The small fishing village of Nou turns out Japan’s best sumo wrestlers. Young fighters from all over the country train here, feed themselves into shape and dream of a future as heroes of their sport at professional level
The opponents size each other up warily for a few seconds before stepping into the ring. Both crouch low on their haunches, touch the sandy floor with their upturned fists and suddenly leap at each other almost simultaneously. Body slaps against body with tremendous force. Yuta Takahashi’s head slams dully against his sparring partner’s shoulder. The two giants start pushing and pulling at each other, each with the aim of shoving his opponent out of the ring. The fight lasts mere seconds. Takahashi makes the most of his long arms to be the first to grab his opponent by the belt, his mawashi. With a skillful twist, he unbalances him and pushes him outside the ring, the dohyō. Both take a deep breath, then training resumes.
Takahashi is currently the most promising student at Kayio High School Sumo Club in Nou, a windswept fishing village in Niigata Prefecture, some 300 kilometers northwest of Tokyo. The 18-year-old stands 1.89 meters tall and weighs a mighty 143 kilograms – ideal prerequisites for a successful sumo wrestler. “I want to be a yokozuna, a grand master,” the boy giant declares, screwing up his eyes to narrow slits. Grand master is the highest rank a rikishi, a sumo wrestler, can achieve. It’s a pretty ambitious goal: Since the introduction of this top rank roughly 120 years ago, only some 72 wrestlers have held the title.
The Kayio Sumo Club was founded shortly after World War II and soon advanced to become one of the foremost clubs in the country. The athletes from Nou have already won numerous medals in national school competitions, and the talent forge enjoys an excellent reputation on the sumo scene. Talented boys just 13 years of age flock to the town on the west coast from all over Japan to perfect their skills on the six-year training course.
Takahashi hails from Fukushima, more than 300 kilometers away. He began training at the tender age of five; his grandfather took him along to his first children’s contest. His promise was recognized early on, which is how he came to receive one of the coveted places in Nou.
The road to becoming a professional wrestler is a long one: The rikishis generally only reach peak performance between ages 25 and 30, and most quit the sport before they are 40. Compared with tennis or soccer, the earning opportunities for sumo wrestlers are modest. A yokozuna earns roughly 20 000 euros, an average rikishi, around 7000 euros per month; but there are also bonuses – around 70 000 euros for a win in a major competition.
Sumo wrestling is not so much about money as about respect. After all, those who practice the art literally embody a millennia-old tradition. “Sumo is an integral part of the Japanese identity, an expression of our soul,” says Tetsuya Toumi, the club’s chairman and president of the Sumo Association in Niigata Prefecture. In the school’s own gym, an altar towers above the ring as a constant reminder. “ Sumo has been around for 2000 years. It has its origins in Shintoism, Japan’s ancient religion, which worships a number of different deities. They take the shape of animals, mountains or trees, or are forces of nature. The first sumo contests took place in temples and were held in honor of those gods. Later, they were relocated to the imperial court, where they served as entertainment for the tenno, the emperor, and his nobles. As the popularity of sumo increased, so too did its spiritual and cultural significance. To this day, members of the imperial family attend major contests.
In the 1980s, the sport reached the pinnacle of its popularity. All of the big fights were aired on television, and the wrestlers received adulation as demigods. Then around the turn of the millennium, disenchantment set in when it became known that the yakuza, the Japanese mafia, was making big money on manipulated fights, and that some rikishi were working for the gangsters as bodyguards or collectors of protection money. Globalization also took its toll with baseball and soccer replacing sumo as the favorite sports of the masses. Today, Japan has around 300 clubs and some 1000 wrestlers competing in the professional sumo league. But the remaining pros are working with all their might to keep their culture alive.
