It was in the spirit of pleasant inevitability that I found myself standing outside Ryōgoku Kokugikan last Friday, watching the (very accurately predicted by a Japanese acquaintance) ‘tourists and old people’ milling about and taking hundreds of thousands of photos of the hut-shaped arena while I, perhaps a little more bravely, went for the sumo wrestlers heading home after the day’s bout in one of the six annual tournaments.
Arriving at a little past two, the arena was generally quite quiet and reserved. The standing of the wrestlers increases throughout the day, leading many people to skip the first eight hours of low-ranking bouts and turn up at four to see the sekitori, who make up the top tiers and generally the more exciting fights. This almost scholarly atmosphere was shattered by eight loud Americans who, through no fault of their own (I am sure), seemed to have misread the ambiance and decided that their presence would be best employed by shouting support and derision during fights, imitating the ritual chanting which follows each bout and wondering loudly why it was all taking so long. Either their patience or their nerve seemed to run out after a few hours, however, and they were not heard from once things started really picking up.
Although each actual fight generally lasts less than 15 seconds, there is a great deal of ceremony both before each individual bout and each round. At first, all the wrestlers of a certain level enter and step up to the ring, with the name and origin of each called out. Instead of the mawashi (loincloth) used in actual fights, the higher-ranking sekitori wear an embroidered apron called a keshō-mawashi. These also appear in portraits if a wrestler wins the tournament, and is now purely ceremonial and very expensive. Before the fight itself, there is a great deal of stretching of arms (to show a lack of weapons), clapping, throwing of salt for purification of the ring and general staring down of opponents. This is where one sees the crouching poses and enormous stamping that is so often associated with the sport.
It was somewhat to my surprise that, alongside the classically gelatinous wrestlers, a (relatively) slighter and European-looking man also appeared. Foreigners are far from unheard of in sumo – there hasn’t been a Japanese yokozuna (highest ranking sumo) since 2007, but most come from Mongolia, with Pacific Island dominance common in the 1980’s. This has become so apparent that the Japan Sumo Association has started placing limits on the number of foreigners allowed in sumo stables. It turns out that our man, known as Takanoyama Shuntarō, hails from the Czech Republic. He appeared to win his match with relative ease, but is apparently held back from rising much further by his lack of bulk. Matches begin when both competitors have touched their fists to their corresponding white line, which is immediately followed by both men leading towards each other with a sometimes audible slap. Finally, the result of the match is announced by a man in white holding a fan, who chants the name of the winner and the technique used.
As the matches get bigger, so do the crowds, the excitement and the wrestlers themselves. Sponsors appear, walking carefully around the edge holding large colourful banners. While the atmosphere and tension certainly increases, there is certainly no guarantee that the win itself will be more impressive. There were a few more amateur mistakes (such as embarrassing slips) in the earlier rounds, but many fights end with a wrestler being pushed out of the ring and walking dejectedly back to his place, rather than spectacular throws. Highlights did however, include a sekitori finding himself rather abruptly seated amongst the audience as a result of a particularly vigorous tumble, and a technically forbidden throwing of cushions after one victory by an underdog.
Sumo is something so quintessentially Japanese that my attendance was all but non-negotiable. Although among the Japanese it is very much an over-50’s sport, there is a great deal of excitement and ceremony, alongside the rather base pleasure of seeing two enormously fat men in nappies trying to push each other over.