The strongest wrestlers traditionally came from Japan's poorer rural regions, and usually lacked the financial means to pay for a good education. "Stables were an appealing option because school didn't play a role there and there was food and a bed to sleep in," says sociologist Lee Thompson, 60, who researches sumo at Waseda University in Tokyo.
But there are still children in Japan's middle-class who dream of a career as a sumo wrestler. One of them is a schoolboy named Seiya Kato. His classmates rave about professional football player Shinji Kagawa of Manchester United and the baseball stars of the Yomiuri Giants. But Kato, 12, raves about Harumafuji, the yokozuna.
The boy from Tokyo is barely 1.6 meters high, but he already weighs over 80 kilos, a promising weight for a sumo career. He shovels down six bowls of rice with fish or meat every day, and his mother supports the bulking up. "Seiya eats so much that it can add up to a lot of money," she says with a smile.
Twice a week, the teenager trains with 20 other children between the ages of five and 15. They are instructed by Shinichi Taira, 38, a former sumo professional who works at the Riverside Sports Center, located within walking distance of Tokyo's old town. Seiya is a model student. He marches across the straw rope that marks the edge of the ring and simulates attack techniques. The older disciples demonstrate the training exercises and use handholds to correct the sequence of movements carried out by the younger ones. Here, too, hardly a word is spoken. Only Taira, the instructor, occasionally makes a sharp comment.
Stretch, Stretch, Stretch
He's impressed with the chubby kid, Seiya. "He could become a great wrestler," he says. "During a match, he relies too much on his weight and too little on technique. He's still inexperienced," he notes. In keeping with Japanese tradition, the boy obediently does every exercise that his teacher commands: stretch, stretch, stretch. His instructor has decided that Seiya needs to become more flexible. He's still unable to fully do the splits on the floor.
No other boy in his class is in a sumo club. Most of them, says Seiya, would find it embarrassing to stand there virtually naked, merely clothed in an old-fashioned thong, and grapple with a sweaty wrestler. His mother has gotten used to the idea that her son will move into a sumo stable at age 15 -- despite the never-ending string of reports of bullying and brutality in the stables, and stories of young athletes who throw in the towel due to the harsh life there.
The most serious incident occurred six years ago. At the time, a sumo novice died after his fellow wrestlers, acting on the orders of the stable master, beat him with a baseball bat and burnt him with cigarettes.
At the beginning of the year, one of Takahiro Chino's fellow junior wrestlers at the Otake stable decided to quit. "He wasn't tough enough. Sumo isn't for everyone," says stable master Sato, who joined the ranks of the professionals when he was only 15. "Back in my day, everything was much harsher," he adds.
In a bid to ensure that more young hopefuls apply to Japan's sumo stables, a few years ago the Japan Sumo Association lowered the size and weight requirements for newcomers. They must be at least 15 years old, 1.67 meters tall and weigh 67 kilos. It's only thanks to this reform that Chino was considered as a candidate at the Otake stable.
'I Started Eating as Much as I Could'