the prolonged suspense leading to the finale, the actual fight was relatively brief, almost way too brief; sometimes ending in a flicker of a second. The winner was the wrestler who either forced his opponent out of the ring or made him touch the ground with any part of his body other than the soles of his feet. Twice when the outcome was too close to call, the five judges sitting around the ring got into a huddle with the referee in the centre to determine the winner.

 

Post Fight Conduct

 

A striking feature of the post-match proceedings was that the winner did not engage in a victory celebration that is a common feature of most competitive sports; not even a wave of acknowledgment to the crowd. He was almost as grim-faced as the loser as the two marched off from the arena. Yes, sumo wrestlers engaged in explosive hostility with stoic dignity. In fact, the only aggression we witnessed was outside the ring and it involved the audience after the final match between the Yokozuna (the highest rank bestowed on a champion wrestler) and another highly-ranked opponent. The contest was brief – very brief – as the challenger side-stepped the charge of the Yokozuna and heaved him out of the ring, sending him crashing rather awkwardly into the audience. Suddenly, the arena was filled with boos and a volley of seat cushions. Later, we learned that this is expected — but not encouraged — when a Yokozuna loses a match.

History of Sumo wrestling

The origins of sumo go back to ancient times when aside from being a test of strength, humans danced with divine Shinto spirits. Even today the ritual of waltzing with the gods is practiced in some Shinto shrines across the country. Professional sumo traces its roots back to Japan’s Edo period when samurai warriors saw it as a means of earning additional income by pitting their strength against each other. The first recorded sumo tournament was held in 1684 at Tokyo’s Tomioka Hachiman Shrine.

 

Tomioka Hachiman Shrine (Photo by Guilhem Vellut)

Tomioka Hachiman Shrine (Photo by Guilhem Vellut)

 

 

About Sumo wrestling

 

Sumo is a very structured sport, stratified into five divisions and governed by well-defined rituals. Referees are also graded and only those holding the highest rank may officiate in a match involving a Yokozuna. Professional wrestlers live in sumo stables and are recruited by scouts who fan out across the country looking for fit young athletes, rather than fat and sluggish kids, who have the potential to bulk up into becoming fierce competitors. Wrestlers lead disciplined lives that involve gorging on food, rigorous training and sleeping long hours, all aimed at putting on as much bulk as possible which can be a deciding factor in the sumo ring.

 

 

A wrestler’s diet

 The diet of a sumo wrestler is a protein-rich stew called Chankonabe that comprises of chicken, beef, fish, tofu and vegetables and is consumed twice a day in huge quantities. But there is a price to pay for the bulking-up lifestyle as it leads to a number of illnesses like diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. The life expectancy of sumo wrestlers is around 10 years lower than the average Japanese male. Lay people wanting to sample Chankonabe can order the sumo meal at many restaurants in Japan, especially those in the Ryogoku area of Tokyo where the Japan Sumo Association is located.

Chanko Nabe (Photo by ThisParticularGreg)

Chanko Nabe (Photo by ThisParticularGreg)

 

 

The average daily calorie intake of a sumo wrestler is around 20,000 as compared to around 3,000 of an average man. The meals are washed down with as many as six pints of beer that not only provide empty calories but help them to sleep soon after. Sleep, of course, converts the calories into fat. Wrestlers also skip breakfast as it slows down their metabolism and helps them put on bulk.

 

 

Incentives and Lifestyle for Sumo wrestlers

 

The price for eating heartily and being obese is compensated for by the promise of earning a good living. If a wrestler should reach the level of a Yokozuna, he will rake in a monthly salary of over USD 30,000 plus bonuses for each bout and tournaments won. Wrestlers making it to the second highest division will earn around USD 11,000 per month plus bonuses.

 

Moreover, those who reach the highest division — makuuchi — are entitled to privileges in the training stables (there are around 50 across Japan). Not only do they get to eat first and sleep longer but they are also pampered in other ways too; like their hair being brushed and styled by their lower-ranked colleagues. Yokozunas and other high ranking wrestlers also get to keep the money that corporate houses pay to advertise their banners before their bout. However, this amount, as also conventional advertising revenue, is shared with their stables which pay their salary.

Ryogoku Kokugikan Stadium (Photo by Goki)

Ryogoku Kokugikan Stadium (Photo by Goki)

 

While there is no retirement plan, most of the higher ranked wrestlers become trainers and scouts in the stables they fought for. Sumo tournaments are 15-day affairs and each wrestler fights a different opponent each day. The one with the best win/loss record is declared the champion. Sumo wrestlers are promoted or demoted according to their performance in six official tournaments held throughout the year in various cities of Japan. The current Yokozuna is a Mongolian. Hai, or yes, in Japanese, our evening out at the sumo stadium in Tokyo had been an entertaining and rewarding experience.

 

Posted by Debangana Sen