Sumo: New Year Basho

I wasn’t always a Sumo fan.  It took me many years to warm up to this traditional Japanese sport, and I am still warming up to it.  Last September, I was hooked on the Autumn Basho (one of six annual tournaments) held in Tokyo.  That particular tournament culminated in the promotion of a new Yokozuna(highest rank in Sumo). Once again a Mongolian had risen through the ranks to claim this high honor.  In fact, the last three Yokozuna have been from Mongolia, a time spanning almost a decade. It is peculiar, in this most well known of all the traditional Japanese sports, that so much foreign penetration has managed to infiltrate its highest ranks. Looking at the current Makuuchi Division (highest division), the amount of foreign born wrestlers is extraordinary:

Mongolia – 7, Brazil – 1, Russia-1, Georgia-2, Czech-1, Bulgaria-2, Estonia-1

That’s 15 out of the 42 top division wrestlers.  A fairly big chunk.  Becoming a successful sumo wrestler does carry considerable rewards (money, national respect/admiration). But the cultural and linguistic assimilation one has to endure to participate in Sumo is very intense – even for a native Japanese. The commitment and sacrifice of the foreign born Sumo wrestlers is impressive.  Compare that to myself who after four years can barely hold a simple conversation in Japanese and still am at odds with some of the nation’s cultural peculiarities. These guys are taking interviews, scrutinized by the public, living in confined quarters with other wrestlers, and permitted to only wear robes and straw sandals.  All this in a country that is unlike anything they experienced in their youth, and in cities (mostly Tokyo) so cramped even the slightly biggish can feel claustrophobic.

Have a look for yourself at the Sumo Associations website (there is an English page).

And for everyone who just thinks Sumo is two fat guys bouncing off each other, have a look at Harumafuji vs Hakuho in last year’s Fall Basho.  This match got me hooked on Sumo.