Fighting for Sumo: Harsh Life Deters Would-Be Wrestlers


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.

'Eating, Training, Eating, Training' Harumafuji describes his journey to the apex of sumo wrestling as "eating, training, eating, training" -- and daily physical exertion "to the verge of death." He grew up in poor circumstances in the Mongolian capital Ulan Bator and, at an early age, had to provide for his siblings and parents. He says the young people in Japan's affluent society have gone soft -- an allegation that is often heard.

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