Sumo wrestling has always fascinated me. Although I did not always understand the sport, it was a sporting event that I wanted to attend and learn more about. I am of the thinking that one cannot truly understand a sport until one either participates in that sport or watches the sport live in the arena or field in which it is played. Case in point: rugby. My very good friend Doug and I used to debate about which sport was better; American NFL football or rugby, in particular New Zealand All Blacks Rugby, his home country’s national team. I always sided with the NFL until Doug took me to a Crusaders game in Christchurch, New Zealand at the now non-existent Jade Stadium back in 2004. Sitting in Jade and watching my first professional rugby match a light went on…Ahhhh, now I understand the game! I now love watching rugby as much as I love to watch my Kansas City Chiefs. Now I can equally argue for both sports. Cheers Doug!
Sumo is an ancient sport dating back over 1,500 years and, according to legend, the origin of the Japanese people came about when the god Takemikazuchi won a sumo match against a rival. Most of the first sumo matches were religious in nature and were considered rituals dedicated to the gods as prayers for bountiful harvests, combined with dramas and dancing. Those early sumo matches were pretty violent with “two men enter, one man leaves” the only real rule. Later in Japanese history, a period of intense warfare plagued the island nation and sumo was seen as a way to train men to fight. Samurai even used sumo techniques to develop a form of jujitsu to add to their fighting repertoire. After peace was restored under the Tokugawa Shogunate around the year 1603, sumo wrestling groups were created to entertain the new mercantile class of citizens and became the national sport of Japan, as it is to this day. It is my understanding that today’s Japan Sumo Association can trace its origins to those first wrestling groups formed back in the Edo Period.
Sumo occurs in a ring that is called the dohyo and is about fifteen feet in diameter. Winning is simple: push your opponent out of the ring or knock him down in the ring. Sounds simple, but it is not! It is a lot more than two big men trying to shove one another out of a small ring, although at its base level that is exactly what it is. Sumo is a layered, intricate sport of physical strength, psychology, centuries old tradition, status, and money. A sumo match is a series of intricate holds, shoves, and salt throwing mind games. They posture, walk around, stare, and throw salt. The throwing of salt can really get the crowd excited, but is not the only symbolic movement made in the ring to clear the mind and body. The salt purifies the ring and insures the sumo against injury, but is a ritual reserved for only the sumo that have achieved the high ranks of makuuchi, juryo, and maku-shita. They also rinse their mouths out with water for purification, stamp their feet, glare, and throw more salt. Once the two sumo enter the ring, it can take up to four minutes before they actually throw down (which is allowed by rule). If you think that is slow, there used to be no time limit on matches and they could take forever!
I attended my first sumo tournament back in September. A friend and I went to the September Grand Sumo Tournament 2018. I learned a lot about sumo and even found a favorite sumo wrestler to support: Mitakeumi Hisashi from the Dewanoumi Sumo Stable. Mitakeumi is a young wrestler (26 years of age) from Nagano, Japan. He reached the rank of Komusubi in the Makuuchi division rather quickly. The hope is that he will reach the top Yokozuna division soon.
Luckily for me, sumo was on my wife’s “must do in Japan” list of things to do while living in Japan! So we added the January Sumo Tournament to our Tokyo itinerary. We arrived in the spiritual heartland of sumo known as the Ryōgoku District where the Ryōgoku Kokugikan Arena (aka Ryōgoku Sumo Hall) is located. You can tell you are in “sumo country” when you reach the district due to the sumo statues that grace the sidewalks. We had a nice lunch and headed to the sumo hall. Excitement was in the air as several sumo were arriving as we walked up. That is the cool thing about sumo, they do not enter through a backdoor or underground tunnel. They arrive right out front and mingle with people taking selfies with anyone who asks!
One of the first things we did when we entered was check out the Sumo Museum. Unfortunately, no picture or video were allowed, but it was an interesting and informative look at the history of sumo. Next, we walked around the arena taking in the sights. Just like any sporting event in the States, their were souvenir shops, food kiosks, and corporate sponsors to keep us occupied. We were not immune to their call: we bought a sumo shot glass, a sumo t-shirt for our youngest nephew, and sumo postcards! In the basement of the arena, they offered Chanko Stew for ¥300. Chanko stew is a must for all the sumo wrestlers and their stables. I ate it the first time I attended sumo, but it was not in our plans for today as it was time to head up to our seats.
Our seats were located in the upper deck, yet provided a good view of the matches and ceremonies. We were provided with a program in English, so it was easy to follow all of the matches. Once the higher ranking sumo matches began, we had a ton of fun counting all the corporate sponsor banners that were displayed before the match began. Each banner represents ¥60,000 (roughly $550 USD) and the number of banners determines the amount of prize money the winning wrestler receives at the end of the match. Many of the Makuuchi division matches sported 15-20 banners each time. Do the math, that is a lot of yen! If you have ever wondered what the gyoji (referee/judge) hands the winner at the end of each match, that is what it is: banner money! Each wrestler gives a percentage of his winnings to his stable, pays some taxes, and keeps the rest. And this can add up over the course of each fifteen day tournament.
As the matches progressed, it was time for my favorite sumo, Mitakeumi, to enter the ring against the sumo Myogiryu. Unfortunately, it did not go well this time around for Mitakeumi. He was defeated. He gave his all in the ring and was actually injured as he was shoved out of the ring. He was absent from the ring for the next three days. He returned to wrestle in the last few days of the tournament, but was not able to come back as strong as he needed. Sekiwake Tamawashi was the Grand Sumo winner for this tournament. You can bet your bottom yen that Mitakeumi will be back stronger than ever. And hopefully, there will be another sumo tournament experience in my future as well!
Once the last match finished, we filed out of the arena and into the Tokyo night. It was a short, but crowded walk back to the subway. We ended up eating dinner at a really good Mexican food restaurant called La Jolla near Hiro Station. The food tasted great and was a welcome treat and something we do not get to indulge in much at home in Misawa. As we sat and enjoyed our food, my wife and I plotted out our next destination: Sengakuji Temple, also known as the gravesite of the legendary 47 Ronin.
Look for that tale in Tokyo Part Three: The 47 Ronin.
© 2019 Gregory Vessar
Author’s note: Check out the vending machines at the Ryōgoku Kokugikan Arena!