The Grand Sumo Tournament in Fukuoka

Two wrestlers enter the sumo ring. Together they might weigh as much as a BMW Isetta. They drink water from ceremonial cups, served to them by the last opponent they defeated. They throw salt in the ring to spiritually cleanse it. The judges signal they can start– but not yet, the match starts only when both wrestlers put both their fists on the ground, and the timing of that is completely up to them. There’s a lot of psyching out, feinting, and intimidation. They crouch, ready to clash, but then stand up again to the cheers of the crowd. They slap their bellies, stomp on the ground to drive bad spirits away, and some throw even more huge handfuls of salt to really be theatrical. This pre-match metagame is sometimes more intense than the match itself, which often last just a few seconds. This is, of course, sumo, and last-last weekend I took a trip to Fukuoka to watch Sumo Kyushu Basho, or the Kyushu Grand Sumo Tournament, one of four annually around Japan.

Firstly, it was held in Fukuoka Kokusai (International) Center, and you know what’s cool about sumo? You sit on the floor! So Japanese!!!

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Get cozy! Featuring my friends Siseko and Jake.

There’s also chair seating, but those are in the very back rows. We instead opted for a “box seat,” where instead of buying individual seats, you have to buy the whole “box” of floor space and four cushions. The cost was a flat ¥46,400 ($427), regardless of whether one, two, three, or four people sit. These were the third-best seats, with the first being ringside, where you might actually get to experience a sumo wrestler falling on top of you, then the front row, then us.

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Grand champion Hakuhō (right) throws cleansing salt in the pre-match ritual– this was our view, no zoom!

Sumo tournaments run for about two weeks at a time, and every rikishi wrestles once each day. Their rank/division is determined by their win and loss record by the end of the tournament. Think of it as working the same as relegation in the English Premiere League, and the tournament being a squashed-together season. The current grand champion, or yokozuna, is actually a Mongolian rikishi named Hakuhō. This elusive rank has been given to less than 100 people since 1630!! Adding on to the fun, sumo tournaments start around 8 in the morning, with the low-tier divisions going first, up till 6pm when you get to see the grand champion himself!

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Hakuhō (center, white loincloth) performs his ring-entrance ceremony.

There’s just so many neat things I really like about sumo. While I can’t claim to be a super-fan (nor can I with soccer, despite my many references to it thus far), I think that in sport there is beauty in simplicity. When there are so much fewer rules, then you must strive for absolute perfection in every little aspect. Two ways to lose– be pushed out of the ring, or touch the floor with anything but your feet. Despite this, there are over 82 recognized ways to win a sumo bout, which is included in the referee decision at the end as well as statistically tracked. There’s also, amazingly enough, a few foreign sumo wrestlers, the top division having a few dudes from Mongolia, and then Georgia and Bulgaria. Especially impressive because they are required to be fluent in Japanese, take a Japanese name, and live the entire sumo lifestyle.

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At the lowest, makushita, divison. Note how the referee’s robes only go to his knees.

We got to Kokusai Center around noon because of quite a night the night before, which’ll follow in part two. The stadium was nearly empty for the makushita division, the third-highest and the lowest featured at Kyuushu Basho. Even the wrestlers looked smaller. The gyōji (referees), whose outfits change from tier to tier, are barefoot and their robes a lot less elaborate. Compared to the top division, it seemed like the bouts lasted a little longer on average, as well as a LOT less pre-match feinting. It also seemed a lot less serious; there was one particular bout where the wrestlers were just staring each other down, and the gyōji yelled out something that sounded like “Wake up!” which even got some laughs from the crowd.

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Hideki Imaoka, currently the only active sumo ref at the top division. Credit goes to Ogiyoshishan of Flickr.

Yet another just absolutely badass thing about sumo– the gyōji at the topmost rank, called tate-gyōji, carry daggers in their belt to signify their willingness to commit suicide if they make the wrong decision. But as a perk, they DO get more elaborate robes, as well as wearing tabi socks and zōri straw sandals instead of barefoot. From what I’ve read, though, they don’t actually need to commit suicide if they make a wrong call, and no one has done it in modern history. At the current time there is only one referee/gyōji at this level, named Hideki Imaoka.

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At jūryō, the second-tier division. Still fairly empty in the stands.

Anyways, the Center didn’t start getting packed until around the afternoon, near the end of the second-tier jūryō and the beginning of the top-tier division, makuuchi. One of the first things that happens is all 42 wrestlers of makuuchi file in, wearing banners made by their sponsors. They bow one by one as they are introduced, make a circle around the sumo ring, clap, pull up on their banners, and raise their hands to the air. Perhaps calling the attention of the gods to bring prosperity to their sponsors?

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On the very right is Tochinoshin Tsuyoshi (Levan Gorgadze), from Georgia, one of seven foreign rikishi in the makuuchi division.

In the same vein, before every bout a few attendants will circle around the ring holding up the match sponsors’ banners. Another small TERRIBLY interesting point– the rikishi are referred to west vs. east, rather than left vs. right. Seeing as each makuuchi wrestler wrestles 15 times, if their wins outnumber their losses, they’ll be promoted within the division. And vice versa, they may be demoted, or perhaps even relegated (at least I assume they would be). Simple, simple!

There was so much that went on, compounded with my bad habit of writing blog posts WAY after the fact, that it’s difficult to me to lay out what happened chronologically, so a few highlights:

  • Finding that slapping is allowed, as well as open-palm thrusts. Some matches were basically just giant slap-fests, so intense that the sounds echoed across the stadium.
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  • Seeing Yuta Tomokaze get injured falling out of the ring, and being taken away in an (admittedly, comically large) wheelchair. In fact, it was pretty strange. After he fell out of the ring, he didn’t get up. It took a few minutes of confused silence before anyone even came to help (and they didn’t look like paramedics), and even then Tomokaze mostly had to get up by himself. It looked like he either broke or dislocated his leg in the fall from the ring. Luckily, not career-ending, but he did have to withdraw from the tournament.

The final match of the day, which on this one was Hakuhō versus Hayato Daieisho, happened around 6pm. It was actually over in less than a few seconds: the refereed decision was Daieisho won by oshi-dashi, or by simply pushing his opponent out of the ring. And wow, the grand champion had lost! Now it is day 12 of the tournament, and Hakuhō is currently 11-1. So we were privileged enough to witness his only loss thus far. Wow! If this had been the last day, and Hakuhō had lost the match, there’s a tradition of the crowd straight-up picking up their and throwing their cushions at the ring. This also kick-ass practice was banned 11 years ago, but people still do it, Shinto Buddha bless them.

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And lastly, the day’s action is concluded with yet another ceremony, this one called yumitori-shiki. A wrestler from the makushita division twirls a huge bamboo bow in the air and sweeps the ground with it to even further drive away bad spirits and cleanse the ring.

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Asanoyama on the right, his attendant on the left. He weighs over 171 kg (376 lb), while I clock in at about 78 kg (172 lb).

Coming away from the tournament, you (slash no one) may be wondering, “But Patrick, who is your favorite wrestler after all?” And of course, I’d have to respond “Why, it’s the world fourth-ranked Hideki Asanoyama!” because of all the wrestlers we ran into outside, he was nice enough to let me take a picture with him. Now, I’m a fan for life!