Sadanofuji, the pride of Kazusa
The first thing you notice is their size.
In the landscape of contemporary Japanese values, sumo wrestling seems anachronistic and out of place. So much of Japanese society is predicated on the desire to be ever smaller, ever more efficient, always producing more and consuming less. These values are identifiable in Japan’s approach to natural resources, but are also a staple of Japanese aesthetics, where minimalist design principles have been a hallmark for a thousand years. Today, sleek is probably the operative word in Japanese style: whether cars, electronics, or clothing, the desired look is taut. (Think Daniel Craig in Tom Ford, minus the muscles, and Asian.) This isn’t to say that the Japanese are immune to the allure of Big Things. But while they are eminently capable of excess, the appeal of Big Things in Japan is more a matter of novelty than the instinctive desire to outsize your neighbor. Bigger isn’t better—it’s just different.
And we haven’t even mentioned food yet. Japan is certainly in on the food-as-fetish-property phenomenon, but it seems like people here would rather take pictures of their food than eat it, because losing weight is the only thing more popular among the Japanese than animal-shaped bento. Although the Japanese diet is not as healthy as it once was, the portions remain small enough that most Japanese are able to stay svelte, the better to ostracize the heavyset among them. While Americans like to complain about the unrealistic standards we set for ourselves, the truth is that Americans are collectively fat enough that we tend to tolerate each other’s hugeness with a modicum of tact. Americans have a reputation for rudeness, but in fact, you’re much more likelihood to be called out on your spare tire by a Japanese person. Being fat is a mark of poor health, and in a country where the life expectancy is still just about the longest in the world, unhealthy habits draw commentary. (Sometimes. Japanese men smoke and drink like Raymond Chandler characters and it goes unmentioned.) Being heavy—never mind obese—is so stigmatized that many Japanese people won’t hesitate to comment if you gain weight. It isn’t necessarily meant as a cutting or malicious remark, just a matter-of-fact assessment of your slothful winter gorging. “Boy, it sure is cold today. Also, that shirt seems like it won’t be able to contain your expanding girth much longer. Well, otsukare sama desu.”
So it is perplexing that Japan’s national sport, and one of its most hallowed traditions, glorifies its most rotund athletes. While NFL offensive linemen bear a passing similarity to sumo wrestlers, football games are lengthy enough, and require enough running, to mitigate their girthiness to some degree. Sumo wrestling dispenses with these trifles: matches rarely last longer than 30 seconds, and the action is contained within the dohyo, a 16 square-meter ring that makes it basically impossible to build up a head of steam. As far as I can tell, sumo wrestlers never compete more than once in a day, so over the course of a week-long tournament, a wrestler might fully exert himself for only 3 or 4 minutes total. Such a schedule leaves ample time for grazing.
Though grazing isn’t the right word, because it implies a slow, leisurely intake. For sumo wrestlers, eating is a serious business, as much a part of training as the time spent sparring in the dojo. Many wrestlers, especially amateurs and those yet to establish themselves among the sport’s elite, live and train together as members of a “stable,” which they represent in competition. The stable oversees the wrestlers’ development and provides for them as they mature into the professional ranks. Eating is a big part of life in the stable. Meals are eaten together, with more junior wrestlers preparing the food for their sempai. The most common sumo meal is chankonabe, a stew made from chicken stock and filled with protein-rich ingredients, which is consumed with beer in massive quantities. While this kind of trough-style dining holds a special place in my heart, the sumo diet is to be avoided, because it does special things to the heart, like dramatically increase blood pressure and cause adult-onset diabetes. (Sumo wrestlers rarely live past 65 as a result of this diet and lifestyle.)
And so, the size. Sumo wrestlers look big on TV, and on posters, and from your seat, high above the dohyo. But to really understand how big they are, you have to stand next to one.
And you can. The thing that surprised me the most when I arrived at the Kokutai arena in Fukuoka for the annual Kyushu sumo tournament was that the wrestlers were just… walking around. In American stadiums, there are special underground tunnels that allow athletes to enter and exit unmolested by the dirty peasant hands of their adoring public. Not so in Japan. Like the ticket-holding plebes, sumo wrestlers walk the concourses before and after a match, stretching and chatting with their trainers. While they do have a locker room to themselves, some of the wrestlers seem to prefer limbering up in sight of the ring while watching other matches.
As soon as I entered the arena, I hurried to find my seat, only to realize that I was walking past a wrestler in the process of a post-match cool-down. My first thought was, “Shit, I’m not supposed to be here.” What gave me this impression wasn’t just the sweaty, 360-pound man beside me, but the fact that nobody was bothering him. In the U.S., athletes need secret getaway tunnels because if they didn’t exist, Tim Tebow would never make it back to the locker room alive. He’d be torn asunder by the thousands of single women who don’t care that he’s stuck behind Greg McElroy on the depth chart. Evidently, though, Japanese sumo fans are able to resist their baser instincts, which is really a win-win for both parties. The wrestlers can walk around the arena as they please without being prodded and squeezed like Pillsbury doughmen, and fans get to see their icons up close.
