Japanese Culture 101: Sumo

The beginning of a sumo tournament.

In the last few weeks not much has been happening. Fall has arrived which is great. Japanese summers are full of activities but the weather becomes insufferable by the end. I actually get exasperated by the heat, can’t think clearly and begin to make mistakes at work and at home. One day this past summer it was so ridiculously hot that I couldn’t think of anything else besides how hot I was, and I forgot all of my textbooks for my classes. I arrived at work without books! I also left my house keys in different stores a couple of times and because it was so hot all the time I didn’t sleep very well from mid-May to mid-September. Therefore, fall is a much needed change.

Since not much has been happening lately today I am writing about Japan’s national sport: sumo.

Sumo is an odd concept for everyone, that includes Japanese people. Nowadays. sumo is nowhere as popular as it used to be way back when. Young Japanese are not interested in sumo at all, so for many it is considered a sport for grandpas. I guess my boyfriend is a grandpa because he loves it! As such, I have been acquainted with the sport and had the most fantastic time when we went to see the Osaka tournament back in March.

In the middle of a fight.

Sumo wrestlers begin their career once they graduate jr. high school as high school is not mandatory in Japan. Some others go into universities with a sumo program in it. Sumo wrestlers get head hunted and once that happens they belong to certain stable. A stable is a training ring and all wrestlers belong to specific wrestling rings. They train and live in the stables with other sumo wrestlers as their team members. Lately there has been a lot of scandals between stables along the lines of fixing games and gambling, but that’s a whole different posting.

There are six divisions in sumo: makuuchi (maximum 42 wrestlers), juryo(fixed at 28 wrestlers), makushita (fixed at 120 wrestlers), sandanme (fixed at 200 wrestlers), jonidan (approximately 185 wrestlers), and jonokuchi (approximately 40 wrestlers). The makuuchi division is the one that receives the most amount of attention from the media and at the top of the division is the yokozuna (champion). The current champion is Hakuho who has been yokozuna for the whole time I’ve been in Japan. During the last tournament a new yokozuna was named Harumafuji. The promotion criteria for yokozuna are very strict. Hakuho has won most of the tournaments in the time I have been living in Japan, but when we went to see the tournament we saw Hakuho loose, which rarely happens. This was a huge upset and people in the crowd began to throw their seat cushions into the rink. It was great!

Life as a rikishi (wrestler) is not easy, it is highly regimented, with rules laid down by the Sumo Association. Breaking the rules can result in fines and/or suspension, not only for the offending wrestler, but also for his stablemaster. The junior rikishi must get up earliest, around 5 am, for training whereas the most senior rikishi may start around 7 am. When the senior wrestlers are training, the junior rikishi may have chores to do, such as assisting in cooking the lunch, cleaning and preparing the bath. The ranking hierarchy is kept for the order of precedence in bathing after training, and in eating lunch.

When we went to Tokyo over Golden Week holidays we walked around the sumo neighbourhood and had lunch in one of the local restaurants. We were all excited because we wanted to try out what sumo wrestlers eat on a regular basis. We ordered our own lunch set, but it was way too much food!  The portions were huge and by the time we finished it looked as if we hadn’t touched our plates. We ate something called chankonabe which consists of a simmering stew that contains various fish, meat, and vegetables. Is very fatty and beside the stew you also get rice, soup and other things in between. After the chankonabe, wrestlers usually take a nap and this helps them put on weight.

Going to the tournament was a ton of fun! We went to Osaka and spent some time enjoying the city. The day of the tournament we passed to the convenience store and stocked up on beer and chips. Is pretty awesome that they allow you to go into the tournament with outside food. We had a great view and the tournament was very exciting and we just enjoyed screaming and booing with all the people around us. Thomas was so excited to be there and pretty much gave me the whole English commentary. We were so excited when we came out that when we went to Tokyo we spend half a day just walking around the sumo area and was lucky enough to get a picture with one of them.

Walking around Ryogoku (sumo neighbourhood) during our holidays in Tokyo.

A sumo rekishi.