Lard of the Rings

By Charles Lane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 5, 2004

My 7-year-old son had just one question when I told him that our itinerary in Japan included a sumo wrestling tournament.

"Pops," he asked, "are they going to have really fat butts?"

It was, of course, terribly inappropriate language. But let's face it: The boy spoke for many of us. When Americans think of Japan's national sport, they tend to think of a comic shoving match between scantily clad lard-buckets.

As both my youngster and I were about to learn, however, there is much more to sumo. As old as Japan itself, it remains a riveting spectacle -- part top-flight athletic competition, part ancient cultural ritual. For us, it was a window into the soul of Japan.

Our voyage of sumo discovery took us to Nagoya (population 2.1 million), the fourth-largest city in Japan. Just two hours southwest of Tokyo by high-speed bullet train, industrial Nagoya is no tourist mecca -- except for the 15 days in July when thousands flock to its Aichi Prefectural Gymnasium for a national sumo tournament, or basho. (There are five other bashos annually: three in Tokyo, one each in Fukuoka and Osaka.)

Each day, sumo wrestlers, or rikishi, of varying ability levels compete in a kind of round-robin, hoping to win trophies and such prizes as cash, cars and, occasionally, a cow or huge pile of shiitake mushrooms. Based on their performance, rikishi rise through a complicated ranking system atop of which sits the grand champion, or yokozuna.

The day's bouts begin at 9 a.m. and continue until 6 p.m. The top-ranked rikishi don't go into action until the last hour or so. Still, as my son and I learned, it's a good idea to show up for at least some of the undercard. For one thing, it takes time to get used to the arena, which resembles an indoor picnic area. You get a little patch of floor, covered by a couple of cloth cushions. Remove your shoes, cross your legs and settle in.

A young female usher supplied us with free programs and paper fans, then took our orders for bento, a Japanese-style lunch box. Mine, a tad overpriced at $32, contained an ample supply of steamed rice, plus a variety of other items I could not identify but thoroughly enjoyed -- except for a piece of octopus, which I recognized but barely stomached. (It's permissible to bring in your own food and drink, if you prefer.) My boy enjoyed ice cream and popcorn.

Watching the less experienced rikishi, we familiarized ourselves with the rules. Basically, you have to either force your opponent out of the ring, a 15-foot-diameter circle known as a dohyo, or force him to touch the ground with any part of the body other than the sole of his foot.

A key figure in the contest is the spectacularly dressed gyoji, or referee. As with the wrestlers themselves, there is a hierarchy among gyoji. Junior referees, who officiate among lesser rikishi, work barefoot; the experts, who handle matches among the top-ranked rikishi, wear sandals set off by a pair of split-toe socks known as tabi. The top-ranked gyoji on the day of our visit were decked out in 14th-century imperial court attire -- a shimmering purple kimono complete with fan and short sword.

No fair punching or pulling the opponent by the top-knot in which rikishi wear their hair. But it's perfectly legal, and actually encouraged, to grab the other guy by his loincloth and use that for leverage. (The loincloths, known as mawashi, are made of cotton for lower-ranked rikishi and silk among the upper ranks. They're tightly wrapped and strong, and rarely come off during a fight.) There are some 70 officially recognized winning moves in sumo, each carefully studied by aspiring wrestlers, who live and train together in sumo "stables."

The key lies in calculating which maneuver will beat your opponent, then executing it within the first few seconds of the match. In American terms, sumo combines the hand-to-hand combat along the scrimmage line in football, with the mind game between pitcher and batter in baseball.

Though a typical bout may only last about 10 seconds, the suspense builds as the two competitors use their allotted four minutes of warm-up time to stamp the floor and glower at each other in a choreographed display. Wrestlers grab handfuls of salt and scatter it around the ring, a ritual of purification that symbolizes their desire to come out of the battle safely.

And then -- boom! -- it's tachiai, the moment when the wrestlers rush violently at each other, propelled by their immense and astonishingly flexible thighs and calves. Now you know why rikishi need all that unsightly flab, built by a lifetime of eating the high-protein stew served in sumo stables: shock absorption.

Nobody does it better than Asashoryu, the 24-year-old yokozuna we saw in the final bout of the day at Nagoya. Asashoryu's real name is Dolgorsuren Dagvadorj, but he fights under a pseudonym, per sumo tradition. Mongolian-born, and hence an exemplar of sumo's recent internationalization, the six-foot, 309-pound Asashoryu is smaller than many of his opponents. (There are no weight classifications in sumo.) But what he lacks in size, he more than makes up in speed, tactical ingenuity and intimidation.

Staring down his adversary, fellow Mongolian Kyokushuzan, Asashoryu evinced utter self-confidence and just a hint of contempt. Breaking off the pre-match psyche-out to take a swig of chikara-mizu ("water of strength"), Asashoryu pivoted haughtily on one heel and flexed his biceps Charles Atlas-style, then gave his hip a mighty slap--evoking a rapturous response from the crowd.

He scared me, and I was sitting 40 rows up.

Within seconds, Asashoryu had a firm grip on Kyokushuzan's loincloth -- and was hoisting him off his feet. Then, the champ carried his countryman to the edge of the ring, depositing him, ever so gently, outside it. It was a perfect execution of a difficult maneuver called tsuridashi, but Asashoryu made ousting his fellow 300-pounder look no more taxing than dropping off a bag of leaves for curbside pickup.

Sumo is violent but not brutal. So, humiliated as he must have been, Kyokushuzan collected himself and returned to the dohyo for the official announcement of his defeat, bowing politely to the victor as required. Cued by a wave of the gyoji's fan, Asashoryu then squatted alone in the ring and stretched his right arm grandly, the traditional gesture of triumph.

As for my son, his interest ebbed and flowed throughout the long day. Still, he soon got over the competitors' hilarious girth and focused on the brightly colored banners paraded into the ring by sponsors of various matches, each one declaring how much the company had donated as prize money. Before long, he could almost count to a million in Japanese.

"Look, Pops!" he cried, as Asashoryu's bout was about to begin. "That ref is wearing sandals!"

A sumo fan -- two, actually -- had been born.

Two-week sumo tournaments take place in Tokyo in January, May and September; in Osaka in March; in Nagoya in July; and in Fukuoka in November. Ticket prices vary according to the venue, but generally start at around $35 per day and go up to about $140 for a ringside seat. Ticket information, including prices and instructions on how to purchase, is available at the official Web site of the Japan Sumo Federation, Advance purchase recommended.

Charles Lane covers the Supreme Court for The Washington Post. He traveled to Japan this summer as a 2003-04 Japan Society Media Fellow.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company