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Sept 2003

KS Classifieds
#017 out now

Dohyo Iri: Entering the Ring of Power

Not into baseball, J-League leaves you cold, K1 turning into WWF? Without pay-TV what are the spectator sport options in Japan? Bare asses and lots of silk, sound like something you could get into, then try the official national sport of Japan, Sumo.

Be warned, chatting about Sumo with anyone under 60 will put you into the cheesier than an old geezer's socks category, as popularity has followed a curve even worse than the economy.
Why bother with Sumo at all then? Well, to start watching and enjoying you need minimal understanding of Japanese or the rules.

Basic rules

Sumo is essentially: push, pull, sometimes throw, sometimes slap. Touch any part of your body outside the straw ringed perimeter (tawara), or any part, except feet, on the clay mound (dohyo) and you lose.

What's with the nappies?

Go on, I dare you to call the loincloth (mawashi) that to the face of a wrestler (rikishi). Several metres of silk or cotton wrapped tightly around the waist and groin area give essential grappling leverage.

Want to know more?

After initial shock, awe and even hilarity subsides, you'll probably notice, like so much in Japan, underlying a simple surface, many deeper layers, with long history, very stylistic traditions and specialist terms to describe them.

Winning techniques

Yorikiri (frontal force out) and oshidashi (frontal push out) are the two most common of the 82 official winning techniques (kimarite; very literally "deciding hand"), but many exotic ones like amiuchi (the fisherman's throw) exist. Punches, hair pulling (see side panel),
eye gouging, finger bending and kicking other than the legs all cause a loss by default. An open handed slap (harite) is allowed and often as lethal as a punch.

What's with the hair, dresses, hand waving and squats?

Tradition dictates top-knots (chonmage), ring entering ceremonies in elaborate silk aprons (keshomawashi), plus lots of salt throwing, hand waving and foot stomping to purify the ring, show no weapons and summon the gods. For their one bout a day, opponents begin from a crouched position marked by parallel lines about 1 metre apart, in the centre of the dohyo. Touching the backs of both hands to the ground signals readiness to start (tachiai; literally stand and meet). A Shinto priest-like silk clad referee (gyoji) oversees and declares a winner with the wave of a fan (gumbai). Five judges (shimpan) seated around the dohyo and two more in a video booth, make sure the gyoji doesn't make a bad call.

Are there weight divisions?

Several divisions exist in professional Sumo (Ozumo), none are based on weight. Mass, and of course power and strength, can play a big part in your chances, but as important is technique. Relatively small guys often come up against a behemoth and win.

Are those their real names?

Rikishi take on a fighting name (shikona), often derived from their real name, hometown, stable (heya), stable group (ichimon) or stablemaster's (oyakata) fighting name, but most commonly a combination of all the above.

What do all those rank names mean?

Ranking and promotion/demotion are based solely on win/loss record. For the highest division (Makunouchi; literally "inside the curtain") ranks range from the highest, Yokozuna (Grand Champion), Ozeki (Champion), to Maegashira (rank and file wrestler). Higher ranks bring better salaries and privileges, but more ceremonial and public responsibilities. Yokozuna cannot be demoted, but a slide in performance beckons honourable retirement. There are over 700 professional wrestlers (including about 50 foreigners) in 6 divisions.

Where do I watch or find out more about Sumo?

Sumo is broadcast on NHK (General Channel 2, BS and radio). BS offers an English sub-channel with very knowledgable resident English speaking expert Sumo commentators.
There are 6 professional 15-day Sumo tournaments (basho) a year, starting the first or second Sunday of odd months (January, March etc.). Makunouchi bouts are broadcast from 4 p.m. to 6p.m. Waning popularity means tickets are much easier to come by, even on the day, at the venue.

This was unheard of in the past, with the Osaka basho's 23-year continuous sold-out streak only ending last year (held every March at the Prefectural Gymnasium, Namba). The very lively Osaka crowd and intimate venue produce a fun day out. Regional areas get regular exhibition tours.

The Japanese Sumo Council (Nihon Sumo Kyokai) homepage
http://www.sumo.or.jp/eng/index.php provides a free live video feed and much other interesting information.

