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Sunday, January 7, 2018

Life After Sumo

Whew! What an exhausting day Saturday was. Up for the boy's hockey game (a loss, but he played well). Out to watch the minor league Toronto Marlies play an AHL (American Hockey League) game, and back home to watch the Toronto Maple Leafs squeeze out a shoot-out win in the NHL (National Hockey League).

Here in Canada, both lacrosse and hockey are its national sport. Over in Japan, its national sport is sumo...

Sumo (相撲) means "striking one another" and is a contact wrestling match between two rikishi (wrestler) where they try and force the opponent out of the round clay ring known as a dohyō or into touching causing the opponent to touch the ground with anything other than the soles of his feet.

Hippo's (kaba) doing ballet. Yes, sumo wrestlers are big boys, yet the moves they perform in the ring can be powerful bestial strokes of hand slapping faces, to gracefully leaping over the charging opponent, or catching them and tossing them in a judo throw... a battle that lasts no more than 10 seconds usually.

I'm no sumo expert, but when I lived in Japan, I followed the sport as religiously as the Japanese, and tried to learn as much as I could.

One thing I learned after my family came to Canada (from India via England), was that if you want to fit in, you better know the local sport.

As you can see, some 50 years after arriving in Canada, I love my hockey, and I dare say I know the sport better than 99% of Canadians... at least as far as being an arm-chair coach. I can't skate very well, and never played hockey in a league as a kid (I did piano, accordion, soccer and judo - 'cause if you're going to get beat up, you better know how to defend yourself).

I never sumo while in Japan. None of the junior high schools I taught at in Ohtawara-shi Tochigi-ken had a sumo club... if they had, I would have participated at least once.

I wonder why none of the schools had a sumo club team? Probably because it's not the healthiest sport. 

Regardless, with a national sumo tournament available every two months, I learned as much about the sport from the JTEs (Japanese teachers of English) and other Japanese teachers. I didn't have the luxury of the Internet, or books or magazines available to me in English... I just had the old-fashioned method of having to communicate with my person with the people around me.

I learned about the levels and tiers of sumo. I learned about how they lived and trained... and was amazed.

While there was no minimum height to be a sumo, there was a minimum height... it was just unwritten until 1994 after I had left, that a wrestler must be at least 1.73m (5'-8"). Surprisingly, there is no weight minimum.

On average, a sumo wrestler is about 1.83m (6'0") tall, and 148 kgs (~326lbs). Before I started shrinking, I was a shade under that height, and a scant 80kg (176lbs). And yeah... I know judo... and while I was in shape, I sure as hell lacked the power that sumo wrestlers gained after years of training at their beya (stable).

I knew that every day these wrestlers would eat massive meals  called chanko nabe (or just plain old chanko), which was a mishmash of whatever the hell food ingredients they could put into a stew pot.

They were encouraged to eat as much as possible to put on much needed weight, as they did exercises to help them gain flexibility, quickness, strength and yes, under all that fat, muscle mass.

Don't think these guys are just great big tubs of goo, because under that mass is a lot of muscle. And heart disease... but that's another story.

Along with the chanko, the wrestlers were encouraged to drink beer... lots of it. I was a heavy drinker and could outdrink every one I met... but I never met a sumo wrestler.

Thankfully, I didn't have to drink everyday, nor did I want to.

I recall hearing that sumo wrestlers, in order to harden the skin and muscle in their hands, would slap a wooden post (like a telephone pole) for hours at a time, thrusting out one hand and then the other - (push) slap! (push) slap!

It's why, off the start of a match, as an opponent ran at another, he could be felled by a mere slap to the face, because that hand was as hard as cement.

My favorite wrestlers at that time were Konishiki (the heaviest sumo wrestler ever at 287kg/633lbs), Akebono (the tallest wrestler ever at 2.03m (6'-8") and Musashimaru, a man I thought so perfectly square, that he might actually be a yokozuna (grand champion) one day. I was right about the wrestler Musashimaru (1.92m/6'-3.5", 235kg/518lb), as he became the second-ever yokozuna, after Akebono.

I also met Musashimaru... you can read about that HERE.

See... 25 years after leaving Japan, I recall their names and how to spell them. And yes, even after I left Japan, I continued to follow them... with some help from my bud, Matthew, who was also a fan of sumo, who went and saw a sumo tournament, who went and got me some sumo souvenirs, and I should mention, was also instrumental in teaching me about sumo thanks to his amazing ability to speak and translate Japanese - heck, it was way above my non-existent skill level.

What all three of Akebono, Musashimaru and Konishiki had in common, were that they were all foreigners performing a Japanese sport that seemed to dislike foreigners. At least the Japanese fans I learned from seemed to think that way, as none of them cared for my foreign trio, all preferring instead the brothers Wakanohana and Takanohana - who were very good rikishi, and both of whom rose to the rank of yokozuna.

Konishiki could have also, but along with having to win a certain number of victories over a few tournaments, he had to be voted in... and while he was good, he was always deemed not great enough.

Konishiki was one of those men for whom I wondered just what the hell does a 600+lb man do when sumo is no longer an option.

He was so big, I heard rumors that he could not reach around to wipe his butt, and lower level rikishi in his beya were tasked with that infamous duty. Yes, I said "duty".

I learned he got married to a tiny Japanese woman, got his Japanese citizenship, and then opened up his own sumo training beya... so good for him...

I also wondered whatever happened to the many young men who were never able to achieve their dream of being a yokozuna, or other high ranking o-zumo wrestler...

Well, my friend Julien alerted me to this wonderful mini documentary that should have been at least an hour long, but is instead only four minutes, about life after sumo for two former rikishi.

It's not exactly eye-opening for me... I know what it's like to have come close to my dream in a sport, and then realize that you sure as hell aren't good enough... and I see that and know that from watching the young men and women playing hockey (me as a fan keeping tabs on certain players). Sure there's lots of success, but there's even more who fail.

So... in sumo, what becomes a semi-legend most? Let's take a look:

Andrew Joseph
PS: What becomes a semi-legend most? is a comedy album by Joan Rivers in 1983... I believe I saw her on that tour, with friends Nigel and Rob.
PPS: Photo at top is by me, at a promotional sumo tour in 1993 in Ohtawara-shi. One poor rikishi is seen wrestling with five kid sumo wrestlers... which was how I figured a retired wrestler might be able to make some extra coin on the side, or after he retired. 

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