“According to legend, the very origin of the Japanese race depended on the outcome of a sumo match.”
It was 5:25pm and I’d dashed from my seat to catch the bookstand in the Ryogoku Kokugaikan —Tokyo’s sumo stadium— before it closed and buy the ¥100 booklet on the history and rules of sumo. Since the tournament ended at 6pm, I’d arguably left this a little late.
There are six Grand Tournaments for sumo through the year, each lasting fifteen days each. Three are in Tokyo and there is one in each of Osaka, Nagoya and Kyushu. Tickets are normally acquired in two different ways. The first method is to buy tickets online when they come on sale around a month before the tournament begins. The website is in both Japanese and English, but you have to move fast. The tournament I attended was day 13 out of the 15 and it was sold out 30 minutes after tickets went on sale.
The second option is to grab a ticket on the day. These are very cheap, but one ticket per person is sold at the Kokugaikan around 7:45am until tickets run out, meaning that you have to get in line pre-dawn to pull this off.
Alternatively, you can sadly bemoan the fact you lack both organisation and tenacity, but drop everything when Maction Planet Travel annonces on twitter that they have tickets for the next couple of days.
This is why you have to be on twitter, people. To grab opportunities that make you look like less of a procrastinator.
One email later and I had a ticket for a day of bouts at January’s Grand Tournament 2019.
A ticket grants you access for the whole day, with the doors opening at 8am and the last event happening at 6pm. However, the sumo wrestlers (or rikishi) play by their rank, with the upper division rikishi —the maku-uchi— not competing until 4:15pm. Most people therefore don’t arrive until after 3pm.
This was also my plan. It failed because I screwed up the trains, missed my stop and got on the wrong line. This might have been understandable if I were just visiting Tokyo. As it was… let’s just note that for reasons I arrived about 3:45pm.
In fact, this was not a bad time for the bouts. At 3:45pm, the maku-uchi enter the ring wearing heavily decorated aprons known as kesho-mawashi. This was happening as I found my seat and I settled in just as the highest ranking yokozuna champion entered.
The upper division of maku-uchi wrestlers are subdivided into five groups: maegashira, komusubi, sekiwake, ozeki and the topmost yokozuna. Below these in descending order are the juryo, makushita, sandanme, jonidan and jonokuchi. The wrestlers names are all written on banzuke official ranking list after each Grand Tournament, with the name of the yokozuna at the top in the largest characters.
Yokozuna is such an exalted rank in sumo that there have only been 72 rikishi to reach the position in the 300 year history of the title. Unlike the lower ranks who can be promoted and demoted depending on their performance, a yokozuna can never be demoted and is expected to retire if his performance deteriorates. There are currently two active yokozuna; Hakuho (the 69th yokozuna) and Kakuryu (71st yokozuna). The 70th yokozuna was Harumafuji, who retired in 2017. Interestingly, all of these three have been from Mongolia, but there’s only been four yokozuna in total who were born outside Japan (the fourth is the American-born Japanese, Akebono, who retired in 2001).
The upper division maku-uchi rikishi compete in each day of the tournament. However, Kakuryu pulled out of this tournament on day 6 due to injury, leaving Hakuho as the only competing yokozuna.
At the start of the maku-uchi bouts, Hakuho entered the ring wearing the embroidered kesho-mawashi and a thick belt of rope from which lightning-shaped strips of paper dangled. Such a design is frequently seen in Shinto shrines wrapped around reverential objects such as old trees. As at a shrine, the yokozuna clapped to gain the attention of the gods and then stamped in a squatting position to symbolically drive evil from the ring. He repeated this several times, moving forward across the floor. Clearly, he felt there was much evil to be removed. This might well be true, as sake is traditionally drunk while watching sumo and large bags of alcohol were being sold at stalls surrounding the hall.
Then, we began the fights.
The rikishi fight on the 18 feet square, 2 foot high dohyo that is constructed from clay and covered with sand. The fight itself is confined to a 15 foot diameter inner circle, in which women are forbidden from entering, even in medical emergencies. Above the dohyo is suspended a roof resembling a Shinto shrine as a nod to the origins of sumo where the matches were a ritual dedicated to the gods.
On the dohyo with the rikishi is the referee known as a gyoji. His kimono is the most colourful clothing in the tournament. Like the rikishi themselves, gyoji have different ranks which are portrayed with the colour of the tassels hanging from the gyoji’s fan and also in his footwear; low ranking gyoji are barefoot, while the higher ranks wear the split-toe tabi socks and straw sandals. In case of uncertainty, four additional referees sit on each side of the dohyo in formal black kimono.
Before each bout, the two competing rikishi scatter salt in the ring to as a symbolic protection against injuries. Then the posturing begins. The two wrestlers squat and face each other and glare. Then they might get up, stretch, scatter more salt and glare some more. This ritual got longer as the more senior rikishi entered the ring, although the time is capped at four minutes; a limit that was first introduced in 1928 at 10 minutes and then gradually reduced. Such silent warfare gets the crowd going but apparently even the most sake-imbued gathering has its limits. The lower ranked juryo rikishi have to keep the posturing down to three minutes and the lowest ranks have to just get on with it and fight.
The bout itself is usually very short, lasting mere seconds and the outcome is guessable almost immediately. This wasn’t true for a handful of the latest bouts (by the strongest opponents) where the rikishi did go back-and-forth across the ring for a minute or more. The bout ends when either one opponent is pushed out of the circular roped ring or touches the ground with anything other than the soles of his feet.
The only clothing worn by the rikishi is a silken loincloth called a mawashi. I expected this to be gripped more during the bouts, but I actually only saw that occasionally. Feasibly, preventing your opponent from doing so is a valuable defense skill.
I had rented a small radio at the entrance to the Kokugaikan which provided English commentary from 4:15pm onwards. Not providing much in the way of explanation, it was clearly geared at an audience who knew their rikishi. But I did hear interviews with the rikishi after their bouts. Some glad they did well, others saying they needed to put on more weight.
On that note, the traditional dish for a sumo wrestler is the chanko nabe; a stew heavy in meat, vegetables and dumplings. As I had arrived later than planned at the Kokugaikan, I did not have the chance to try the chanko nabe served at the stalls, but I had eaten it at a restaurant in the same neighbourhood just the week before. Unlike the sumo wrestlers, I shared our pot with two other people.
In the last bout of the day, Hakuho himself faced a newly promoted sekiwake, Takakeisho.
This seemed to result in the cushions being thrown at the ring.
My seat was a regular chair high in the stands, but closer to the action were box seats consisting of a flat area bordered by brass poles with four flat red cushions that were presumably rented by families or groups. It was these cushions that were unceremoniously lobbed at the ring.
Or ceremoniously. It seems to be a thing you do when a yokozuna is defeated by a lower-ranked wrestler.
The day closed with a bow-twirling ceremony. Reading this in the program, I pictured ribbons but it is actually ‘bow’ as in an archery bow, which is spun around in an elaborate pattern by one of the makushita rikishi. It was a tradition —my sumo booklet told me— that dated back to the Edo period.
Sumo itself goes back some 1500 years. The legend regarding its start was with the god Takemikazuchi who won a sumo bout and established the supremacy of the Japanese people on the island of Japan. It is perhaps slightly ironic that the highest title is therefore currently bestowed on a mongolian, but there’s no doubt that that anyone competing at this level have taken the deepest of Japanese traditions to their heart.