Fighting for Sumo: Harsh Life Deters Would-Be Wrestlers

PHOTO: Sumo wrestlers are shown during a competition.
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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.

'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.

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'

"It was a typical afternoon in which I had nothing to do," recalls Chino. "I was zapping through the channels and on one of them there was a report that they were looking for wrestlers." At the time, he weighed 63 kilos. "It was two weeks before the application deadline. I started eating as much as I could," he says. To his surprise, he was immediately accepted to the prestigious stable. He adopted the ring name Ginseizan, which, depending on the context, can mean silver, star or mountain.

After the training session, Chino's stablemates come out of the bathroom freshly washed. Even in their living room, most of them run around half-naked, wearing only boxer shorts. One of them rolls a flat, round table into the middle of the room and places some cushions on the wooden floor.

They are eating a typical sumo wrestler dish called chankonabe, a protein-rich stew with meat and vegetables, including rice, fish or meatballs. Chino has to cook lunch and dinner for himself and six other wrestlers. Each of them consumes over 10,000 calories every day. That's the equivalent of 10 portions of Wiener schnitzel with French fries.

Before every competition, though, he doesn't cook pork or beef, but rather chicken -- out of superstition. Pigs and cattle stand on four legs, but a chicken only needs two, just like a sumo wrestler.

And what happens if he fails to make a career for himself as a top-notch wrestler? Or if he, like so many sumo novices before him, becomes a diabetic or develops joint problems from the force-feeding? Then he'll move to South America, says Chino, "to a warm country where it's not so expensive."

In any case, both of the most common jobs that failed or stranded sumo wrestlers in Japan end up working would be out of the question: bouncer and soup chef.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

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