On the topic of Japan’s most iconic indigenous sports, I’m sure many would agree that one is most likely to think of sumo wrestling. For me, just hearing the word brings to mind the image of two gargantuan human beings battling each other upon a clay ring, and since the last time I went to see a sumo wrestling match in Japan, that image has grown extremely clear.
The first sumo wrestling match I ever saw live was at Ryogoku Kokugikan in Tokyo, on a CIEE-organized event in December 2014. I remember feeling extremely pleased at the prospect of finally seeing in person something which I had thus far only had a very storybook image of in my head. We were seated on the second level, looking down as pairs of very large men entered and exited the stage. Too preoccupied with excitement, I failed to understand anything about the art of sumo wrestling. My knowledge of sumo wrestling, however, was to become much more profound the next time I were to visit the Ryogoku Kokugikan.
I had the chance to become acquainted with the mother of one of my friend’s students at the international school where she teaches part-time – turns out, the mother’s what they call an “okamisan,” the master of a “sumo stable.” Indeed, sumo wrestlers train, eat, and are housed in what is called a sumo stable, and I was lucky enough to have met the master of one. Apparently, being the acquaintance of an okamisan comes with a few perks, as I eventually found out when my colleague and I were presented with free front-row tickets to another sumo wrestling match at Ryogoku Kokugikan.
Here’s how a day of sumo wrestling matches works: The spectator area remains open, meaning you can go in and out whenever you want, thus facilitating the processes of getting a snack or going to the bathroom. Matches are held throughout the day in procession, beginning with the lower-ranking (not-so) small-fry sumo wrestlers. On average, each match lasts just a few seconds, so it’s easy to become familiar with the process after a few matches. A pair of sumo wrestlers enter the ring, and each wrestler bows to the other. Then, each wrestler begins to cycle between the motions of squatting at the starting line, performing a few motions (slapping their bellies, stomping on the ground, etc.), and throwing salt across the ring. Then, the fight begins. It usually only takes two to three seconds for one sumo to ring-out the other. This is a simple enough process, to say the least, and I was able to enjoy the matches my first time at Ryogoku Kokugikan. However, it took the okamisan explaining to me the significance behind these motions for me to really appreciate the art.
As I watched from one of the front-most sections, the okamisan explained to me that the wrestlers wrestle each other when they feel like it, without exchanging a word. The cycle of motions and throwing salt serve to pump up the Japanese fighting spirit of the wrestlers themselves, as well as to excite the audience. When both wrestlers are ready to take on the other, they will communicate their readiness with a mere look – the referee is just there to make sure they don’t go over the time limit.
Apparently, there are both honorable and dishonorable ways for a sumo wrestler to win, and a wrestler is not liked simply for his fighting ability, but also for his “nihonseishin,” or “Japanese spirit.” I remember the okamisan expressing particular distaste for one wrestler who had won by tricking his opponent to come at him, then dodging out of the way.
Occasionally, a match would be preceded by several people in robes walking onto the circular stage, and circling around the wrestlers whilst holding up flags with advertisements on them. It was a sight I had seen my first time at the stadium, but had yet to understand. The okamisan explained to me that these were sponsors for either one of the sumo wrestlers on stage, and that each flag was worth about six hundred US dollars. The victorious wrestler would be given six hundred dollars for each flag as reward money, a discovery which had me gaping for several minutes straight. Some matches were preceded by about two or three flags, others by over thirty, and most with none at all. I remember counting a total of over thirty flags for the final match, and watching with great envy as the victor left with literal handfuls of money.
To me, the most interesting part of this experience was seeing how the wrestlers who were popular for their “Japanese spirit” weren’t all Japanese, but mostly Mongolian. There was even one Russian wrestler amongst the top-division sumo who was received with quite an uproar after winning his match. It goes to show that being Japanese isn’t a prerequisite to possessing the moral values which the Japanese people uphold, which gives me hope, as after seeing all those six-hundred-dollar flags, I am currently considering a lucrative career in sumo wrestling.