As I sit back, take a deep puff of my Cuaba and drift off gazing at the billowing clouds, I think back to the year 2010 in the world of sumo. Read blogs, tabloids, or news pieces in English or Japanese, overseas,or in J-land, by foreign devils or by J-folk, and if there’s one thing agreed upon by everyone, 2010 was a shitty year in sumo.
The shitty year started with the tightening up of xenophobic regulations from “one foreigner per stable” to “one foreign-born rikishi per stable.” As if that wasn’t bad enough, weeks later came the forced retirement of one of the greatest athletes to step upon the raised ring (well seen above). What followed was seat-gate, where oyakata handed out ring-side seats to friends in the mafia. Then, betting-gate, where dozens of top-division Japanese sumo elders and Japanese rikishi were punished to differing degrees for betting on baseball, again, with mafia friends setting the rules, and NHK pulling the plug on the Nagoya basho. Meanwhile, with Asashoryu gone Hakuho dominated without any legit competition or parity, kicking ass like to professional he is, but to the sound of a few yawning spectators. Oh, but by the glory of the All-Mighty, the ole ticker in Kaio picked up speed and the ole gray mare picked up a baker’s dozen wins in his hometown. The sheeple got stiffies, while the purists at heart know fixed matches when we see ‘em.
The rise of Hakuba, the mediocrity of the ozeki, and the barring of spectators from sitting in the lower sections at Ryogoku during early matches. The list goes on and on. But as the ash builds up an inch or so on the end of my delicious smoke, I tap it twice on the ash tray and asked myself “why the hell do we even care?” My purpose here is to tell you why.
I first saw sumo back in about 1993…or 1994 was it? In those days, the Valentine family picked up a new high-tech contraption called a satellite dish. Among the hundreds of tv channels we could pick up, when the tornadoes cleared and no guineafowl were trying to nest on the dish, we would get two hours of NHK everyday. For fifteen days in odd-numbered months, those two hours were the makuuchi bouts. There was no English coverage, but I was able to distinguish a trio of Hawaiians. There was the struggling, yet popular, and massive Ozeki Konishi. There was the tall, emotionless and focused Yokozuna Akebono. There was also the up-and-coming, strong Ozeki Musashimaru. There was also the Hanada brothers, product of a sumo dynasty, fighting the Hawaiians, and working their ways up to the top of the ranks. There was very little I could understand of sumo, but it was obvious to even a teenage Virgil Valentine that it was an exciting time in sumo.
The mid-aughts brought us the Asa-Hak rivalry, which was also an exciting time in sumo unfortunately cut short around this time last year. During this era, my love for sumo was sealed. Any today we may not have a great era to reflect upon in the future, but sumo is still sumo, and we at Sumo & Stogies wouldn’t be writing all this jabber if we didn’t love the sport. So without further a due, ten good reasons to love sumo.
Reason #10. Un-commercialized. That is, to a comfortable degree uncommercialized, but nothing like the McFat® Fight Halitosis voteforquimby.com Bowl, brought to you by Root, Scoot, Toot, & Poot™. NHK coverage is barebones for certain, but no commercial breaks and no little banners at the bottom of the screen promoting some low-rated tv show on that network. The only advertisements you see in sumo are on the yobidashis’ backs, and it’s usually not a recognizable product anyway (save McDonalds).
Reason #9. Sumo is funny. With all the rituals and protocol, it’s great fun when something goes array, such as an intense bout where the gyoji gets taken down, or where a rikishi works his opponent into a farm animal position, or when blushing foreign rikishi with their lack of Japanese ability in NHK interviews babble their way through the pain. And why do you think they raise the ring above the ground surface? Easier for spectators to see? To keep the ring from flooding? No. So when a losing rikishi is pushed out of the ring, he has a long and humiliating fall ahead of him. There’s just no way to gracefully lose in sumo. The loser tumbles down a hill, mostly naked, might crash into people below him, and then he must return to the ring to bow to the man who just sent him down. Funny stuff. Plus, how could I leave out…Ross Mihara!
Reason #8 Chanko Nabe Stew up some chicken broth and throw in everything but the kitchen sink. That’s chanko, and that’s the meal of a sumo champion. There’s now variations of chanko such as Mongolian chanko with mutton, Korean chanko with kimchi, and supermodel chanko with boiled water. Last time I had chanko, I found a lucky shoelace in there. Full of protein and other surprises, chankonabe is among the best of Japanese cuisine!
Reason #7. Speed. No, druggies, I’m not referring to the amphetamine. When J-folk ask me why I love sumo, I always tell them it’s a sport of strategy, strength, and speed. Great yokozuna such as Chiyonofuji or Asashoryu didn’t become so by their size. Watch the tapes of these men. In every bout they had a strategy to win. If that strategy failed at any point in the bout, immediately without any hesitation they had another strategy to go on. Sumo is fast, and there is little time to think.
