Cleaning Up Sumo

12 minute read
Hannah Beech/Saitama Sakae

The 12-year-old already weighs 230 lb. (105 kg). He has breasts. His thighs chafe when he walks. All this is good news in Japan’s sumo world, where excess flesh acts as indispensable armor in the sport’s brief and brutish bouts. The older recruits at Saitama Sakae high school, which boasts the country’s No. 1 sumo team, coddle the boy, passing him choice morsels during the intense, silent gorging that constitutes meals for these growing behemoths. After all, he is a child with an impressive lineage: his grandfather was a yokozuna, a member of the grand-champion echelon into which only 69 wrestlers have lumbered since 1789. For several hours each day, while other youths might be playing computer games or watching cartoons, the boy practices endless leg squats, sweeps the sand of the sumo ring into a divinely stipulated pattern and works on perfecting the glare he will need to intimidate his foes. But even the likes of this born-and-bred wrestling scion may not be enough to save the mighty sport of sumo.

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More than any other athletic endeavor, sumo embodies the soul of Japan. The sport’s museum in Tokyo explains the improbable importance of a rapid, nearly naked grapple in a sandpit: “According to Japanese legend the very origin of the Japanese race depended on the outcome of a sumo match.” With a 1,500-year history that inextricably links sumo to the national religion, Shinto, it’s no wonder tradition weighs heavily on the sport. Clad only in loincloths, their hair swept into topknots that were the peak of fashion 150 years ago, the wrestlers are supposed to serve as oversize poster boys for the ultimate Japanese virtues: dignity, honor, discipline and strength. “When we visit retirement homes, old people like to touch us and sometimes are brought to tears,” says former wrestler Yoshinori Tashiro, who fought under the sumo name of Tououyama. “There’s something spiritual about sumo.”

But sumo, like Japan itself, is ailing. The sport has been racked with repeated scandals and troubled by an influx of foreigners. The hidebound Japan Sumo Association (JSA), which governs the sport with a secrecy and cohesion that rivals that of any national intelligence agency, is in desperate need of reform yet is seemingly unwilling to muster the courage for true change.

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On their face, the recent crises shaking sumo to its fleshy core don’t seem that earth-shattering. A couple of Russian wrestlers were busted for marijuana use in 2008. In January a Mongolian grand champion got caught up in a drunken scuffle outside a Tokyo nightclub. In the current indignity, wrestlers were caught participating in underworld betting rings, wagering on sports other than sumo. The scandal brought about the suspension of more than a dozen athletes from an annual tournament in the city of Nagoya — the summer’s sumo highlight.

Objectively, only one recent incident deserves outrage: last year, a sumo coach was sentenced to six years in jail, following the death of his 17-year-old charge. The sumo apprentice died after his superiors beat him with a beer bottle, a wooden stick and a metal baseball bat in a form of hazing perversely called “cherishing” in Japanese. But the cumulative effect of sumo’s scandals has disturbed many Japanese. Sensing the mood, some corporate sponsors pulled out of the Nagoya contest, while NHK — the country’s largest broadcaster, which has for decades dedicated weeks of airtime to sumo’s six yearly tournaments — halted live coverage of the competition. It was the first time since 1953 that a live sumo feed had been cut. “This is the kind of crisis you may only see once in 100 years,” said NHK president Shigeo Fukuchi, explaining the network’s sumo embargo. The subtext — for there always seems to be subtext in Japan — was even more alarming: Will sumo even survive the next 100?

Beyond the scandals exists a troubling reality. Sumo is suffering an existential crisis. What Japanese kid wants to become a sumo star today? Training is too rigorous, the bared bottoms too undignified, and all that fat is both unsightly and unhealthy. And wrapped in useless layers of blubber is the JSA, a tradition-obsessed bulge of bureaucracy that shows none of the surprising nimbleness of its charges. “Japan must change,” says Takanobu Nakajima, a university economist and vice chair of an advisory committee formed last month to rejuvenate the sport. “Sumo must change.”

