What is it About Sumo?

Why, after a long career as not much of a sports person, do I suddenly find myself scheduling my life around sumo tournaments? How has sumo broken down my resistance when any other sport is hard put to hold my attention for more than a grudging moment? What is it about sumo?

Simplicity/Complication

I love it that the essence of sumo is so easy to understand. Two guys struggle in a ring. There are two ways to lose: touch the ground inside the ring with anything other than the soles of your feet, or touch the ground outside the ring. End of story. I've never seen another sport in which I could follow what's going on so quickly. Two, three matches and I was hooked.

It adds to the intelligibility of the sport that sumo wrestlers fight pretty close to naked. I can see every muscle; I can tell what a grip or a throw must feel like. (But aren't sumo wrestlers -- aren't they fat? They are; you get over it.)

Highly stylized television coverage helps make sumo an easy read. Before each match we see the two wrestlers' records against each other, both a lifetime summary and a detailed description of the past year's matches.

Then -- whoops, it's over. The average sumo match takes under a minute.

And then come the replays. Think how much you would know about baseball if you could see every game first from the catcher's perspective, then from the pitcher's, then the shortstop's, and then again the third baseman's. The time would be prohibitive. But because sumo bouts are so short, they can be replayed in their entirety two or three times, from different angles, as soon as they're over. As a learning experience, it's nonpareil.

On the other hand, the part of me that loves ramification and arcana is by no means starved in sumo. For instance, each way of forcing your opponent out of the ring or getting him to touch down is considered a special technique. There's pushing him down versus thrusting him down. There's ooching him out of the ring versus lifting him out versus frog-marching him. There's holding him by the sash with one hand or two hands, close to the front or around the back, versus holding him under the armpits, versus wrapping your arms around him. There's flipping him versus tripping him versus smacking him down. And of course each technique has a name and a history; each wrestler has his favorite techniques and his vulnerabilities. There's no lack of fine detail if that's what you're looking for -- even as the sand for multitude.

Dignity/Foolishness

When Americans think of wrestling, they think of the WWF, wild and crazy 'hood-heads in Superman suits braining each other with stepladders and garbage cans.

Sumo wrestlers, in contrast, are models of restraint and poise. More than a year ago, a sumo wrestler named Wakanoyama clenched his fist in irritation when a decision went against him. I guess he'll live it down someday, but not soon.

One of the chief impediments to dignity in American sports coverage is commercial sponsorship. I was horrified at my first Sonics game to realize that play was stopping and the players were hanging around doing nothing in the middle of the game because they needed to break for a TV commercial. Mariners' games are disfigured with advertisements blaring from every loudspeaker, blasting from every scoreboard. Honestly, it perplexes me that people who think of themselves as sports fans don't rise up in protest.

On NHK, the Japanese TV network, there are no commercials during sumo broadcasts; none. Asahi beer and JAL airline spots run before and afterwards. Sponsors are allowed to give special prizes. Before the sponsored match, special sumo peons walk once around the ring, each carrying a banner with a sponsor's name and message and perhaps an image on it. The banners are all the same size. After the match, the winner makes a small prayerful motion (almost like a sign of the cross) over the envelope containing the prizes, takes it, and hands it to his assistant. No further mention is made of the prize-giver. But I don't want to give the impression that sumo is all chastity and faded violets. There's a goofy pageantry to the sport that I find captivating.

For instance, the referees wear kimonos of staggering splendiferousness, said to cost in the multiple tens of thousands of dollars, and adorable little black foldy hats, like origami. You can find referee dolls on eBay, often misidentified as geishas. Each referee presides over two matches; there are usually twenty matches in an evening, so you get to see lots of great referee costumes. The referee says only two things during a match, but he says them over and over: "You're still in you're still in you're still in you're still in" to assure the wrestlers that the match is still in play; and "Get moving get moving get moving" on those rare occasions when there's a deadlock. Immediately at the end of a match he must motion to the winner. If his ruling is in doubt, five black-clad judges gather in the center of the ring to discuss it. The referee carries a dagger to kill himself if his ruling turns out to be wrong, but these days he just offers his resignation, which is usually refused.

And then there's winning the tournament. A sumo tournament lasts 15 days. There are approximately 40 wrestlers, and everybody fights every day -- there's no elimination. The sumo committee decides who fights whom, on the basis of what matches will make for the most exciting sumo. The wrestler who wins the most matches wins the tournament. If two or more guys tie for the most matches, the playoff happens immediately, King of the Mountain style. As soon as there's a winner, the presentation ceremonies begin. The Emperor's Cup and many of the other awards are sized for sumo wrestlers, but the presenters are government lackeys. So again and again you have the spectacle of a wizened elderly bureaucrat groaning and tottering under the weight of what looks for all the world like a gargantuan bowling trophy. It's not dignified, but at least it's novel.

