Susan's Shanghai Blog - Week 96

SUMO!!! We specifically timed this trip to Southern Japan so that we could go to the Sumo Basho (tournament) in Fukuoka. This is our first tournament although we've seen it several times on TV. The sport originated in Japan and it is the only country where it is a professional sport today. It used to be only Japanese wrestlers as well, but that ended awhile ago. Back in 1972, Takamiyama became the first foreign born (Hawaiian) rikishi to win the top division championship. After retiring, he opened the Azumazeki stable in 1986 and trained Akebono, another Hawaiian, who became the first foreign-born Yokozuna (the sumo highest rank).

The tournament was held down by the river in the convention center. As we arrived, we could see alot of Nobori (Japanese banners) although I have no idea what they say.

The term Rikishi is most commonly used to describe a professional sumo wrestler. The two kanji characters that make up the word are "strength/power" and "gentleman/samurai". This is reflective of the strength and toughness expected of a sumo wrestler and the gentleman samurai image still afforded to sumo wrestlers who have continued into modern times to dress as the samurai of old.

We were seeing a few sumo wrestlers leaving from the earlier part of the day. The tournament consists of multiple divisions, starting with the jonokuchi division (the lowest). There are 6 ranked divisions and the wrestlers get promoted and demoted among the divisions based on their official tournament records. Even leaving the tournament, they are in traditional dress and topknot hair (chonmage), which is expected whenever they are out in public.

Inside, there were various vendors selling food, drink, and a couple with souvenirs. Along one wall, there were also a bunch of trophies, one with a really cute sumo-guy on top!

We caught up with one of the younger rikishi as he was leaving and got him to let us take a picture.

Okay, now to the tournament layout. In the middle you have the ring, or dohyo, which is 4.55 meters in diameter, under a roof resembling a Shinto shrine. There are 4 colored tassels suspended from the corners which represent the 4 spirits of direction: Azure dragon of the East, Vermilion bird of the South, White tiger of the West, and Black tortoise of the North. Then the first ring of people are for the judges and competitors. There are a few rows of seats with just a cushion on the floor (not sure who gets those). Then the majority of the center was made up of box seats, where you have 4 cushions within a box. We did not get these because we were told you had to buy the whole box of 4, and that most foreigners find them uncomfortable since you sit for 6 hours on a cushion. Then there were 4 rows of seats around the top of the arena .. those were where we were.

When we came in, they gave us a bag with a bottle of water and a cookie-type thing. Then we also bought something warm and round, fried dough with something, most likely red bean paste, inside.

We were there early, before the start of the major division, so we got to see a little bit of the lower division as well. Here you can see the dohyo clearly (the circle). The two white lines are where the rikishi line up for the match. The referee is the one in the middle in the elaborate outfit, based on medieval Japanese costume from the Ashikaga period.

First, the yobidashi (announcer) announces the wrestlers'. Then, each wrestler performs a number of rituals derived from Shinto practice. Facing the audience, he claps his hands and then performs the leg-stomping shiko exercise to drive evil spirits from the ring. While this goes on, the referee announces the wrestlers' names again. In the top two divisions, each wrestler also goes to the corner of the ring and is given a ladleful of water, the chikara-mizu ("power water"), with which he rinses out his mouth; and a paper tissue, the chikara-gami ("power paper"), to dry his lips. This can only come from another wrester on his side of the ring (east or west) and it cannot come from someone who has just lost (he would be contaminated by the other's defeat). So what happens is that there are two additional wrestlers always at ring-side. If you won your match, you wait and give the next wrestler the water before you leave the arena. If you lost your match, you go ahead and leave and the wrestler who will go next (after this match) will give these to the wrestler (he is not yet contaminated). He also can get a rag from the helper on the corner to wipe off sweat.

And then the match ... I'll describe more later with additional pictures.

The top division was getting ready to start. The first sheet was given to us and I'm sure it had something to do with the bouts, but .. no clue! The second was the listing of the matches in the top division, along with their win/loss record.

Not sure who this guy was (you're seeing a trend here, me not really having a clue, huh?) but by his dress, he perhaps is a retired sumo wrestler?

The wrestlers enter the ring during the ring entering ceremony, or dohyo-iri, wearing their kesho-mawashi (an ornate, embroidered silk apron). The wrestlers for the East have one ring entering ceremony, and then the ones from the West. During the ceremony the wrestlers are introduced to the crowd one-by-one in ascending rank order and form a circle around the ring facing outwards. Once the highest ranked wrestler is introduced they turn inwards and perform a brief ritual before filing off and returning to their changing rooms.

And the others ...