Each fight is conducted according to a strict ceremony that has barely changed since the dawn of the sport. The wrestlers wear traditional silk aprons over their mawashi, or belt. The wrestlers begin by throwing salt into the ring, a symbolic cleaning ritual, and then they rinse their mouth with water before energetically stamping their feet on the floor. “All you need for the fight is your body and your belt,” they say in Japan. The winner is the one who drives his opponent out of the ring or forces him to touch the floor with a part of his body other than his feet. The Sumo Association lists 82 different winning techniques. “The boys have to practice for years to master them all,” says Toumi, who observes almost every training session. Many grip techniques target the arms, legs or belt of the opponent; choking, kicking, grabbing their private parts and punches are banned.
Technique is important, but it isn’t everything. The second success factor is – you guessed it – sheer body mass. Unlike boxing, Japan’s sumo sport traditionally has no weight classes. The number of wins alone determines to which of the six divisions a wrestler belongs. And the more kilos a rikishi brings to the scales, the better he can assert himself in the ring. That’s why Taiyo Murayama, Takahashi and his fellow students’ trainer, keeps a careful eye on his protégés’ diet. Three warm meals a day are mandatory, and they include plenty of protein. The traditional meal of the sumo wrestler is chanko nabe, a stew containing any amount of fat and meat. A student will put away up to 6000 calories a day, while professional sumo wrestlers ingest a daily 10 000 calories and more.
Compulsory obesity is the dark side of sumo. Some ambitious parents begin fattening up their kids early on. At the latest after an active career, when there’s no more daily training to maintain a high metabolic rate, extreme obesity can lead to stomach complaints, fatty liver or kidney problems, cardiovascular disease and diabetes, to say nothing of the strain it puts on joints. Sumo wrestlers weigh in at an average 150 kilograms and have a far lower life expectancy than Japanese of normal weight. In view of the health risks it involves, this traditional sport is now suffering from a lack of young blood. That’s why a few years back, the entry barriers to the sport were significantly lowered.
The gym where the students train, a plain wooden building, is set some distance away from the whitewashed school building, on a hill at the edge of town. The students’ mawashis, neatly hung on a row of pegs, exude a somewhat musty smell. They are rarely washed. “We have just one belt for training and one for tournaments,” explains Takahashi. One meter of the sturdy, hand-woven fabric costs roughly 100 euros, and six to nine meters go into a single belt.
At ten past four, a siren announces the end of regular classes and very soon the 14 students of the sumo class enter the gym. The boys, ages between 12 and 18, take off their school uniform and put on their sumo belt. First, they drape it around their genitals and then wind it several times around their belly before knotting it at the back. Training can now begin, just like yesterday, tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. Three to five hours a day, seven days a week.
Today, though, it’s a special day because Kotoōshū Katsunori is paying a visit. Originally from Bulgaria -he was born Kalojan Stefanow Machljanow – he is the first European to have made a name for himself in the world of sumo, attaining ozeki, the second-highest rank. On ending his professional career in the ring, the 35-year-old founded a heya, a training stable, in Tokyo last year. Now he is on the lookout for young talent. The students are nervous and eager to demonstrate their prowess. One boy pushes impetuously, loses his balance and ends up flat on his face in the sand. “Full concentration,” Kotoōshū urges. “Respect your opponent, but never fear him!” He shows the boys his best grips and tricks. Finally, he agrees to a few practice fights, but of course, none of the students has the ghost of a chance against the sumo retiree.
Respect your opponent, but never fear him!
Training over, an exhausted Takahashi hangs his head. “The drill is brutal,” the boy complains, “sometimes I feel like giving up.” Luckily, there are the other students. “They motivate me, we regularly help each other to refocus.” And it works: Only recently, Takahashi won the silver medal at an important national tournament. “My technique isn’t particularly good, but I do have power,” says the giant, “my greatest strength is my grip.” This is his sixth year at Kayio, and graduation is just around the corner. After that, Takahashi will be going on to study at the Nippon Sport Science University in Tokyo and launch his professional career from there. He will miss the school and its team, he says, “and this place – the whole town is right behind us at all our competitions.” But maybe he will one day return to Nou, says Takahashi – as a trainer.