Up Close & Personal At Tokyo's Sumo Grand Tournament

It would be easy to think that Sumo is just two big blokes in nappies slapping each other, but it is in fact a deeply cultural affair featuring endless traditions, pre-fight routines and over 70 finishing moves...
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It would be easy to think that Sumo is just two big blokes in nappies slapping each other, but it is in fact a deeply cultural affair featuring endless traditions, pre-fight routines and over 70 finishing moves...

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Visiting Tokyo this month I was fortunate that my visit coincided with the Sumo Grand Tournament. Held only six times a year (three in Tokyo with the others occurring at 3 locations around Japan) it takes place over 15 days. Each wrestler or rikishi fights once, every day, against different opponents.  As you come to learn with the sport, ceremony is everything. There are around 800 rikishi in professional sumo, structured in ranks from the lowly trainee up to the yokuzuna (grand champion) at the top. The title of yokuzuna can only be achieved by winning 2 consecutive tournaments, at the second highest ozeki (champion) ranking, and is the only rank from which you can never be demoted. Rather more controversially, they must also be judged to be a man of character. Such subjective conditions have led to criticism that non-Japanese wresters can be discriminated against.

Beginning at 8am, bouts are staggered through the day with the best rikishi competing from around 2pm and the opening bouts seeing eager trainees, yet to be officially ranked, looking to make a name for themselves. Collectively, the top five ranks are known as the maku-uchi and, within that, there can be no more than 42 rikishi. Some of the intermediate bouts we saw were exciting as you’d see promising fighters trying to beat gnarled veterans in order to progress up the ranks. After each tournament rankings are revised with promotion or demotion dependent on performance over the previous 15 days.

The importance the Japanese attach to their national sport derives from the belief that the origin of the Japanese people itself was dependent upon one of their gods, Takemikazuchi, successfully winning a bout against the leader of a rival tribe. Leaving legend aside, sumo is a sport that dates back 1500 years.

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You may remember Channel 4 televised sumo in the early 1990s in a doomed attempt to attract a UK audience. As with Kabaddi it didn’t catch on. Certainly in the case of sumo the complexities weren’t always apparent on the small screen and some of the misconceptions remain. That nappy they wear?  It’s actually a silken loincloth called the mawashi and is a fundamental part of the rikishi’s equipment.In fact, of the 70-odd winning tricks most of these are achieved by manoeuvring the opponent with a grip on his mawashi. Fnarr fnarr.That resounding stamp they do much like a petulant toddler demanding their tea? It’s to symbolise the driving out of evil from the sumo ring, or dohyo. Although with the amount of grub these guys get through perhaps they are just hungry.

First things first though. With its reputation for confounding tourists, is it easy to get there using public transport? Yes, in fact, getting to the Kokugikan Stadium, in Ryogoku, proved deceptively straightforward. 20 minutes on the JR Sobu line, from Shinjuku, and we were there. The 2 minute walk to the stadium was lined with colourful flags in support of the rikishi, and there were throngs of fans making their way in. Our £35 tickets provided all-day entry and our seats in the second tier circle gave us a commanding view. For an extra £30 or so traditional seating was available, further forward, on mats that you could sit or lie on. We arrived at noon to a relatively quiet stadium. Lots of spectators arrive in the afternoon and give the opening contests a miss.

As we sat down, the first thing you notice is what appears to be the top part of a shed hanging from the ceiling over the dohyo. This roof is designed to resemble a Shinto shrine with four giant tassels hanging from each corner signifying the seasons of the year. The dohyo itself is 18 square feet and 2ft high comprising a hard surface of clay covered with a thin layer of sand. The bout itself is confined to the inner circle which is around 15ft in diameter.

The lower ranks are not allowed any “foreplay” time and have to get straight on with it

So, getting there and finding our seats hadn’t posed a problem. What proved rather more taxing was attempting to figure out what on earth was unfolding below us as the action got under way. I mentioned the importance of ceremony, didn’t I? There’s a lot of ritual to get through.  Even the hairstyle a rikishi’s sports is determined by their rank.

However our patience was rewarded. Sumo, much like Japan, can at first glance appear unfathomable to the outsider. For example, the first bouts we watched saw the rikishi involved in a long build-up lasting minutes followed by an explosive finish as they fought, often for less than 30 seconds.  As we looked on, somewhat confused it has to be said, I’m sure I heard my wife muttering something like “God, this is familiar” but I must have misheard her what with the roar of the crowd and all. Still, it soon became clear that the lengthy build-up to battle only served to markedly increase tension around the arena.

In actual fact, after entering the doyho each rikishi goes througha series of symbolic movements intended to cleanse both mind and body ahead of battle. As well as rinsing their mouths with water and wiping their bodies with a towel they raise their arms and stamp their feet. Before facing off, they scatter a handful of salt around to purify the ring and insure against injury. To be honest, at first, given the size of these fellas I presumed it was talcum powder in an attempt to prevent the onset of sweaty ball-rot. They then squat and face each other in the centre of the ring crouching forward with their fists on the ground staring each other out. Now, for the good stuff, you think. Wrongly, as it transpired. This is where it got really confusing as they broke and returned to their respective corners repeating the above rituals over and over. For the higher ranks, the rules allow this to be repeated for up to 4 minutes.  The lower ranks are not allowed any “foreplay” time and have to get straight on with it.

How can you not like a sport where even the referees are entertaining? Gyoji wear patterned kimonos, like Samurais

Once the fight itself begins, the rules are simple. The bout is won by forcing your opponent out of the inner circle or throwing him within the doyho. To lose it isn’t necessary to fall over in the circle or to be pushed completely out. If you touch the ground with any part of your body, apart from the soles of your feet, you lose. There are no weight limits so you’d often see bouts where one wrester seemed almost twice as big as his opponent. When some of the lighter guys appear to weigh the size of a small house you can imagine how massive some are. I naively thought that bulk would trump skill. Not so. We saw a number of surprise victories where a rikishi looked to be facing certain defeat before regaining the initiative, pushing back and defeating his bemused rival, sending us roaring onto our feet.

Still not convinced? How can you not like a sport where even the referees are entertaining? Gyoji wear patterned kimonos, like Samurais, and pointy black hats. Amusingly, they call out the names of the sumos in a specially trained, high-pitched voice. Imagine Barry Gibb, in a nightdress, and you’re almost there.

As we left, into the neon-lit darkness of a humid Tokyo evening, to the sounds of beating taiko drums from the top of a large turret the only pang of regret was that I won’t be back in January for the next Grand Tournament.