The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that sumo is not really a sport. No one calls it spootsu anyway — sumo is and always has been the kokugi (national skill).
OK, one can argue that technique is a big part of sports, but the nuance here is more craft than athletic endeavor. Not to overlook the guts and sweat of it all, but sumo, somehow, remains insular and ritualized — intricate, mysterious and deceptively layered, like origami.
Suitably, the language of sumo occupies its own particular universe. Wrestlers are rikishi (men of strength), the matches are torikumi and instead of teams they have heya (stables). The manager is called oyakata (father figure) and his wife, who sees to the stable housekeeping, is o-kami-san. The torikumi are held on a sacred circular patch of soil known as the dohyo, closed off by a strand of rope. The referee is a gyoji, or the priest who watches over the dohyo and the rikishi all wear (or wind) mawashi over their prized middles.
In an age when Japanese athletes train overseas, have their own Web sites, actually elect to play for foreign heya, I mean teams, sumo is an anachronistic, nationalistic wonderland. Take the rikishi names. You won’t find anyone calling themselves by such a casual diminutive as Hide. No, this is a world where men adopt big, decorative names that do justice to their big, decorative biceps: Akebono (Reverent Dawn), Takanohana (Aristocratic Flower), Tomonohana (Flower of Wisdom), Musoyama (Twin Warrior Mountain), Kyokushuzan (Eagle Mountain of the Rising Sun), Mainoumi (Dancing Sea) and my all-time favorite, Chiyonofuji (A Thousand Generations of Mount Fuji).
Rock bands in need of names, should seek inspiration from this quarter. But then, rikishi have always been above and beyond the average Japanese. Three hundred years ago they were the stuff of folk tales. Gorgeously gigantic men among a small-statured populace, rikishi were once considered to be the Japanese equivalent to the gods on Mount Olympus. They moved mountains, battled ogres, consumed huge piles of mochi (rice cake) for sustenance. They were pure of soul and clear of mind, the loving sons of hardworking mothers.
Even today, you ask these boys why they decided to go in for sumo and nine times out of 10 the reply is: “Ofukuro ni raku sasetakatta (I wanted to make my mother’s life easy).” Sumo is probably the only remaining opportunity to hear such words. You ain’t gonna get it from ballplayers and skiers.
This is not to say, however, that rikishi are in any way glib. You may have noticed that a sumo interview after a torikumi consists mainly of the sportscaster asking questions and answering them himself, while the rikishi grunt and pant “sossu (yup).”
In all fairness, there never was much call for loquacity. It was once said that there were only two words a rikishi needed to know: keiko (practice) and chanko (grub). Indeed former yokozuna (champion) Kitanoumi (Northern Lake) rarely said anything besides these two words, and quite often omitted speech altogether. You could always tell when he was getting interviewed since the only voice you heard was that of the announcer.
Chanko, by the way, is a hot pot of meat, shellfish, greens, tofu and anything else the rikishi cares to shovel in. A quick and effective way of partaking the most nutrients from a single meal, chanko is what forms rikishi muscles and keeps them in that particular shape. Nowadays, of course, rikishi go out for hamburgers like everyone else, but to them a meal, no matter what, is called chanko.
Retirement usually comes between the age of 35 and 40, if not sooner. A successful rikishi will have sufficient funds to buy the toshiyori kabu, a partnership in the sumo association, the equivalent to a chair on the board. He can then open his own stable, or go in for kaisetsu (i.e., sitting next to the caster during tournaments and making brief comments in strategic places.). Failing that, he can always open his own chanko-ya (chanko restaurant) and have his buddies and proteges frequent the place for dinner.
One of the big attractions about sumo is its geniality. The matches never get ugly, things don’t get out of hand and a general politeness defines every proceeding. The whole thing is drawn out and relaxed. Grannies sip tea, moms rock babies and there’s a lot of eating — the entire time. Makunouchi bento, that most familiar of box lunches, originates from the food eaten during the makuuchi (top division) matches.
Undeniably, there’s something about sumo that links directly to the appetite. All this is true, because the dohyo is basically a magic circle of luck, good will and prosperity. No doubt it’s one of the things to cherish in this country.