Fighting for Sumo: Harsh Life Deters Would-Be Wrestlers

By Felix Lill

Sumo is as Japanese as Mount Fuji or the cherry blossom festival, but the traditional sport is facing problems. Deterred by the harsh training and life of privation that comes with joining a stable, dwindling numbers of boys are interested in becoming sumo wrestlers.

For a sumo wrestler, Takahiro Chino is a flyweight: He tips the scales at 88 kilos (194 pounds) and is 1.75 meters (5 feet 8 inches) tall. His sparring partner, on the other hand, looks like a mountain of flesh.

A huge belly hangs over his loincloth and his thighs resemble marble columns. The 130-kilo man flexes his knees and goes into a crouch, leaning his upper body forward so that his center of gravity is as low as possible. Whenever Takahiro Chino launches another attack in an attempt to throw him off balance, the powerful wrestler shakes off his young assailant as if he were an annoying insect.

"Keep your arms straight and get off to a faster start," Tadahiro Sato yells to the relatively slender wrestler, "you're using your light weight too little!" Sato, 52, is the stable master and his instructions sound gruff. He is sitting barefoot on the floor mat and drinking green tea -- and is the only one speaking in the training room.

A man who weighs 150 kilos, and will be the next one to step into the ring, is doing the splits as he stretches on the clay floor, while another man is knocking his head against a wooden pole. Warm-up exercises: Soon it will be their turn.

But first Takahiro Chino has to endure one more round as the fall guy. He groans and pants, and sweat runs down his back. Once again, he hits his opponent full force and, once again, predictably bounces off his rival's massive belly. Finally, after three hours, the stable master puts an end to the torturous workout. The wrestlers bow to each other and, after lunch, the routine continues, just as it does every day. The next activity on the schedule is 90 minutes of weight training.

Takahiro Chino, 20, is the youngest wrestler in the Otake sumo stable, one of the most traditional in Japan, located in a nondescript building in Tokyo's Koto district. He is the novice. One could also say that he is the servant. Seven sumo wrestlers live and sleep here in one room, located right next to the training ring, called the dohyo.

Girth Greater Than Their Wingspan

Chino cooks lunch and dinner for them every day. He does the dishes and the housecleaning, washes their laundry and even helps his corpulent fellow stablemates with their personal hygiene. Without complaint, he uses a washcloth to scrub the places that they themselves can no longer reach because their girth is greater than their wingspan.

It was only last summer that he joined this stable, which was founded by one of the top Japanese sumo wrestlers of the postwar era. At the time, Chino weighed 67 kilos. He dropped out of school at the age of 14 in his hometown of Nagano and lived off his parents for five years without any prospects for employment.

Chino says that the clear hierarchy, strict daily routine, Spartan surroundings and self-sacrifice of the stable have given his life the clarity that it was lacking. "I was fortunate enough to get out of that situation," he says.

In three years, he hopes to become a sekitori, a wrestler who receives a salary and special rights -- one of 70 who can live from sumo wrestling in Japan. He intends to weigh at least 120 kilos at that point. Until then, he has to suffer and serve in his stable.

Sumo is as Japanese as Mount Fuji and the cherry blossom festival. It has its roots in Shinto, the island kingdom's original religion. Ritual wrestling matches were already being held at the imperial court 2,000 years ago. Professional sumo wrestling has existed for 300 years.

A Life of Archaic Rituals

The rules could hardly be simpler: The winner is the man who knocks his opponent off balance, forcing him to touch the sand-covered clay floor with any part of his body other than the soles of his feet -- or out of the ring, which measures 4.55 meters in diameter and is marked by a rice straw rope. A match is usually over within a matter of seconds.

But the archaic rituals that characterize daily life in the stables, and can occasionally lead to violence against newcomers, are apparently deterring an increasing number of youth in Japan from pursuing careers as sumo wrestlers. As recently as the early 1990s, there were still over 200 young men who were accepted as novices in the country's approximately 50 professional stables. But over the past few years, the number of annual newcomers has dropped to around 50. At Otake alone, says stable master Sato, some 50 boys still annually applied during the 1970s. Most of them were turned away. "These days, it's much easier to get in," he says.

The traditional sport reached its height of popularity 20 years ago, at the end of Japan's rise as a major economic power. At the time, the brothers Takanohana and Wakanohana engaged in a perfectly staged rivalry with the Hawaiian Akebono.

The clashes between the colossal Akebono, who was over two meters high and weighed over 230 kilos, and the comparatively agile Takanohana were stylized as a test of strength between Japan and Hawaii, the United States and even the rest of the world. Back then, Sumo wrestling could be seen on television abroad, and the Eurosport network broadcast matches in Germany.

The retirement of these stars from the sport sealed its decline. According to surveys by a leading Japanese polling institute called Central Research Services, even golf now has more supporters in Japan, with its population of over 120 million. Ever since Takanohana quit 10 years ago, not a single Japanese man has achieved yokozuna, the sport's highest rank.

"Japanese idols would definitely be good for the sport," says Harumafuji Kohei, an active yokozuna, during one of his rare appearances before the international press in Tokyo's Yurakucho business district. "But what young people here are really missing is the hunger to succeed," he adds. The 29-year-old Mongolian -- 134 kilos, 1.85 meters -- was driven to the event in a luxury limousine. He wears a fine kimono and his hair is tied up in a bun the shape of a ginkgo leaf.

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1. Barely a mention of foreigners
japanreader 08/28/2013
Foreigners, particularly Mongolians are playing an increasing role in sumo lately. Of the eight members in the three top ranks of Sumo, six of them are foreigners, including a Bulgarian and an Estonian. In order to keep from foreigners shoving aside the Japanese in the sport, sumo beya have set a rule that each can have only three foreigners. Yet they now dominate the sport. It seems to be only a matter of time before there are just too few Japanese who want to become Sumo wrestlers. Then it will be up to the foreigners to support this ancient Japanese sport.
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