We are talking about sumo, of course. It is Japan’s national sport, 1500 years old with roots in the Shinto religion. Indeed, many of sumo’s rituals are religious, including sprinkling salt around the ring and that peculiar one-leg-at-a-time stomp that is so often parodied. Both are purification rituals designed to demon-proof the proceedings. (And there must be a lot of demons in the vicinity, judging by the amount of salt these guys throw around. More on that in a moment.)
We were lucky to get tickets. There are only six matches a year held throughout the country, and only half of those are in Tokyo. Each match is 15 days long, which means that there are only 45 days during the year when you can see professional sumo in Tokyo. Happily, one of those 15-day windows falls in mid-September, so here we are. We booked a sumo-plus-traditional dinner tour and were fortunate to have a knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and generally adorable guide named Nao to give us the skinny on the fat guys. Nao was something of a sumo groupie, so she even had cheat sheets made up for us with the names and stats of the players, plus some handicapping information in the bargain. It is all a very big deal, and the players themselves — of whom there are only 660 in the country — are highly venerated as a result.
This led us to our first bit of surrealism, in fact, as Nao lectured us on the unapproachability of these 350-pound demigods. We might see one of them in his robe outside the arena, she cautioned. If we do, do not approach him! (What, will they attack unprovoked?) I’ll do the talking, said Nao, and if we are very, very lucky and very, very polite then he may consent to have his picture taken with us. She proudly added that she had last succeeded in this quest a week ago.
Well, we exit from the train and who is wandering around the station in his bright yellow robe but one of the behemoths in the flesh. Nao approaches him as obsequiously as possible — and in Japan that is very, very obsequious — and after a few moments of conversation the giant consents to a photo op, to everyone’s delight. He does this gamely for a few minutes and most of our group — but not us — managed to get into a shot by the time he turns away to buy a train ticket. Our bad luck, it seems, until Nao imparts out of the blue the biographical nugget that this particular guy is originally from Hawaii. That’s all I need.
As Nao looks on in horror I march over to the ticket machine next to him and say, “Hey, I hear you’re from Hawaii! I used to live there!” It turns out that he is, well, just a guy after all and he says, “No kidding. Where?” So we chat for a minute or two and shake hands and I ask if we could squeeze in one more shot of Alice and me. He says, “Sure,” and here is the result:
So we are once again officially awesome.
The sumo arena is square and holds roughly 4000 people. The sign at the ticket window said that the match was sold out, but as you can see from the photo below it seemed far from that while we were there.
That’s Nao on the far right. In the corridors outside the seating area there are a number of snack bars selling a rather interesting variety of stuff: ice cream and popcorn like stadiums the world over, but also bento boxes and alien Japanese snacks.
After some preliminary bouts the big-time players marched in for the top-of-the-card matches. The overexcited announcer named them one by one as they formed a circle, clad in ornate, colorful upscale loincloths, and the crowd went wild. Here are the top-ranking champions on display.
Speaking of “alien” this is probably a good time to note that it was only in 1993 that a Hawaiian fellow named Chadwick Haheo Rowan broke the “nation barrier” by becoming — amidst an enormous amount of controversy and hand-wringing — the first non-Japanese yokozuna, the highest-ranked sumo wrestler. His sumo name was Akebono Taro, and he pretty much opened the floodgates for non-Japanese participants. Today, in addition to our Hawaiian guy at the train station, we saw wrestlers from China, Georgia (the country), Brazil (which has a large ethnic Japanese population), and a veritable Mongol horde. (Literally: a disproportionate number of the top ranked guys are from Mongolia.)
A match begins, as you probably know, by the contestants strewing salt around the wring, then stretching and stomping around for a bit, then finally squatting down and facing each other. At this point you expect the referee to say “Go!”, and the guys go at it, but no. The referee does not start the bout; the players do, and only when they’re both damn well ready. So after squatting and glowering at each other for a few seconds, one or both will get up, walk around, towel off the sweat (from what?), and throw around more salt. Then they’ll squat down and face each other again, and one will decide, “Nah, not yet,” and the whole cycle starts again: stretching, salt, towel, a stomp or two, maybe a quick mani-pedi. This can go on for half a dozen cycles until there’s enough salt in the ring to de-ice your driveway next winter. At this point the audience is ready to storm the ring and finally things get serious…
…for about ten seconds, until something like this happens:
That “ten seconds” remark is not an exaggeration; many of the bouts are indeed that short. The rules state that a bout may last a maximum of four minutes, but it is hard to imagine that happening given what we saw today. A couple of the very top-ranked matches lasted noticeably longer, the longest being perhaps two minutes. Most of that time was spent with the guys locked together, leaning into each other like a rigid triangle, absolutely unmoving: the irresistible force meeting the immovable object. Sometimes things get slightly out of hand, e.g.:
…but mostly it’s wham, bam, sayonara.
The players are famous, of course, but not terribly rich. There are ten ranks of player and only the top five are paid at all; the lowest of these makes about $120K a year, the highest about three times that. Sponsorships provide a little extra money, though nothing on the scale of American athletes. In fact, it works rather differently. Companies will choose to sponsor particular bouts — generally the ones with the best known players — and pay into a sponsorship pool to do so. When that bout comes up the company reps get to march around the ring holding their company banners, and whoever wins the bout gets the pool. Bouts with top-ranked players will get a dozen or more sponsorships, leading to a scene like this:
At the end of the bout, the referee hands the winner an envelope containing the sponsorship cash, right there in the ring. We should definitely adopt this system at home: when the Yankees are playing, at the conclusion of the game a pickup truck drives onto the field, filed with $50 million in cash from all of Alex Rodriguez’s sponsors, and the coach of the winning team gets to drive off with it.
You are now a sumo expert, and I have retired a minor bucket list item.