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The Age of the Blond Topknot
Even in the nosebleed seats at the Nagoya tournament, where signs outside the stadium warn, “Gangsters keep out,” one major change in sumo is immediately obvious. Here are the blond topknot of an Estonian ex-bouncer called Baruto (real name: Kaido Hoovelson) and the hairy chest of Bulgaria’s Kotooshu (born Kaloyan Stefanov Mahlyanov). There is the telltale cellulite of a trio of Georgian wrestlers, whose bodies accumulate fat quite differently than those of the Japanese. And everywhere, it seems, are the wide cheekbones of Mongolian wrestlers. Since 2003, only two men have been promoted to the exalted status of grand champion. Both are from the land of Genghis Khan: Asashoryu (né Dolgorsuren Dagvadorj), whose career was cut short by that nightclub brawl, and 2010 Nagoya victor Hakuho (formerly known as Monkhbatyn Davaajargal). In just over a decade, foreigners have come to so dominate sumo that in Nagoya there was only one Japanese competing in the two highest ranks — and he is well past his prime. “The foreigners are trying very hard, so they deserve to win,” says Koji Mizuno, a 67-year-old Nagoya spectator. “But watching my national sport, I do feel a bit forlorn that there aren’t more strong Japanese wrestlers.”

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The presence of foreigners is being felt in many sectors of society. Japan is getting older, but its young people spurn menial jobs, so foreign workers are one solution to the labor shortage. Already, Southeast Asians staff nursing homes, and Chinese swell the ranks of high-tech companies. Sumo has no alternative but to accept an influx of foreigners, since the number of Japanese recruits dwindles each year. “You look at the Mongolians who come today, and they have the hungry, strong bodies of kids who grew up doing hard labor on the farms,” says Michinori Yamada, the coach of the Saitama Sakae high school team. “Japanese families used to send their boys to sumo stables to ensure they got enough food. Now, Japanese kids eat what they want, they go to college, and they don’t want to work so hard.”

Yet the flood of gaijin, while undoubtedly raising sumo’s level of athleticism, is also eroding its popularity. Sniffy sumo fans and journalists scrutinize foreign wrestlers and pounce on any sign of un-Japaneseness. Take recently retired grand champion Asashoryu, who was deemed by the local press as lacking hin, or dignity. Practically everything Asashoryu did reeked of a lack of hin: failing to defer to a sumo elder in a bathhouse hallway, tugging on an opponent’s topknot, pumping his fist after a victory. “If Asashoryu had been Japanese, there would have been some criticism, but it would not have been as severe,” says economist Nakajima. Hawaiian-born Konishiki (who started life as Saleva’a Atisano’e) was perhaps treated worse in the 1990s, when the 633-lb. (287 kg) wrestler was denied an expected promotion to yokozuna by the JSA, presumably because he was a little too individualistic — a little too, ahem, American.

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So how are the colossi of sumo supposed to act? “Like salarymen,” kids Nakajima, referring to the faceless drones who toiled for Japan Inc. during the bubble years. Except it’s not really a joke. Former wrestler Tououyama details a typical day in a sumo stable, where every athlete must live and train for the duration of his career: Reveille is at 5:30 a.m.; then comes a full morning of practice. Lunch is eaten in order of rank, followed by a session with a topknot stylist and a couple of hours of nap time. Then it’s on to housework, a workout at the gym and dinner preparations. From 7:30 to 10:30 p.m., wrestlers are given free time. Then lights go out, with athletes all sleeping in the same room. Junior stablemates must act as glorified servants to their elders. “It was difficult until I got used to this life,” recalls Tououyama. “The seniority system is absolute.”

