Wrestling of gods

text and photo by
Grigoris A. Miliaresis

Today was the final day of the summer sumo tournament in Nagoya; sumo tournaments are held every two months, always on an odd month. These last few days, the tournament’s focal point was whether the yokozuna (champion) Hakuho or the ozeki (one category below yokozuna; at any given moment there can be only one or two yokozuna but more ozeki) Harumafuji was going to win the tournament since up until today none of them had lost any of their fourteen matches. For anyone interested, the winner was Harumafuji (fifteen victories in fifteen matches in fifteen days)  but what I wanted to say was that yesterday, even though I didn’t manage to see the match I wasn’t worried: I knew I could ask my mother-in-law to tell me what had happened.  

My mother-in-law is an 80-year old lady who does sado (what is usually called “tea ceremony” in English) and a genre of painting-collage called chigiri-e. When she was young she used to work as a typical office lady and now, after retirement, she does what most aged Japanese ladies do: everyday housework, shopping, gossiping with other neighbors, participating in one of the numerous Buddhist sects that abound in Japan and in various common affairs of the community where she lives. That she has been watching unfailingly sumo for sixty years is by itself impressive; what is more impressive is that she is not alone: most people her age are watching sumo enough to be able to tell a good from a bad match, to have favorite (and not so favorite) wrestlers and to include sumo in their gossip. What is most impressive is that the same is true for almost the entirety of the Japanese population. 

Having an interest in sumo myself, both technically (I consider it, maybe the most exciting combative sport) and as a performance (with its dozens of symbolic details-references to Shinto and past eras), I believe I could write a quite adequate presentation or analysis of it. But in my opinion, what I wrote about my 80-year old mother-in-law says much more about sumo’s place in Japanese society and about Japanese society itself. As far as I know, there is no other culture in which a combative sport has managed to gain such a widespread acceptance from almost the whole of society and every two months fill 10,000 seat venues for two weeks, from morning to afternoon. Yes, the yokozuna in the last nine years have all been Mongols (as is the ozeki Hrumafuji who won today’s tournament) but being into sumo is, perhaps, the most Japanese thing a Japanese can do. 

Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years. For more information about his work and his writing, visit http://about.me/GrigorisMiliaresis and http://www.japanarekore.gr/

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