Monday, January 5, 2009


My life in Japan has gone through phases. Most people only know me as I live in my current phase of life here in Tokyo. In the current phase, my focus is on domestic life, particularly on cooking, cleaning, and working from my apartment. My hobbies tend to center on the computer and dealing with my health issues as best I can. However, there was a phase in my life when a lot of my interest and hobbies revolved around sumo wrestling.

For several years, my husband and I would watch sumo as much as possible when it was shown on television. At the very least, we watched the Japanese language "Sumo Digest" which aired late at night on weekdays. On the weekends, we watched the bilingual (English and Japanese) sumo matches that were aired live on NHK. The earliest matches we watched included the great Chiyonofuji, though we saw him more toward the end of his career.

Later, we started to go to the kokugikan in Ryogoku to watch the matches in person. We had to get up very early in the morning and wait in a long line for 2-3 hours to get one of the 300 or so cheap (about ¥2500) tickets that were sold the morning of the matches, but it was worth it because we could really enjoy the atmosphere of the experience as well as pick up souvenirs. We still have a few cups in our cabinet from that time and some reproductions of the framed photos of champions that hang around the kokugikan in our closet (which were pretty expensive). After a few years, we were able to make a connection with a magazine editor of an English language sumo magazine called "Sumo World" and buy his press box tickets sometimes. His box included 4 seats with Western-style chairs and a table which was at the back of the first level of the two-leveled stadium. The tickets were about ¥8,000 each and we had to buy all 4 for the day, but it gave us a chance to invite friends along to enjoy the matches with us. At that time, sumo was very popular so getting tickets was difficult. We went sometimes even if there were just the two of us. I'm sure that we blew a lot of money on sumo in those days.

As our enthusiasm for sumo grew, we started to write reports about each day's matches for an online bulletin board service called GEnie. It would take hours to detail the matches. During this time, we also took part in a tour of a sumo stable (Tomozuna beya) that allowed us to watch a brutal early morning practice session, see the inside of a stable, and eat chanko nabe with the head of the stable. After seeing the practice, it is easy to see how a wrestler might die from injuries inflicted during practice (as has happened in the last few years) because it's rough and they get hit with a stick.

As the years went by, the "old guard" of sumo that was fighting when we first became interested in it gave way to a new group that included Wakahanada (later Wakanohana) and Takahanada (later Takanohana). As these young wrestlers became more popular and successful, the tone of sumo changed. Their stable, Futagoyama beya, had many good wrestlers in the top division. Since wrestlers from the same stable don't fight one another, Waka and Taka as well as their stable-mates didn't have to face as many tough opponents. Sumo became less competitive and consequently less interesting. Also, as proud Japanese fans embraced the young brothers as champions, they became more overtly racist in their responses to foreign wrestlers like Akebono and Konishiki, who are both from Hawaii. When one of the Americans lost a match, the Japanese crowd far too often went wild with glee roaring their approval and tossing their cushions at the ring.

The ugliness of the racist reaction and the lack of strong competition eventually caused my husband and I to lose interest in sumo after being ardent fans for about a decade. These days, we don't watch sumo at all. One of the reasons for this is that there is a lot of corruption and "fixed bouts" (yao-cho), but the fact that the number and type of competitors are controlled to make sure foreign wrestlers can never become too dominant leaves a bad taste in our mouths. When Akebono and Konishiki were both competing, the sumo association changed the rules to make it more difficult for foreigners to compete by making the age at which someone could join a stable much lower (19, I believe). This made it far less likely that a foreigner would be recruited since most of them join when they are older. This rule may have since changed, but it was such a blatant effort to control foreign competition that it demonstrated that the sumo association was more interested in promoting their agenda (making sure Japanese wrestlers were highly ranked rather than good competitors were involved in bouts) than making the sport compelling to watch.

We still know a lot about the sport, but we don't watch it anymore. In fact, it's the only aspect of Japanese culture which we know far better than most average Japanese people. We'll always have fond memories of the time when we were fanatical about sumo and I'm sure it helped us learn a lot about Japan in our earlier time here. I'm also pretty sure that it fueled at least some of the CH's interest in reading kanji and perhaps is one of the reasons why he reads Japanese better than he speaks it.

I also remember that time as a point when the CH and I formed our first mutual interest in something together. Up until then, all of our other interests came into our relationship fully formed and few of them were entirely mutual aside from record collecting (and even then, we collected different records). There's something really satisfying about being able to prattle on about something you both are completely into and sumo was our first experience that involved something other than ourselves which allowed us to do that.

1 comment:

Kelly said...

I love Sumo! Though i'm not quite an expert, hubby is. We watch every match on NHK. Actually my favourite is Hakuhou, the Mongolian Yokozuna. :) It is good to see a non-Japanese up there, even if he is still Asian.