Yokozuna's have a separate, more elaborate dohyo-iri. Yokozuna is the highest rank in sumo. The name literally means "horizontal rope" and comes from a rope which is worn during the dohyo-iri ceremony. There is no specific criteria for an ozeki (the next lower rank) can get promoted to yokozuna, but rather, there is a committee that, after tournaments, discuss and determine if someone should get promoted to Yokozuna. You can never get demoted from Yokozuna (unlike other ranks) and so there is alot of scrutiny involved. Not only do you have to be a sumo wrestler with a consistent winning record, but also power, skill and dignity/grace. Also, since you can never get demoted, if you ever get to the point where you are not at the peak of the sport, you are expected to retire.

Now, the yokozuna ring entering ceremony. Each yokozuna in the tournament has their own ring entering ceremony. They come in, wearing their ceremonial rope (the tsuna) with two "assistants" (other wrestlers from the top division): the dewsweeper and the sword bearer. Once in the ring the yokozuna takes centre stage and performs a complex ritual dance. In this picture, the yokozuna is on the left, with the white tsuna tied in what looks like a bow behind his back. As part of the dance, he moves to the center of the ring (3rd picture).

There were 2 yokozuna's at the tournament, so we got two ceremonies.

More on the actual bouts... So the wrestler comes in from their changing rooms (2 bouts before their own) and sit along the side of the ring. When it is their turn, the announcer (here with the fan in the middle of the ring) calls them.

They enter the dohyo and go through the same rituals that I talked about before, clapping hands, drinking water. They also perform leg-stomping shiko exercises to drive evil spirits from the ring.

Both wrestlers then step back into the ring, squat facing each other, clap their hands, then spread them wide (traditionally to show they have no weapons). Returning to their corners they each pick up a handful of salt which they toss onto the ring to purify it.

Finally the wrestlers crouch down at the shikiri-sen, or starting lines, each trying to stare the other down. When both wrestlers place both fists on the ground on or behind the shikiri-sen, and normally, then they come back up, return to their corners, and repeat the process. More salt is thrown whenever they step back into the ring where they will again crouch and glare at one another in a build up to the actual bout. This can happen a number of times (about three, or even more in the case of the highest ranks) until on the last occasion the referee informs them they must start the bout.

The goal is to move any part of your opponent out of the ring. At the initial charge both wrestlers must jump up from the crouch simultaneously after touching the surface of the ring with two fists at the start of the bout. At the end, the referee points the war-fan (gunbai) towards the winning side. The referee's decision can be disputed by the 5 judges (shimpan) seated around the ring (you'll see that in a later match).

One of the wrestler's before the match ... a little pudgy!

After a few matches, the ring gets cleaned up by a few people with little brooms.

I know, terrible picture (sorry). The wrestlers will then return to their starting positions and bow to each other before retiring. The winner then waits for the referee to come over, he waves the fan and gives him something, which the winning wrestler then leaves with.

More bad pictures ... I'm somewhat guessing on this next one, so if I am wrong and someone knows, please let me know! In the later matches, before the match started, a line of people came up with banners and walked around the ring, and then back down. I initially thought they were maybe banners of the tournaments he had won this year or something, but they seemed alot of the same ones, so I'm now guessing that the match was sponsored and these are the companies who sponsored the match. A winning wrestler in the top division may receive additional prize money in envelopes from the referee if the matchup has been sponsored.

So here is where the referee's decision was disputed and you can see the referee (in the colored outfit) and the 5 judges (in the formal Japanese dress of otokomono, haori with mon, and hakama). The five shipman enter the ring and hold a mono-ii. During the mono-ii the five shimpan give their views on what happened. The gyoji is usually able to listen in but is not expected to take part unless invited to do so.

Here I attempted better pictures of the ceremony for the bout winner ... he does something that looks like making a cross (although I'm sure it isn't one) and takes the paper envelope the referee has.

The most interesting matches of the tournament were the final two, between the Mongolian wrestler who is approaching the record for the most tournament wins, and was undefeated so far in the tournament, going against the top Japanese wrestler. The atmosphere in the arena was electric .. people standing, hooting and hollering, as these two wrestlers had the best record so far through the tournament. While all of the wrestlers went through the normal "posturing" as part of the pre-bout rituals, this match really took the cake as far as mentally staring down your oppponent. Most would do a little staring while down in the starting crouch-position, but these guys .... standing upright just starting at each other. (I got a few pictures of it, although pictures just don't do it justice). It was just really interesting to see, since they were the first to just stand and glare at each other. The match itself definitely lived up to the build-up, as it went back and forth until the Japanese wrestler gained the advantage and, as you can see, was able to flip him out of the ring (the blurry, final upside-down action shot). This was one of the few matches where one just didn't push the other out of the ring ... as you can see from the blurry (sorry) picture, they were both up-in-the-air flipping around.

Then this guy in the audience ... again, I wasn't prepared but he got the audience to do a wave thing, like they do in football games.

This happened after the last bout, but I really also can't tell you what it is. It wasn't the last day, so this wasn't the tournament winner or anything like that. But it was an interesting thing to watch .. maybe a closing ceremony?

Continue to our last day in Fukuoka