Thursday, March 29, 2007


Friday at the Sumo, the state of Sumo in Japan and why Sumo is like cricket (or was)

Ah, Spring: the fragile, transient beauty of the cherry blossom and the Japanese scurrying hither and thither with streaming eyes and face masks.

And- most importantly of all- the Osaka Sumo tournament!

Yes, for the fourth year in a row I was in attendance. This time I clubbed together with some like-minded goons and put up the cash for a modest box in the B section ("100-dollar crawlspace" as the VMM put it; after the previous three years of paying bottom dollar then hopping between vacant boxes I wasn't too bothered about coughing up.)

Despite being plagued with a sinus problem that felt like a baseball, I was soon back in the swing of things, possibly thanks to the giddy combination of alcohol and medication. We sat through the lower-ranked palookas, the Juryo division (Sumo's equivalent of the Endsleigh) and finally got down to the big guns. (By which time we'd seen an unusually large amount of blood spilt and a few wrestlers having to be helped away from the ring, one with a suspected dislocated shoulder, and I was nicely drunk.)

Here's how my favourite wrestlers fared:

Takamisakari is very popular with the crowd (and sponsors) because of his robot-style gimmickry during the warm ups. As well as having showmanship on his side, he's pretty quick and tenacious. Things didn't go his way on this occasion, however: his opponent seized his belt, slapped him brutally around the head several times, then gave him a faceful of sand. I grimaced.

Ama, like Takamisakari, is comparatively lightweight. Lacking the sheer size to push the other wrestlers around, his victories usually come from wrong footing his opponents, then pulling them down. So it proved this time: his opponent, Takekaze, chased him around the clay, but to no avail. Ama squirmed out of his grasp, then sent him crashing to the floor to gain his kachikoshi (winning majority) eighth victory of the tournament.

Every time I come to the Osaka tournament Kaio is on the brink of rank demotion (which, for a wrestler of his seniority, would also mean retirement.) Last year, the big man only saved his (considerable) bacon by pulling out a series of unlikely victories against the other top-ranked wrestlers in the second week. Having already been bested seven times in this tournament, Kaio couldn't afford any more cock ups. To my relief, he pulled out a pretty confident performance, overwhelming his opponent and handing him his makekoshi (eighth defeat) by sending him sprawling out of the circle. (True to form, Kaio won on the Saturday and Sunday as well to finish the tournament with a record of eight wins and seven losses.)

The last action of the day pitted Yokozuna Asashoryu against the pin-up boy of Sumo, Bulgaria's Kotooshu. Last year, I found it difficult to conceal my mirth as several high-ranking Bulgarian dignitaries filed in at the end of the day only to watch their man last fully two seconds against the all-conquering Asa. This time, Kotooshu won my respect by coming out of the crouch with an aggressive all-out attack. Sadly, it wasn't meant to be. Asa swung him around and tossed him out of the ring like the lanky bum that he is. Maybe next year...


Sumo's popularity has been on the wane in Japan for more than a few years now. My younger students frequently profess a complete lack of interest in the sport, whilst older statesman Motoaki ("Japanese are a vegetable people; your house is small.") tells me (haltingly) that the sport is less enjoyable to watch now because there's too much slapping and the finer aspects of Sumo technique are getting forgotten.

Of course, it might be a different matter if there were a Japanese wrestler at the top of the tree: there is currently one Yokozuna (highest rank) wrestler, Mongolian Asashoryu. Of the Ozeki (second tier) the strongest is also Mongolian: Hakuho. The Japanese Ozeki are Kaio (past it), Chiyotaikai (just not good enough) and Tochiazuma.

Tochiazuma (whose stunning victory against Asashoryu two years ago remains one of my favourite memories in Japan) was an early leader in this year's tournament, but, after a couple of defeats effectively put him out of the running, he retired from the tournament complaining of headaches. Medical scans revealed that the problem was rather more serious and that he may even have suffered a minor stroke. He is now said to be seriously considering retirement. Given that, of the Japanese Ozeki, he is the only one capable of challenging for titles at the moment, this would be more bad news for Japanese Sumo prospects.


I often astound my students by telling them that Sumo is similar to cricket. The rationale is simple enough: you sit there all day, sporadically paying attention when it looks like something's about to happen. The rest of the time, you can just sit nattering with your friends or reading a book. Therefore, it's like cricket. Or like a Hindu wedding with alcohol.

However, given the current state of things in the Cricket World Cup (a murder investigation, plus England's vice captain being dragged out of the ocean at some ungodly hour of the morning following a drunken pedalo mishap) my comparisons are beginning to look rather spurious.


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