Sumo: Art of unexpected

By Kathleen G. Charters
Kenko Shimbun, March 1984, p. 11.

Sumo, known as the “sport of emperors,” is more than just another athletic event. It is a tradition dating back to before the opening of the Christian era. It is also a most enjoyable doorway into Japanese philosophy, religion, and culture (the three terms are, in Japan, almost inseparable).

I became a sumo enthusiast through no special effort on my part. In January there was the first of the year’s six 15-day tournaments, and the highlights of each day’s events were shown each night on Japanese news. At first I could not imagine why two gigantic men would want to move one another about a small circle; then suddenly one man was outside the circle! How did that occur? I began to watch more closely, and at times could almost catch the subtle shift in weight or hand position that led to one giant’s swift removal from the ring. At other times, even slow motion instant replay left me with no idea how a particular maneuver was accomplished.

I discovered NHK TV covered – live – the matches of the higher ranking sumotori, and learned there was much more to sumo than the few seconds of actual contact. There is an impressive and complex series of ceremonies and rituals preceding and following each bout, ranging from respectful bows to the opponent and referee to the throwing of handfuls of salt into the ring. Though I didn’t understand what all the motions meant, I knew there was meaning in each movement by the seriousness of the participants. This was no sport for the faint at heart – the scowls and glares between opponents were strong enough to shatter rock.

To help unravel the mystery, I bought a book from Stars and Stripes: Sumo: The Sport and the Tradition, by J. A. Sargeant. Numerous photos and drawings captured the drama and revealed the secrets of those sudden moves. The ranking system became clear, and the referee’s role gained meaning. Hopelessly hooked, I resolved to see a sumo match in person.

Fortunately, there was a Recreation Services tour to the first of a two-day exhibition match (the 8th Grand Sumo Tournament) held in Tokyo. It was a perfect opportunity. My husband, notorious for hating all sports but basketball, had also become hooked on sumo, and enthusiastically agreed to venture forth to Kuramae Kokugikan for a firsthand look. The bus trip took about two hours, and we noted for future reference that there was a train station just a block away from the stadium. Just outside the stadium we purchased a program (the text was in kanji, but there were pictures of the higher-ranking sumotori which we could use for reference). For foreign visitors, a free English language schedule of the day’s matches was provided along with a “tree” which could be filled in to show how the sumotori advanced in standing.

We wandered through the stadium, noting concession stands with unusual munchies and looking at the box seats on the main floor. The Japanese take the term “box seat” literally, as there is just a space on the floor boxed off by a six-inch high wall, large enough for four people. If sitting on the floor doesn’t appeal to you, you can always rent or bring a pillow. Fortunately, we had the “cheap seats” in the balcony. While farther away from the action, the seats are standard movie theater seats, more comfortable after a long bus ride .

The tournament, like most sumo tournaments, started at 8 a.m. with matches between novice wrestlers. We arrived around 2:30 p.m., just before the upper division matches started at 3. While watching the novices (and many seemed very professional), I checked out the interior of the stadium to see if all the elements mentioned in the book were really present. Satisfied that this was so, I turned my entire attention to the ring.

Before long a woman dressed in a full length mink coat took her seat next to us. My husband, after observing her for a few moments, asked me in a low whisper, “Why is she sitting in the cheap seats?” To which I replied, “I don’t know, maybe she has bad knees and can’t sit on the floor.” At first she spoke only in Japanese, but after I offered her our program she started telling us in English what the announcer was saying any time we looked puzzled. She followed the matches closely and would write in the names of winners as they advanced on her kanji tree, just as I wrote down the names on my romaji tree .

At the end of the day’s events, during the bow twirling ceremony, I happened to look up – and up – and up. Towering above our seats was a giant sumotori dressed in a conservative (and very LARGE) gray kimono . He was bowing most politely to the woman next to me, and humbly asking his mother if she would please join him and his friends. He motioned to the rear of the balcony where three other giants stood. No one else in the audience seemed to notice, their attention focused on either the closing ceremonies or on dashing for the trains. I whispered to my husband, “Did you see that?” To which he replied, “See what?” He turned just in time to see the four sumotori file out of the balcony area, completely dwarfing the woman in her full-length mink coat. “Oh, [gulp] where’d they come from?”

It isn’t every day you can buy an inexpensive ticket to an exhibition match and end up sitting next to the mother of one of the stars. Sumo is, without question, the art of the unexpected.

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