I understand the basic rules of sumo wrestling but I don’t get the nuances. I wish I did. Here in Tokyo, we are in the middle of two weeks of matches and they are being televised. I watched a few hours yesterday. Regardless that I don’t completely understand it, I’m hooked. Most of these guys are huge, with an added bonus that the bouts are short—which is perfect for people like me with short attention spans. It’s like watching Godzilla and Mothra in a fast knockdown.
At the start of the matches, all the wrestlers come out wearing their ceremonial aprons and circle around the ring, then they all file out.
For each bout, the two wrestlers come out, step onto the raised platform and stand in their corners. They each toss salt onto the fighting area—which is to purify the ring—then squat, before stepping into the clay ring, which is surrounded by a circle of rope. Once in the ring, they again squat across from each other, then go to squat and crouch on each side of two lines with 1-2 feet separating them. In this area of separation, the referee stands—but adjacent, and out of their way.
The referee signals with a fan that they may begin but I never notice when it happens, because I’m so engrossed in watching the hulking wrestlers. While in the ring, squatted across from each other they may stand up, then squat back down a few times, perhaps stomp their feet once or twice, then squat back into a pre-fighting stance, and look at each other. Sometimes they lunge at each other right away or at other times one will jump up and walk away. What unseen message or look from one to the other causes the wrestlers while both posed in a pre-fight stance and staring at each other, to jump up and walk back to their corner, slap themselves on their butt or thighs, throw more salt into the air, glare at each other, then step back into the pre-wrestling stance? I have no clue.
The loser is the first one to touch any part of his body to the floor, or to step outside the ring and the size of the wrestler doesn't seem to matter. It’s exciting to watch when the two hulks of flesh smash together. Sometimes it’s over quickly, while other times they just stand there pushing against each other for a minute or two. Suddenly, an extra shove or subtle change in the mathematical equation of their weight/mass/momentum causes one or the other to fall to the ground with a massive thud. Occasionally, one or both will go flying out of the ring and into the laps of the crowd below. I’m guessing that watching four-hundred pounds of flesh flying towards you would be a life-flashing-before-your-eyes kind of moment.
Though big, these men are nimble but they’ve got to have some massive bruises at the end of the night. A lot of the wrestlers come out to fight already covered with assorted bandages and wrappings on their feet, arms, knees and legs from previous injuries. It’s a rough sport, especially when there’s so much weight behind each fall. Yesterday, one guy smacked his face on the ring and came up bleeding.
After each bout, the TV cameras then cut to the announcers talking about either past performances, or current, and they sometimes show old footage of past fights. One of the announcers was clearly an ex-wrestler and he very shyly and with a minimum of words added to the discussion about something, though I know not what. Once again, I wish I understood Japanese so I could understand what they were saying because I’m sure it was enlightening.
The sumo wrestlers intrigue me, too. They never smile even during post show interviews, and always maintain a look of quiet introspection. They’re the ultimate big, strong men of few words. And they are definitely comfortable with their bodies. I mean, to be able to go out there in front of so many people wearing only a loincloth when you weight over 400 pounds? You go, guys!
Next week we head for Ryogoku—the sumo district of Tokyo—to enjoy a day of matches! I hope to get a picture with one of the wrestlers to see how big they really are. Regardless, I’m really looking forward to it.