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Big in Japan: A glimpse into the lives of sumo wrestlers at Edion Arena Osaka

Big in Japan: A glimpse into the lives of sumo wrestlers at Edion Arena Osaka

March 2019—I finally made it to Edion Arena Osaka on Day 4 of the Grand Sumo Tournament (大相撲 Ōzumo) to catch the live action of the sumo wrestlers. Since I was a train ride away from Osaka, I did not want to miss this rare event!

 

There are six sumo tournaments held annually: three in Tokyo in the months of January, May and September and one each in Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka in March, July and November respectively with each tournament lasting 15 days. 

 

Bagged home a same-day ticket for ¥2,100! MEGA EXCITED. (Image credit: Qiu Ting) 

 

As tickets were costly and priced at different tiers (¥4,000–¥15,000) depending on where the seats were (ringside seats, box seats, and balcony seats), ​I attended the tournament on a weekday just so that I could make it to the arena by 7am to queue for the same-day tickets (当日券 toujitsuken) at ¥2,100. 

 

Wrapped up in a neck scarf to brace myself against the morning wind, I stood in line patiently with the others who shared the same agenda that day. At about 07:30, I was handed a numbered ticket (整理券 seiriken) that confirmed my place. 

 

Several minutes later, I was led to the ticket window to purchase the actual ticket. You have no idea how thrilled I was to feel the golden ticket in my hands. It really felt like winning the lottery!

 

Sumo, a sport steeped in Shintoism

Sumo is the traditional sport of Japan, steeped in deep, ancient history and Shinto beliefs. This fascination with the sport propelled my desire to read more about sumo wrestlers, their training regimes and turn up to see it for myself.

 

Reporting for duty. (Image credit: Qiu Ting) 

 

The sumo wrestlers streamed in one after another in the morning, clad in their yukata (浴衣 summer kimono) and geta (下駄 Japanese traditional sandals). Their large girth, a grand presence. They entered the gymnasium, bowed and greeted the staff before registering at the reception table.

 

The ring-entering ceremony began with their names introduced by a Shinto priest, an essential ritual before the start of any bout. They made their way up to the dohyo (土俵), an elevated ring composed of cement and clay with a roof typical of a Shinto shrine, protecting those in and around it. The dohyo is thus the most sacred space in the entire gymnasium.

 

Morning bouts begin as early as at 08:30. (Image credit: Qiu Ting) 

 

After making the ticket purchase, I found myself with loads of time to spare since most spectators would stream in by early afternoon when it’s time for the higher-ranked wrestlers to shine in the arena.

 

As the gates opened at 08:30, I was able to secure a front row seat in the reserved section, right in front of the dohyo to witness the first round of bouts between the relatively younger and less experienced sumo wrestlers. 

 

In all honesty, it wasn’t comfortable watching the wrestlers at the beginning. 

 

Their career in sumo wrestling lies in their overall ranking. Whether they get promoted or demoted depends on their performance at the grand tournaments. This also means that they are often under tremendous pressure to better themselves, defeat their opponents and to create a name for themselves in this arena of competitive sport.

 

I learnt that there is so much discipline and rigor woven into sumo, and their routines and lifestyles are largely determined by their masters in charge of the sumo stable (部谷 beya) where they train at most of the time.

 

Living up to societal expectations as rikishi

Both tugging at each other with all their might. (Image credit: Qiu Ting) 

 

Sumo wrestlers are known as rikishi (力士), literally translated as men who have strength—its meaning derived from the kanji ‘力’ for strength and are well-respected from the kanji ‘士’.

 

Being a rikishi meant that they have a certain set of societal and cultural expectations to live up to. As a result, they bear extremely heavy responsibilities that we do not know much about. Their attitudes, behaviors and even their lifestyles are bound by strict routines and discipline with great emphasis on self-control and how they portray themselves in public.

 

Sitting in a row facing the dohyo on both sides, they awaited their turn. Their legs were crossed together with their mawashi (回し loincloth) tightly secured around their waists, a crucial possession during a wrestle. If it comes undone during a bout, he is immediately disqualified. 

 

A couple of them had parts of their limbs neatly plastered, ankle and knee guards safely in place to prevent further injury or provide a brief respite from the lingering pain that they had endured from their rigorous training.

 

A battle of physical strength and wit

Stretching under the bleachers before their bouts. (Image credit: Qiu Ting) 

 

Throughout several bouts of strategic body twists and intense contact, I saw a couple of them lose their balance and fall from the dohyo, landing on the canvas at full force. They picked themselves up, re-entered the ring in order to give each other another bow before taking their leave—slowly, silently and respectfully.

 

Some left the dohyo cradling their elbows and circling their shoulders in agony, their scrunched-up faces evident of the pain sustained from their battles. 

 

Ready, get set, go! (Image credit: Qiu Ting) 

 

Every sumo bout is a battle of strength and strategies. It was a sight that I did not prepare myself to see and I doubt I will ever forget these scenes.

 

Who is the strongest sumo of them all?

Ring-entering ceremony. (Image credit: Qiu Ting) 

 

We cheer for the victor, as though the one who lost does not have feelings. We watch it as a sport for entertainment, as though we are watching an action movie. We cheer for the top-ranked yokozuna (横綱 grand champions), like superstars in the world of sumo while there are rising stars who we have yet to know and recognise. I don't know how to feel about this.

 

A gathering of yokozunas. (Image credit: Qiu Ting) 

 

Sumo wrestlers: Ordinary people with ‘superhuman’ strength

The senior-junior (senpai-kouhai 先輩後輩) relationship that is rooted in Japan is clearly evident in the social and cultural hierarchy of sumo and how their lives as rikishi are played out in the beya.

 

Call of duty ends. Heading home. (Image credit: Qiu Ting) 

 

When the tournament ended for the day, I walked past a group of sumo wrestlers outside after leaving the gymnasium, waiting to hail a taxi. 

 

A taxi arrived shortly. One of them signaled for his two seniors to get in first, saw them off then waited for another.

 

In the most ordinary of ways, witnessing the sumo bouts taught me what genuine respect and discipline looks like in the sport. I admit that I was initially intimidated by the seriousness and stature of the wrestlers, but after watching the competition and their lives unfold, I have gained a newfound respect for them.

 

Just like the rest of us, they are just ordinary people who have chosen a career that requires them to develop “superhuman” strength. 

 

Edion Arena Osaka (エディオンアリーナ大阪)
Address: 3-4-36 Nanbanaka, Naniwa Ward, Osaka, 556-0011
Nearest station: JR Namba Station (JR 難波駅)
Access: 10-minute walk from JR Namba Station
Opening hours: 09:00–20:00 (Open daily)
Tel: +81 6-6631-0121

 

Header image credit: Qiu Ting

 

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