The free, unmoderated, 10 year-old English Sumo mail list, is very convivial, welcoming to beginners and experts alike, with many fun games based on picking winners or losers. Details and a useful searchable archive are at www.banzuke.com. Sumo Ring is also good for many links http://nav.webring.yahoo.com/hub?ring=sumo&list.

In a time when Hanshin Tigers, Ichiro or Beckham are much more topical, being a Sumo fan is unlikely to endear you to Japanese friends or earn Japanophile points. At the least though, it's an opportunity to make sure you leave work by 5pm to catch that last hour of bouts.

You can catch some bouts right here in Kansai as the rikishi's make their annual Autumn Tour of the Kansai area.
• Oct.15 Kyoto • Oct.17-18 Kobe • Oct.25 Himeji

For further info, contact:
Tel: 03-3623-5111 (in Japanese only)
9:30am-5:00pm (closed Sat, Sun & holidays)

Text: Peter Kaub • Photos: B.A.Klein, Peter Kaub


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Dohyo Iri:
Entering the Ring of Power

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Ghengis Khan and the hair-pulling incident (Asashoryu)

A new kid on the block, has drawn comparisons to the legendary Mongolian marauder and past Great Yokozuna Chiyonofuji.

Spawned from a famous Mongolian wrestling family and an exchange student at baseball and Sumo starmaker, Meitoku Gijuku High School (Kochi), he is not a favourite of many Japanese fans, but was promoted to Yokozuna in March this year at the tender age of 22.

Recent, very public alpha-dog scrapping with Kyokushuzan (first Mongolian to reach Makunouchi) has blemished his public image.

Last basho, an unintentional top-knot hair pulling gave Kyokushuzan a default win (first ever Yokozuna loss in this manner). Subsequent Superbrat-like behaviour (side-mirror on Kyokushuzan's borrowed Mercedes miraculously broken, a locker room scuffle and a ponytail "incident") have not helped.

Potential to be amongst the greatest of greats, if he raises his maturity level to that expected of his lofty rank. Recent silent stoicism when faced by rabid tabloid press suggests he is learning.

Robocop- it isn't an act (Takamisakari)

Specs and contact lenses are a danger in this body crunching sport. Visually challenged Takamisakari has to concentrate very hard on just getting into the ring without stumbling.

His animated movements, combined with a very sweet, innocent, never give up nature has made him the new darling of Japanese fans and earned him the nickname Robocop. Solid and lovable, trained by Hawaiian ex-Yokozuna Akebono, he will probably season into a regular in the upper third, but not likely Yokozuna-material anytime soon.

A Samoan from Hawaii in Japan (Musashimaru)

Musashimaru fans abound, particularly in the ex-pat US community. His laid-
back persona generates mostly ambivalence amongst Japanese fans.

Not really a Mr. Charisma, but always solid and doesn't rock the boat. After a record number of years without a sit out for injury, recent major wrist surgery, means still not 100%. Even at half-strength, always a threat, with over 10 tournament cups already putting him amongst the Great Yokozuna elite.

The Wolf Cub (Chiyotaikai)

Past, very popular,
very famous Great Yokozuna Chiyonofuji (AKA the Wolf) is now a stable-master.

His protege Chiyotaikai has been at Ozeki a few years now. An inclination to back-pedal in the ring, means he can go hot and cold. Has found it difficult to string the necessary two in a row tournament victories, but currently the best Japanese hope for a Yokozuna's big white rope.

Other rikishi to look out for (no particular order):

Kotomitsuki (very solid, ex-university amateur Sumo champion, injuries mending); Kokkai (Georgia) & Roho (Russia) (both young and very promising); Wakanosato (solid, more solid lately); Kakizoe & Futeno (long way to go yet, but big futures likely); Kasugao (Korean wrestling champion); Asasekiryu (Mongolian, small-guy/quicker, flightier, exciting style); Kyokutenho (Mongolian, fighting style modelled on old Japanese Sumo); Takanowaka (relatively young, always improving, good-looker, decent piano player).