With an eye on the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, the Japan Sumo Association, in coordination with a government initiative, is taking steps to make this ancient sport more accessible to foreign visitors and the disabled.
At a recent event in Tokyo’s Ryogoku Kokugikan sumo venue featuring wrestlers from the elite makuuchi division, many of the rituals and details of matches were explained in English through simultaneous interpretation.
Information about sumo wrestlers was also provided, along with other trivia about the activity — a service not usually offered to Japanese spectators — and there are plans to make simultaneous interpretation available in other languages in the future.
“It is my first time to watch sumo wrestling and I feel so special and excited,” a 23-year-old German woman who gave her name as Mona said, adding that she got a glimpse into Japan’s traditional culture as well.
Lin Chin-yeh, 27, a graduate student in Tokyo from Taiwan, attended the event with a friend after obtaining the information from his university.
“Now we know more about sumo and its rules,” Lin said.
Michio Kawasaki, 67, who had stopped attending live sumo after losing his sight and hearing decades ago, was glad to attend the event, which was tailored exclusively for nearly 2,300 foreign and disabled guests. He is a director at a Tokyo group for people with hearing and visual impairments.
The JSA, which is taking measures to create a barrier-free environment for people with disabilities, handed out brochures in Braille and had sign language interpreters on hand to explain the proceedings. Monitors with Japanese subtitles were also set up.
Wrestlers performed the ritualized dohyo-iri ring entering ceremony before staging exhibition matches. A hairdresser who molds and shapes wrestlers’ trademark topknots even showed off his techniques.
The event was conducted as a trial research project for the government’s policy for promoting Japanese culture in the buildup to the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Although Kawasaki was unable to see the tournament, two interpreters at his side allowed him to follow the action by, for instance, giving him a tap to signify that a wrestler had beaten his opponent by throwing him down.
When a bout came to a standstill with both wrestlers gripping each other’s belts and neither giving an inch, an interpreter would grab Kawasaki’s belt.
“I haven’t been here for a long time. … I really had a great time today,” Kawasaki said through an interpreter.
“We believe that experiencing sumo up close and understanding the sport will build momentum through culture toward the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics,” said JSA Chairman Hakkaku.
During the event, grand champions Harumafuji and Kakuryu performed a rarely seen sandan-gamae three-level ceremonial pose, representing a strong spirit, attack and defense — the first time the traditional sumo formation has been performed in 21 years. The ritual is only carried out on special occasions.
“We want to let people around the world know about Japan’s culture and see how we cherish history and tradition,” said Harumafuji.
Kakuryu said: “With the attention turned to Japan because of the Tokyo Olympics, we want people to watch sumo, and by all means, we want to do our utmost in this effort.”
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