You can become a professional sumo wrestler at 15 years old.
That’s the age most kids are when they graduate junior high school and complete compulsory education.
The academic year in Japan ends in March and that month’s tournament in Osaka sees more new recruits join the sport than at all the other five yearly meets combined.
A lot of those young men are rookies in the true sense of the word, having no background in sumo, or indeed in some cases, any sport at all.
The harshness of their new life usually comes as a total shock, and few last more than a year or two.
Like signing up for the military, or running away to join the circus, the reality of sumo seldom matches the fantasy.
Among those 15- and 16-year-olds however, you’ll always find a subset of kids far better prepared. That’s the group whose members have been doing sumo since before they were in elementary school.
Go to virtually any amateur club in Japan on a weekend and you’ll see kids as young as 3 and 4 in mawashi (belts), doing leg stomps and battling it out in the ring.
Their training follows the same pattern as that used by more senior members, but is obviously much shorter and lacks the intensity.
Bouts between preschoolers often resemble ring-a-rosie more than anything from martial arts, and can go on for five minutes or more with neither child understanding how to deal with an opponent that moves to the side when pushed.
By the time they are 9 or 10, however, skills have been honed and many kids are very technically adept.
This is also the age when tournaments go from being fun, local events to serious national competitions.
The finals of the largest tournament, Wanpaku (Urchin) took place in Tokyo on Aug. 4 this year.
Roughly 300 boys from an initial field of about 40,000 battled it out in the Wanpaku national finals at the Sumida City Gymnasium in Kinshicho, with champions crowned in grades four through six.
The tournament normally takes place at the Kokugikan, but that venue was unavailable as it is undergoing renovations designed to make it barrier-free ahead of the 2020 Olympics, when it will host the boxing competition.
In a sign of the changing times, the Wanpaku organization will also hold a girls tournament this year for the first time ever. That’s taking place on Aug. 25 in Tokyo’s Katsushika Ward.
Kids tournaments are an excellent opportunity for fans to experience the real heart of sumo in Japan and a chance to see the stars of the future getting their first taste of the limelight.
Kisenosato, Goeido and Takakeisho all got their start in Wanpaku, and every national tournament contains numerous future rikishi.
One of the more notable entrants this year was Aiki Tamiya, the son of former Emperor’s Cup winner Kotomitsuki.
Aiki achieved a runner-up finish in the fifth-grade competition, causing news outlets to declare that he had matched his father’s ozeki rank.
Bouts between kids who won’t go on to the professional level are well worth watching too however, as large size and strength gaps between the participants create numerous exciting David and Goliath battles.
With rikishi wandering the arena cheering on juniors from their old clubs, and kids who have been awarded the rank of yokozuna also performing ring-entering ceremonies, attending a Wanpaku final tournament is well worth a dedicated sumo fan’s time.
Glory for the participants and entertainment for the spectators aside, the Wanpaku tournament is vital for the continuation of the sport on a professional level as well.
The Japan Sumo Association is one of the co-organizers and in order to create a positive impression on potential future recruits, and help alleviate the traveling costs for their families, the JSA opens up stables for the kids taking part.
Each group of boys is hosted and trained at a stable for a few days in the lead-up to tournament. After training they get to eat chanko (sumo jargon for food in general) with the rikishi and experience a taste of what life in sumo is like.
This gives kids from remote parts of the country a first chance to interact with professional sumo and can often be a factor in them deciding to join the sport a few years later.
Recruiting isn’t the only purpose for the tournament however. The Wanpaku organization itself states that having the national competition is a way to instill the values of thoughtfulness, gratitude and hard work in young people, while allowing them to have dreams and aim big.
Another stated aim is the fostering of a sense of community and the creation of a brighter society.
Such noble goals might sound like hyperbole, but attend the Wanpaku finals and you’ll notice the atmosphere is very different from a professional tournament or indeed any other amateur competition. There is a definite sense of community and friendliness among the parents and family members of the kids who have traveled from all over the country to the meet.
Watching the stars of the future take their first steps on the big stage in an atmosphere of friendly competition and cooperation. The Wanpaku tournament is one of the most enjoyable and valuable sumo tournaments in Japan.