Reason #6. Intermissions. There has never been a better sport for enjoying time with friends, having a smoke, and a fine malt whisky in hand. Think about the popular professional sports like soccer, baseball, basketball, or whatever. You’re watching with friends and you’re focused lighting your smoke and all the sudden “GOOOOOOAAAAAL!!!” With all these sports, you have to be there all the time, though most of the time baseball is spitting, slap-ass, and ball-scratching, but you better be watching just in case. Sumo bouts are usually over in seconds, and you know with makuuchi you’ll have a good four, maybe five minutes in between to tell a dirty joke, go refill your glass, or assess your smoke with friends.
Reason #5 Ryogoku Kokugikan…the home of sumo in Tokyo. I’ll level with all of you out there. Tokyo is a shit city. You wanna go out for a night in Tokyo, bring four-times as much cash as you planned, and just a quarter of your personal items. I was in Tokyo just the other day at Shinjuku Station. It reeked of excrement from one side of the massive compound to the other. This is the lifestyle Tokyoites deal with on a daily basis. It’s crowded, it’s disgusting, and it’s too expensive, but there is one neighborhood of Tokyo I always love visiting: Ryogoku. Walk through the station past the massive championship portraits of Sekiwake Hasegawa and Yokozuna Mienoumi. By the time you reach the Power Sumo statuette on the right, you’ll already smell the chanko nabe and hear the sound of dragging clogs on the pavement. Nabe shops and sumo stables are peppered all around the neighborhood, with the Kokugikan at the very heart of it. Step into the Kokugikan, smell the talcum powder as the rikishi walk past you, and you know you’re in for a fun filled day. It’s always best to fill your flask before you arrive, have a few bowls of chanko for lunch, and though there’s no smoking in the arena, enjoy a cigar outside as everyone is filing out in the evening. There no where else in Tokyo I’d rather be!
Reason #4. Japan, with balls. Warm, fuzzy, cute, soft, fragile, harmless, timid, herbivore men who wear make-up, maid-cafes, boy-bands, katakana engrish, and a fear of jellyfish, moths, and thunder. This is the Japan of today: the Heisei surumpu drags onward. Sumo, however, is a major relief from this. Boys in Japan who join sumo don’t get the adulation that baseball or soccer boys get. They don’t get the tan, the model build, nor the girls like these other boys get. Sumo is where finally Japan shows some true grit, with hair on it. A little blood running from the rikishi’s forehead from the head-bonk at the tachiai? No big deal. A finger in the eye from the opponent’s tsuppari? Deal with it. A 200kg giant fell on your knee and we all heard it snap? Get your ass up and bow…you lost the bout, loser!
Reason #3. The Banzuke. There are 42 men in makuuchi. Within the first few days of a basho, all but a handful are already out of the running for the yusho or a special prize. Why stay with it? If it was a simple elimination tournament, they’d be at home having smoke, watching Hakuho fight whoever stuck around. Not in sumo. Your chances at yusho may be slim, but you better still work your ass off. You need kachikoshi. Your salary depends on it! If you’re teetering on the low end of the division, be ready for a major pay cut if you makekoshi. The banzuke is a system superior to just about any other in the management of competitive sports. There’s always something to work hard for, from day one until senshuraku.
Reason #2. Tradition & Respect. Okay, so there’s not too many rules to the bout itself, and you can put a guy in a coma pretty easily, so what is there to separate this from the a street brawl (like the Ultimate Fighting Championship)? The traditions and the respect. You might think we at Sumo & Stogies don’t go for this stuff, given we support progressive (yet rational) changes in the Japan Sumo Association, and I particularly was one quick to defend Asashoryu throughout all the nonsense he endured. There is a difference between being xenophobic pricks and upholding tradition and respect of an ancient and venerated sport. So Asa threw a “guts pose” (fist pump) after a bout winning 20some-odd yusho? Takamisakari acts like a gorilla in mating season before every bout? Personal expression is fine. And what really separates us from the monkeys? We wear clothes and use cutlery. Things like this right? It’s kind of like what separates sumo from others forms of wrestling and boxing: it’s more developed, it’s more distinguished, and the traditions and respect for the ring, for the gyoji, the judges, and for the opponent are what separate this sport.
Reason #1. Dedication. Unlike other athletes, a sumo rikishi has to dedicate his body to the sport. He’ll develop cauliflower ear, pock marks, bruises, a raspy voice, and build up an obese appearance, and thus, not as sexy as the orange haired poodle boys with wallet chains big enough to pull an ocean-liner. The average lifespan of a sumo rikishi is a good decade less than the average Japanese male. And add on to this the fact even the greatest sumo rikishi make a fraction of the salary that other athletes can make. There is no “off season” in sumo. Rikishi give their bodies, their youth, and their all their time to sumo, and they are not doing so for the money.
Much of the sumo blogospher, often times including yours truly, have been very cynical about the current state of sumo. It’s always important to look back and reflect why this is important to us. Traditions are old and eras come and go in sumo. Stick around, and better days are to come. Here’s to a great 2011 in sumo! Feel free to add to my list below.