Sumo wrestlers gather around the referee (Gyoji) in the dohyo-iri (ring entering ceremony)
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons
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My local pub back in Geelong, Victoria used to do televised mid-week Sumo nights. It was always a blast. Guaranteed packed on an otherwise ghost-town Wednesday eve. In no time at all, we`d be howling mad at the hotel`s big, old projector screen: beer in one hand, betting guide in the other; with a bunch of names, that to the untrained Australian ear, sounded like an imported Japanese car auction. To hear the drunken, okker Aussie drawl tangling clumsily around the Japanese names was half the spectacle, half the fun. “Go, go, Taka-wa-wa…whatsa? Garn big fella, get him!”
We`d watch mesmerized as each Sumo entered the ring and bowed their bodies with the graceful ease of a showroom pristine mini-truck. Their top-knotted cabs tip forward for an engine inspection. They rise again; turn, scoop, flick the salt and slap their thighs. Suspension pumps right, left and settles spongily on its rockers. Knuckles squelch down into a thick layer of silent tension. All is bated breath and dead silence across the entire pub, then…? The entire process repeats. The tension is maddening. Rise, scoop, flick, slap, knuckle, and…? Again: r, s, f, s, k, and…Thwack! Colliding shockwaves of man-mountain, cyclonic limbs, a hand-hold, another hand-hold, tables turn; up over, and a teeter-tottering titan is…down! Done. And the winning punters are bolting to the bar for their free beer.
Now I’m at Japan’s Ryogoku Kogukikan Sumo tournament hall, about fifteen rows back from ringside. I’ve been living in Japan for just shy of five years, and as used to Japanese hospitality culture as I am, I still can’t get over the fact that I’ve received enough complimentary corporate promo tucker to feed a Tokyo river bank tarpaulin village full of homeless people.
Three close Japanese mates and I have crammed into our cordoned off platform and pulled up a cushion. Even split between the three of us, this position has cost us an arm and a leg. Another bout begins, and what I once saw as obese guys engaged in a mortal battle for atomic-wedgy supremacy, seems more like highly regimented athletic specimens; muscular and astonishingly flexible beneath all that cultivated obesity. What was once a guy in a party hat waggling a rectangular Ping-Pong bat like some jerky robot, has become an honorable Gyoji referee engaged in a tradition of ritualistic movement. What I once thought of as big fellas flipping their g-stringed undercarriages, is now understood as a much-revered martial arts wrestler (Rikishi) wearing a time-honored wrestling garter, (Mawashi) and stomping out the bad spirits. These funny-haired blokes chucking salt all over the place have become warriors with ancient Samurai hairstyles performing a Shinto religious ritual designed to satisfy the ever-fickle Gyoji, that indeed, the bad mojo has left the dojo.
I’m about fifteen rows back from ringside, and I notice that at least a third of the platforms in the arena are empty. Its a situation which my Japanese friends believe is related to the extreme price variation between a box seat on the ring level — on average, anywhere between 36,000-45,000 (roughly $400.00-500.00 AU) and the plastic stadium style seating way back on the upper level 3,600 ($4,000 AU.) Hmmm, choices choices. An arm and a leg, or a set of binoculars?
One of my Japanese bar buddies, 31 year old T-bone, an avid skateboarder and housing construction labourer, was stunned at how popular Sumo is in the Australian pubs. He and a lot of his workmates consider the sport, “boring and old-fashioned.” While Sumo promoters are adamant of the sports status as a “Gendai Budo” (modern martial art), this label seems misleading, because it retains the majority of its archaic religious and cultural artifacts. The referee is essentially a glorified variation of a Shinto priest, using what is known as a Gunbai (war-fan) to flag the winning contestant.
Women are still not allowed to participate in any form at the elite level — let alone touch the sacred ring (Dohyo) for fear that they may contaminate it — and attempts to establish a professional women`s competition have been derailed, and at times actively banned by the entrenched Sumo patriarchy. Historically however, it can be noted that enthusiastic concessions were made for female Sumo contests as a form of erotic spectacle for the entertainment of male brothel patrons.
Given the opinions of a large number of my Japanese friends and students, it would not be unreasonable to suggest, that in the eyes of some secular, young Japanese men and women, Sumo is perceived as the archaic preoccupation of a bygone era of masculinized, religion-fuelled Nationalism. That the sport suffers from an image problem among young Japanese workers and university students already burdened with sky-high living costs, might also be compounded by the fact, that much of the price of the premium box seat goes on funding those excessive gift-bags full of corporate branded bento (food box) and souvenirs. An irony given the sometimes high proportion of empty seats, and the sport’s proclaimed desperation to attract younger fans.
As I’m looking around, I can’t help but wonder where the current Japanese Emperor Akihito, would sit when he comes to watch a tournament. It leads me to recall the Sumo discipline’s origins as an ancient imperial plaything. Historically, popular acceptance of Sumo varied according to the dictates of Japan’s feudal rulers, who employed it as a training regime to control crowds during times of disaster and social upheaval.
Although the origins of Sumo can be traced as far back as 2000 years, where it was performed as a festival (Matsuri) ritual designed to entertain the gods (Kami), it did not come into prominence as an officially organized sport until Japan’s Edo period. (17thC.) Earlier in its history, contestants from each province, who were ordered to attend not only had to pay for their travel to the imperial palace, but also for the privilege of competing for the Japanese Imperial Court’s amusement. Times have changed. These-days, contestants receive a paltry sustenance wage, but score additional big earnings based on performance and rank.
I developed a real appreciation from watching the sport live, but as fascinating as it may have been, I found it hard to justify living on stale sushi rolls and corporate promo yaki-tori (skewered flame grilled chicken) for a week, to offset the expense of getting a decent seat.
A lot of the regulars from my old pub back home in Australia — watching and grasping their precious form guides tightly in their bloodless knuckles and howling at every turn — probably wouldn’t care much for all the elitist pomp and ceremony of a bygone era, either. Perhaps even less so, for the fact that Sumo is heavily grafted to Japan’s powerful corpratocracy, and has been a frequent hotbed for corruption, criminal involvement, tortuous hazing rituals, and even murder among trainers and wrestlers.
Most of the punters back at my old local pub, were blissfully unaware of such shady background goings-on. They were just happy to watch a form of cultural export neatly excised from its socio-economic context and whittled down to its most fleeting moments of gladiatorial truth. For some it was just a good old bit of blokey rough and tumble. A short and sweet series of fleshy spectacles, that conveniently allows frequent trips to the bar and toilet between it’s numerous bouts. I suspect that the young Japanese workers and students who could have filled those empty platforms in the Ryogoku Kogukikan arena are — much like their Aussie counterparts — watching from the affordable comfort of their local bar. And it’s likely they’re having a bit of a chuckle at the odd, big fellas with the funny hair-dos chucking the salt and dancing around in their g-strings. Here in Japan, I am inclined to join my native Japanese buddies in the local watering-hole, with little more than the occasional curious glance up at the flat-screen television. We’re much more intent on sharing our hard-earned dough across the bar, instead of allowing it to pay for the stitching on the Emperor’s new clothes.
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