Know what’s better than one oversized massive guy in a giant diaper grunting, and showcasing his dominance and prowess? Two… and in competition no less! Yes, sumo wrestling takes the cake on one of the cooler things I experienced in Tokyo when I spent two weeks hanging out there in spring of 2010. Granted Tokyo’s techno-tronic inspired architecture and flashing lights radiate like a city of the future…on SPEED, this more traditional and ritualistic sport showed me that different side of Japan that I had hoped to see since I arrived. Sumo tournaments take place 6 times a year, 3 of which occur in Tokyo. Purely coincidentally, I heard about this spectacular occasion and rushed the same day I heard to wait a couple hours in line hoping to score some of the tickets left for the day I wanted. You can choose to sit in a regular stadium seat or the more exclusive flat-box spaces where you can bring a blanket and set up a picnic with family and friends. Since I didn’t have my regular posse on hand, I took the stadium seat, grabbed my bento box, and slunk into my seat wondering what all the fuss was about. The context and background of the sport offers better insight as to why this sport draws so many fanatics to its competitions.
Would you believe the highly regimented lives these enormous wrestlers lead? From what they do outside the sport, to what they wear in public, every detail down to what time they eat, and if they can drive or not is highly scrutinized and regulated. As soon as the men begin to train they must grow their hair out in the style of samurais from the Japanese Edo period. The sport itself might offer a glimpse into Japanese culture in general. With prestige, honor, and admiration earned through proven track records in competition, sumo wrestlers move up the ranks in an extremely hierarchal sport. The rules of the sport are quite subtle and complicated and only after an hour of watching intently did I start to pick up on some of these intricacies. Effectively, either one imbalances the other, or manages to shove their competitor out of the circle (even by a centimeter counts). They ensure the accuracy of these missteps by having the ring composed of red clay and white sand demarcating the boundaries. If even the heel or toe of the wrestler transgresses that line, the referees can call a victory. True after some time the spectacle fades in novelty, but learning just a little bit more about the sport opens your eyes to a completely different way of evaluating its culture.
A match usually lasts for a minute or less, anyway, with the majority of the time in anticipation, as these giants pose and grunt at each other before going head to head. The build-up can last quite some time as they play head games with each other by stepping down right before the referee starts the match (similar to when the batter steps out of the box in baseball but much more exciting). As this back and forth build-up goes on, the crowd slowly grows anxious and there is an intensity that you can feel throughout the whole arena. When the match finally starts there’s hardly even time to determine who is winning as it’s over so fast.
I’m sure hardened Japanese fans have the experience to know what’s happening, but the not knowing exactly how it went down didn’t deter me from enjoying it nonetheless. If you have the chance to watch any sport in another country (polo in Argentina, Thai boxing in Thailand, bull fighting in Spain) take it! You learn a lot in a small amount of time of some of the values that define that culture. Sumo, especially, provides a spectacular visual landscape designed to impress and entertain. Knowing what’s behind the scenes of the lives these men must lead to scale up to the very top of the league adds to all the excitement. If you’re in the mood to watch some ritualistic flesh fighting, take the time to experience a Sumo match in Japan, and don’t forget your soft serve and bento snack box to munch on while watching too!