So, but anyway, this dude was enormous. Sumo wrestlers are sometimes tall, but it isn’t a prerequisite. For comparisons sake, the average sumo wrestler is about 5’11, whereas a typical NFL offensive lineman is closer to 6’4. That’s a huge difference, especially when you consider that the average sumo still weighs in excess of 300 pounds, which is almost the same as an average lineman. And while some linemen look… a little soft, most of them manage to look pretty built. Sumo wrestlers, while very strong, almost never look like athletes. There’s none of the definition or musculature that you’d expect from an American professional wrestler, heavyweight boxer or mixed martial-artist. Sumo wrestlers are just… well, round.
But despite all appearances of simply being fat, once you get them in the ring, sumo wrestlers begin to look athletic in a hurry. While the matches themselves are over almost before they begin, the pageantry that precedes the bout is as much a part of sumo as the actual contest. Wrestlers enter the ring with a mawashi, the sumo loincloth, wrapped about them. Then, they start the process of shiko, where they lift one leg at a time and slam it down on the clay of the elevated dohyo. This was originally a Shinto ritual, designed to drive evil spirits away, but in modern sumo it is as much about intimidation. Then, wrestlers take huge handfuls of salt and cast it into the ring to purify it before the match. During amateur or junior competition, these rituals are not observed before every match, but as the tournament day wears on, the process is increasingly drawn out, as higher-ranked wrestlers enter the dohyo. (The highest ranked wrestler, typically the yokozuna if one is competing, always has the last match.)
Then, the wrestlers line up across from each other, crouched in a four-point stance with both hands on the ground. This would seem to be the start of the match, but no! In ranked competition, wrestlers will often assume this stance two or three times (sometimes more), before the gyoji (referee) informs both wrestlers that the match must begin. It is unclear to me if the referee actually starts the match himself, or if the wrestlers simply come to an unspoken agreement, but either way, they have to fire out of their crouch simultaneously or the referee will restart the match. Although it traces its origins to a more sophisticated place, much of this pre-match posturing couldn’t help but remind me of the WWF matches I watched as kid. (Like their play-acting counterparts, sumo wrestlers all have “ring names,” which are announced upon their entry into the dohyo.) The initial collision is as violent as anything you’ll see in the trenches at an NFL game.
Now, all sumo wrestlers are big, but there’s still a considerable spectrum of sizes. Since there are no weight classes in sumo, wrestlers can range from merely stocky (around 225 pounds) to truly gigantic (500 pounds or more), and sometimes a single clash can feature wrestlers from opposite ends. On numerous occasions at the Kokutai, the difference in height and weight between a sumo pairing was immediately noticeable. While you would imagine that a 400-pound giant would be an almost impossible opponent for a 250-pound shrimp, there’s far more to sumo wrestling than just size.
The goal of sumo wrestling is simple: knock your opponent out of the dohyo or, failing that, force part of his body (other than his feet) into contact with clay surface of the ring. While pushing your opponent out of bounds is perhaps the simplest and most straightforward way to victory, sumo wrestlers employ a variety of different strategies suited to their strengths. Repeatedly, I saw undersized wrestlers driven to the edge of the dohyo, only to pirouette out of the way with a matador’s flourish, sending the larger wrestler toppling out of the ring. As big an advantage as size is, smaller sumo wrestlers level the field some with agility, nimbleness, and footwork. In using an opponent’s momentum against him, sumo reveals a kinship with other Japanese martial arts, like aikido, which focuses on redirecting an attacker’s force rather than countervailing it.
In all, the sumo tournament was fascinating, a quintessential Japanese tradition that seems so fundamentally at odds with the values of modern Japan. Of special interest to me, I got to see Sadanofuji, a wrestler born and raised in Kazusa, win a victory, en route to his first ever tournament championship in his division. (Afterward, he had a celebratory parade through the town, which I missed because I had to work. At the grocery store, you can buy cakes in the shape of his face.) Then, to cap the weekend off, my friends and I surveyed another institution of excess that seems wholly out of touch with Japanese life: Costco.
Japanese Costco is almost identical to American Costco, as far as I can tell, albeit with slightly different products. (How many gallons of soy sauce does one family really need?) But while Costco fits right into the spectrum of American consumerism—somewhere beyond Walmart, in the realm of Sam’s Club and BJ’s—it is a spectacular outlier in Japan.
In general, because space is at a premium in Japanese homes, people don’t stockpile food the way we do in America. Instead of buying bulk quantities, people go grocery shopping every day or two, buying enough each time to make a few meals. As far as I can tell, buying bulk or wholesale is vanishingly uncommon. But if my trip is any indication, Japanese people are just as fond of Costco as Americans. The place was packed nearly wall-to-wall, and while part of that owes to it being a Sunday (the unofficial shopping day across the entire country), it was clear that most of the people had made the trip specifically for Costco.
As I said, I think some of the draw of Japanese Costco is its novelty. “My God, a 64” frozen pizza! I don’t have an oven, so I’ll have to chop it into eighths to fit it in my microwave, but so what? And I can slather it in 32 ounces of Tabasco sauce!” (They were doing absolutely brisk business in giant, frozen sheet pizzas. Shrimp appeared to be the most popular topping, so it was impossible to completely forget I was in Japan.) Just like us, though, it seems the Japanese are susceptible to the Costco business model: “It’s too much… I don’t need it… where the hell will I put it… but at these prices!!” Costco: Because You Have No Self-Control, Since 1983.
But the biggest Costco surprise of all: no junior sumo waiting by the checkout with a barrel of chicken stock under each arm. That’s a beautiful relationship just waiting to blossom.