Ken Chin-Purcell

May 18, 2023

Japan Day 2: Sumo

After lunch we went to the Sumo tournament at the Ryogoku arena. It’s structured as a competition between East and West, but within that there are many houses of sumo wrestlers. Each house posts their colorful flag out front:

Our guide Yoko did a good job explaining the basics, such as the different rankings and how Sumo fits in culturally. 

What I remember is that in the past the Sumo were adjacent to the Samurai class and that these huge strong wrestlers are in themselves a show of prosperity, and are spiritually important for a good rice harvest. There is also lots of purification of the ring itself, which is below the Shinto shrine in the arena. Sprinkling sake and lots of salt is involved, like a couple hundred kilos of salt for a week long tournament. Wrestlers usually had a trademark way of tossing salt, kind of like how in the NFL players have different end zone dances. A couple threw large handfuls in the air, which the crowd liked.

Here are some trophies, including salted plums:

When we first sat down there weren’t many spectators and they were running through some low level matches. We’re obviously up in the cheap seats here, but at least we have chairs! Main floor were all mats, like a big Sumo picnic. You can see the five judges in black around the ring, with two on the far side. The ref starts out between the two far side judges, so everyone has a clear view.

By the time the upper level pros were wrestling it was a near full house. Here is East making their entrance, being impressive.

Each match has a lead up, with the upper level wrestlers being more elaborate. There is much ritual stomping (good for driving out bad spirits below), muscle slapping and general bad ass-ery. It used to be that there wasn’t a time limit to the psych out phase, but in the 1920’s they started limiting it to ten minutes, and now it’s down to four. The previous contestants stick around for the next match, encouraging the next guy.

It’s up to the wrestlers to begin, after they’ve synched up their breathing and both touch their white line. Usually one wrestler has a hand on the line and the other gives it a quick tap.

Some matches were over in a few seconds, others were a proper skirmish. In one match they threw each other over the edge, 600 lbs of wrestlers rolling like a giant log over the judge and some front row spectators. Everyone survived.

The afternoon built in excitement towards the top guy, the Yokozuna, taking on a wannabe. Today it was “Endo” (everyone has a “ring name”), who was smaller, very agile, and didn’t get taken out right away. The Yokozuna was just a mountain though and eventually Endo was bounced out of the ring.