Up Close and Impersonal

Did you watch the Olympics on American TV? Neither did I. Apparently the broadcasters have decided (a) that they need a female audience and (b) that the only coverage women want is People magazine. Last time I checked, I was female, but I don't seem to match their focus groups. I do like knowing the people in a sport, but as athletes, not as sob stories. The one year I really enjoyed baseball was when I went often enough to start understanding who the players on my team were and how they interacted -- and then of course the next year they all went to other teams.

Sumo hits just the right mark for me. Because everybody fights every day, in different combinations, a sumo tournament has a novelistic feel. At the beginning of every tournament there's the excitement of seeing the cast of characters assemble, mostly old friends, some new faces. As the 15 days progress, the newcomers become familiar. We see our favorites recovering from injuries, trying new techniques, encountering old foes once again -- it's very like the later chapters in a Trollope novel, only of course with massive half-naked combatants instead of country parsons sipping tea.

There is sometimes a tiny little bit of background coverage. A sumo wrestler traditionally maintains a connection to the place of his birth, and occasionally after a particularly triumphant bout there will be a shot or two of his local fan club. It's felt that a sumo wrestler's first tournament after he gets married is likely to be particularly tense, or meaningful, or something along those lines. I think that's about it for intrusive personal observation.

The sumo interview is a little art form all its own. Remember Kevin Costner in Bull Durham telling Tim Robbins to practice up on his clichés? Sumo wrestlers have theirs down pat. "My opponent was very good, very good." "I was happy to have a chance to do my sumo." "Tomorrow I hope I will be able to do my sumo." You have to learn to read whole shoals and depths of personality in the angle of the head, the number of blinks, the breadth and symmetry or crookedness of a smile.

But really, isn't that enough? I don't care whether Musashimaru was dropped on his head when he was a baby. I want to see him fight.

The Thing Itself

There are no weight classes in sumo. If you like David v. Goliath, you can see it nightly in the sumo ring. It is literally possible for one sumo wrestler to weigh twice as much as his opponent -- and to get beaten.

Before the match each wrestler rinses his mouth out and wipes his body. He raises his arms and stamps his feet. He scatters a handful of salt. The two wrestlers come to the center of the ring, squat, and face each other, crouching forward and often glaring. They go back to their corners for more salt, scatter it, and return to glare some more. All these actions have symbolic meaning, but for the spectators they mean time to get ourselves worked up.

Sumo is pretty close to no holds barred. A few things are forbidden -- eye gouging, hitting with the fist, biting, hair pulling, choking, kicking in the stomach or the chest, hitting both ears at the same time, attacks on the genitals. Everything else is allowed. Push, trip, slap, throw -- if you can imagine it, they can do it. Sumo structures the whole year. There's a tournament every two months, January, March, May, July, September, and November. So sumo addicts have 15 days of intense sumo activity followed by six weeks off, and then 15 days of sumo again. Sumo is to the sumo fan what the sea is to the Irish -- never far away.

How To Watch

I pay Dish Network an extra $25 a month to get NHK, the Japanese TV network, which works out to a little more than 15¢ a bout, but of course I want to watch every bout. Before you start handing out that kind of money you'll want to watch in a public place. On your behalf, I've telephoned a large number of Japanese restaurants in Seattle, asking whether they have TVs and whether they get NHK. Nearly all of them have pointed me to the one place I knew already -- Uwajimaya.

In case you happen not to know it, Uwajimaya is a marvelous pan-Asian grocery store, one of the gems of the region. Both the store in the International District and the one in Bellevue keep their TVs tuned to NHK during sumo tournaments, and you can easily insert yourself into a nest of fans. Cheering consists mainly of calling out the name of the wrestler you want to win the current match, like "Toki! Toki!" or "Dejima! Dejima!" I loved the wrestler Musashimaru from the first time I saw him, but I didn't get how to say his name. People smiled cheerfully when I called out something along the lines of "Mushi! Mushi! Rama!" and nobody chased me away.

Do you need to speak Japanese? Not at all. In a short while you'll come to recognize the names of the wrestlers and some of the most common techniques for winning. It doesn't matter that you have no pronouns and prepositions to string them together into sentences. NHK does have an English-language feed, but the commentary doesn't, to put it mildly, add to the experience; think Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade and then dumb it down a notch. I prefer to watch in Japanese.

So mark your calendar -- the next tournament starts on the 5th of November. It will be here any minute.

Barley Blair is the pseudonym of a little old lady who uses a kimono for a bathrobe.

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