What's with this sumo, anyway?

I really dig sumo wrestling. Japanese proffessional sumo - not the amateur sumo that goes on in e.g. Europe and USA (although some of it can be pretty good, it's not The Real Deal).

Funny thing is, it was my daughter who initially got me interested in sumo. She had started watching it because she was bored, just after she got her own place. She used to call me, and tell me to turn on the tv, and we'd watch it together while on the phone. We'd study the information given on the screen, and in the beginning we'd understand nothing. But, as we watched, we got the hang of it. And I was thoroughly hooked.

But why sumo?
Yes, why am I so into this... thing? And I cannot really refer to it as a mere 'sport', because it is more than just a sport. It is a way of life for the wrestlers, and indeed for all of the officials and trainers. They live sumo, every day from the day they enter sumo, to the day they leave sumo.

I think it is the purity of sumo that attracts me. Sumo has always been closely connected to Shintoism, and every year ceremonial sumo bouts - hono sumo - are performed in certain Shinto-shrines. The top wrestlers participate in hono sumo, thus honouring the roots of their passion. And the regular tournaments are no less impressive. Within the confines of rigid rules and rituals, tradition and ceremony, the wrestlers perform an ancient art. A beautiful dance. And no, I am not really thinking of the individual bout as a beautiful dance, although some of them come very close; I am thinking of everything but the actual bout. From the moment the wrestlers enter the great hall where all the spectators sit, to the moment they leave, it is like a staged play. Few movements are unrehearsed, not much is said that is not in the script. The clothes - the mawashi of the wrestlers, the kimono of the gyoji, the haori-hakama (knee lenght coat and wide trousers) of the judges (shimpan), and the attire of the yobidashi... it's all according to tradition.

Watching sumo
Watching sumo takes some concentration. The bouts are over so quickly. If you look down to locate your cup of coffee - or glass of sake - chances are the bout will be over by the time you look back up. Most bouts are over within seconds. The "Grand Old Man" of sumo, Kotonowaka, even got the nick-name "Mr. Ippun" (Mr. One Minute), because his bouts often lasted so long.

And even though there are more than 80 different ways to win a bout, the simplicity of a sumo bout is enchanting. There are no second chances (unless the shimpan (judges) rule that there is to be a re-match). There are no points to be won, there is no nervous waiting for results. There are two sumotori, and there are the few, action filled seconds, and then it is over.

There are no emotions. (This is of course a lie). There are loads of emotions, but on the dohyo they only show in small glimpses, when the sumotori gets really agitated. No gloating and whining... I detest gloating and whining, and in sumo there is neither (at least not while someone's looking). There is only the sumo.

The bouts themselves, short as they often are, are crammed full of action. The initial rush - the tachiai - is so different from sumotori to sumotori, and I have learned to recognize the different ways, different sumotori rise from the shikiri sen. I often know if tachiai has been good or bad, even as the wrestlers' bodies slam into each other, and it feels great to be able to say: 'Oh, he's gonna get pushed out now. Look, he has only one hand on the outside, and his weak side is open for attack now". (I'm a pain of a know-it-all when it comes to sumo, but I prefer to believe I have the charm to pull it off...).

It's particularly great when I get the kimarite (winning technique) right, when the bout is over. If I call out a kotenage, and the announcer makes the same call, I am very satisfied. A little too often we have differing opinions, though. Three throws (hikiotoshi, hatakikomi, and tsukiotoshi) look somewhat alike, and I am often certain that the seven experienced shimpan and the gyoji all are mistaken! My patient life companion will listen to me rant about "... hikiotoshi is supposed to be more of a pulled motion! That was clearly hatakikomi! Slap down, thankyou! I can't believe this..."

"Hi! I'm a sumo fan..."
Sooner or later a new acquaintance will ask: "so, what kind of sport are you interested in? Soccer? Hockey? Tennis?" Naturally I tell them. Very few people know the first thing about sumo, but most are interested in learning something new. After all, it isn't your everyday sport. It's exotic and different from most mainstream sports, though it has a lot in common with e.g. wrestling and judo. I have made it my 'mission' to try to persuade my friends to at least give sumo a chance. So far I have only suceeded in convincing my bf...

Being a sumo fan I get some pretty funny questions, which I am more than happy to answer. Mostly they are questions about the wrestlers and their size - a fact that somehow seems to call on more attention than their agility, strength, speed, and technique. Some of the questions are about the loin-cloth, the mawashi, which does look rather odd to a sumo newbie. I don't mind the questions, though. It gives me an opportunity to rant, yet again, about my precious sumo.

(In my latest job application I mentioned three of my greatest interests: sumo, rhinos, and good pens. At the interview we spent quite some time discussing sumo - or rather: I explained and they listened. I got the job.)


I'm not sure this has done anything to explain why I so love sumo. It started out pretty good, but I think I got lost somewhere along the lines.

My daughter and I still watch sumo while talking on the phone. She does not yet now have an internet connection, so I no longer have to keep her posted of the daily scores during tournaments. But we still get together and talk sumo, watch sumo, drink sake (although we've yet to find one we like), and do the things mothers and daughters do when they are sumo fans.

A few explanatory remarks:
  • Mawashi - the "thong" sumo wrestlers wear.
  • Oichomage - the hairdo of a sumo wrestler when he is in formal attire (or on the dohyo)
  • Dohyo - well, it's the fighting arena. The dohyoiri is the "ring opening ceremony"
  • Sumotori (sumo wrestler), and rikishi (strong man), can be used interchangeably.
  • A basho will (almost) always be construed as one of the fifteen-day tournaments, held every odd numbered month.
  • When a rikishi retires, a special ceremony is held: The danpatsushiki.
  • The wrestlers can earn quite a lot of money - e.g. kenshokin. And there are other prizes to be won during a tournament.
  • The judges are called shimpan and the refeees are the gyoji. The helpers are known as yobidashi.
  • The kimarite are the winning techniques. There are presently 82 of them.

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