The problem, of course, is that with fewer Japanese desiring to be salarymen, an even smaller number want to replicate that experience while wearing a fat suit. Nearly every facet of sumo culture is designed to encourage humility. While other Japanese athletes make gazillions of dollars blasting homers in the U.S. or scoring goals in Britain, the highest-ranked sumo star gets paid what a senior Japanese executive does — $300,000 a year. Low-level wrestlers get just a living stipend. Changing stables is not allowed. And the sumo workplace stresses stoic reserve over individual flair. After matches, there is no savoring of victory, no showboating — and certainly no displays of petulance from the loser. Even in postmatch interviews, the victor rarely expresses joy, just a few mumbled words and rote gratitude to his stable bosses.

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Enough with the Toilet Scrubbing
Some of the changes required of sumo are easy enough. The choicest matches, for instance, take place at just the hour when most Japanese are beginning their train commute home. Shifting bouts to evening prime time would boost ratings. The sport also needs to face up to its historic underworld ties and launch a purge that goes beyond the current betting scandal, just as Japanese baseball got rid of its yakuza links.

It will be tougher to reform the sumo stables, which need to loosen their grip on wrestlers, some of whom begin their apprenticeship aged just 15. Stable masters may argue that it’s only through the severity of sumo life — the hazing, the curfews and the constant toilet scrubbing — that discipline is instilled. But if the monastic rigor of sumo stables is what scares off so many potential wrestlers, surely the rules could be relaxed. Does it really make sense for the JSA to demand, for example, that its athletes abstain from driving cars during tournament weeks?

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In the end, what may save sumo is its spiritual heart. After World War II, Japan’s Emperor, who used Shinto, in part, to justify his nation’s bloody campaign, was stripped by the Americans of his divinity. For years, Japan maintained a sort of embarrassed silence over its national faith, which combines nature worship and a pantheon of deities. Nevertheless, sumo is still deeply connected to the Japanese religion. After the Nagoya tournament, Japan’s Imperial Household Agency released a message from Emperor Akihito saying, “Despite the gambling scandal, the Emperor’s feeling for the national sport stays the same.” Suspended over the sumo ring is a Shinto shrine roof. Before matches, wrestlers sip holy water and purify the ring by sprinkling salt. Once in the sacred space, they clap their hands together to summon the gods. The referees wear peaked black hats similar to those worn by Shinto priests.

All the religious paraphernalia makes for a curiously spiritual — and theatrical — sporting experience. An average sumo match lasts a few seconds, but the surrounding pageantry is what separates sumo from the slapstick of the WWE. “Sometimes I just cancel practice and talk about sumo’s traditions and culture instead,” says high-school coach Yamada. “There is an elegance to the whole tradition. That’s what gives it a Japanese essence.”

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Granted, Yamada’s top wrestlers shrug when asked about the hallowed nature of sumo. What they like is a good grapple. Plus, they get to chow down a kilo of rice a day, along with hotpot, fried chicken, potato salad, grilled fish, barbecued pork, stir-fried vegetables, simmered squash, noodles and salad. But they feel some Japanese spirit all the same. One of the Saitama Sakae boys’ heroes is school alumnus Yamamotoyama, a 584-lb. (265 kg) behemoth who during the Nagoya tournament had to be removed from the ring in a double-wide wheelchair. “He’s one of us, so of course we like him,” says Daiki Nakamura, an 18-year-old top prospect who was named a high school yokozuna this month. “Seeing so many foreigners in sumo makes me burn with desire to succeed as a Japanese.”

At Saitama Sakae’s morning practice, that urge is on full display. Athletes build strength by hefting a 705-lb. (320 kg) tire or bashing their open palms onto an enormous wooden pillar. After a few practice bouts, one teen has split his lip, while another is bleeding from his elbow. “Every day of sumo practice is like a traffic accident,” says coach Yamada. Fluorescent lights shine down on the scuffed ring, and the place smells like a locker room left to fester. But then 18 students, sticky with sand and slick with perspiration, form a circle around the ring, bring their hands together and bow their heads to the gods. For a moment, the future of sumo is united in worship. It is a most inspiring sight. —With reporting by Toko Sekiguchi / Tokyo

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