Beach sumo attracts young, barefoot following

Kyodo News

No choking, eye gouging, hair pulling or kicks to the stomach are allowed. And of course, no throwing sand in your opponent’s face, either. This is all in the name of fun.

Beach sumo, for the uninitiated, is gaining recognition as an outdoor recreation to promote the healthy development of children. It comes with the added benefit of protecting beaches by raising community awareness about trash and global warming.

Tamakairiki, a former professional sumo wrestler, heads the Japan Beach Sumo Federation established early this month and has already organized several successful beach sumo events. He came up with the idea to support the nonprofit organization Beach Life Japan’s efforts to promote beach culture via sports and other activities.

Shoji Setoyama, a former beach volleyball player who represented Japan at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, founded the NPO to promote community-building in 2004.

“I was promoting the beach events in order to have beaches in use all year round. Most highlighted ballgames (like volleyball), but I thought there were other activities you can do barefoot,” Setoyama said. “Then I consulted Tamakairiki. I hope beaches can be a place of education. I want to help kids’ healthy development.”

Tamakairiki, whose actual name is Yukio Kawabe, said he aims to teach young people courtesy, patience, respect and consideration, all values highly respected in the traditional world of sumo. In a sumo match, wrestlers start and end by bowing to their opponent.

“I’m doing this for the healthy development of children. The reason why I am promoting beach sumo is because it’s safe and anybody can join in,” said Tamakairiki. “Kids can learn what it means to take on challenges from their parents and also what it means to experience defeat,” he said.

The first beach sumo event was organized in April 2007, and so far there have been 13 held at beaches in Tokyo, Kanagawa, Ibaraki, Hiroshima and Miyazaki prefectures.

The events have been held in spring and summer and each one has attracted about 50 young participants.

Three other events are scheduled for Shibukawa beach in Okayama Prefecture, Ajigaura beach in Ibaraki Prefecture and Mojikonishi beach in Fukuoka Prefecture.

Kids battle one another, as well as their parents, in exhibition sumo tournaments and learn about sumo culture. The participants range in age from toddlers to adults but most are young. Setoyama said participants are also educated about protecting the nation’s beaches.

“The beaches are threatened by trash and rising sea levels. We are aiming to protect beaches by collecting trash and recycling. We also promote beach culture as a way of keeping beaches clean,” Setoyama said.

Tamakairiki, a father of two who was a wrestler in the top makuuchi division during his 16 years as a pro, said beach sumo is a perfect activity for the family. Parents and children can grapple with each other in their bare feet while taking in the fresh air.

Participants wear a “mawashi” (loincloth) held in place with fabric fasteners and follow traditional sumo rituals. The wrestlers bow before entering the raised ring, or “dohyo,” and sprinkle salt for purification before crouching in a set position for the all-important faceoff.

As in professional sumo, striking with fists, slapping, eye gouging, choking, hair pulling and kicking are all prohibited. There is also a “gyoji,” a referee who sets the stage by calling out the names of the competitors.

Hiroko Yoshizawa, the vice head of Beach Life Japan and one of the cofounders of the Beach Sumo Federation, said most of the participants are girls.

“I thought they would be shy to put on a mawashi over their clothes but they are very enthusiastic and full of curiosity. In fact, they are stronger than boys,” said Yoshizawa.