Thursday, 20 May 2010

The Bigger They Are...

Sorry to disappoint you, but there's not a book review in sight today. Instead, I am taking up Tanabata's May Challenge for her Hello Japan! mini-site, writing a post which is somehow connected with Japan and sport. If you're quite ready...


If I'm quite honest, and I do always try to be (even if I don't always succeed), Japan was a place where my sporting interests fell by the wayside a little. Working evenings and having different days off to most people meant that there was little opportunity to organise a kick-around. I eventually managed to join a gym where I was able to use the cycling machine (much to the amusement of the staff, who sneaked glances at me when I wasn't looking, regarding me much as you would an exotic animal in the zoo) and do my twenty laps of the pool in the disgusting cotton swimming cap which Japanese sports centres force you to wear. Watching sport was no more successful; Japanese free-to-air television only really showed baseball, a sport I have no real interest in, and I never really got around to watching anything live. Of course, the upside of all this was that by the time we moved to Australia and my wife found out that I was actually a lot more addicted to sport than she'd assumed, it was too late for her to jump ship...

However, there was one exception to this dark age in my sporting life, and that was the ancient Japanese art of Sumo. I don't think there's anyone out there anymore who knows nothing about the sport, but it is a little more complex than outsiders realise. Sumo, part sport and part Shinto ritual, consists of several divisions of fighters, with promotion and relegation (just as in football) a distinct possibility. There are six major tournaments, or Basho, held each year: three in Tokyo, one in Osaka, one in Nagoya, and one in Fukuoka. Each tournament runs for fifteen days, with the Rikishi (wrestler) winning the most bouts over this period winning the competition. The forty fighters in the top division are divided into two sets, East and West (which have little bearing on the actual proceedings), and are ranked in order of ability. Most people will have heard of the rank of Yokozuna, or Grand Champion, but there are also some other titled positions: Ozeki, Sekiwake and Komusubi.

Sumo, in my time in Japan, at least, was shown live on NHK, but this unabridged version was a little too dry for me. Therefore, my preference was to wait until 10.30, when I was able to watch the superbly-named Professional Sumo Digest. This half-hour show, Sumo's answer to Match of the Day, had a slick presentable gentleman sitting next to (and in the shadow of) a hulking, monosyllabic former wrestler, who usually looked very, very wrong in his suit. The pair introduced highlights of the bouts - by highlights, I mean the actual twenty seconds or so of shoving and grunting, cutting the ten minutes of ceremonial salt throwing and psychological warfare - before analysing the action replays (well, Mr. Slick analysed them; his mountainous side-kick tended to grunt incomprehensibly).

So 10.30 inevitably found me and my room-mate Paul ensconced in our armchairs, drinks in hand, ready to cheer on our favourites. Of course, we knew the big stars (the four Yokozuna at the time were the two Hawaiians, Musashimaru and Akebono, and the two Japanese brothers, Takanohana and Wakanohana), but we found the lesser-known lights just as entertaining. However, not being able to read their names from the screen, we invented our own less-than-respectful (but actually very useful) names for some of the regular wrestlers. Elvis, The Wolfman, The Bear, Genki Man and The Slapper were all cheered on enthusiastically at Tsuchiyama Sky Heights, but none were as respected and admired as The Old Man.

The Old Man's real name (or, at least, his ring name, which is not the same thing) was Terao, and he stood out among these monsters of the Sumo world for looking, well, fairly normal. If encountered at your local Daiei supermarket, he would doubtless attract a fair few awed gasps, but on the Dohyo, in comparison with some of the other hulking Rikishi, he looked more like a rugby player than a sumo wrestler. Weighing in at around 115kg at his prime and standing only 6ft 1in tall, he defeated many other fighters coming in at 150kg+ with a deft technique and nimble footwork, and these qualities soon made him our personal favourite. These characteristics had also helped him to achieve a worthy longevity in the sport, and at the time of our story he was already thirty-six years old (a time when many Rikishi have long retired to appear in television commercials and sort out their cholesterol issues).

So, dear reader, let me now take you to a cold November night in 1999. Paul and I were ready, drinks in hand, watching the events of the sumo day unfold on Professional Sumo Digest. As the programme drew to a close, we came to the last bout of the day, where we were delighted to see The Old Man fighting in a prime-time spot, taking on the colossal Musashimaru. The foreign Yokozuna, weighing in at 235kg, was involved in a struggle for this tournament with Takanohana and needed all the wins he could get. As the two men squared up, an outsider would have thought that the organisers had made a serious error of judgement and would have urged them to reconsider. Seldom do you see such a mismatch in sport; the giant Musashimaru towered over the (comparatively) slender frame of his prey. I sat there, wine in hand, hoping that the bout would pass by without serious damage.

After a couple of minutes of posturing and salt throwing, enough hands were touched to the floor for the contest to begin, and Musashimaru came lunging forward, ready to smash Terao out of the dohyo (and probably into the next prefecture), when something very special happened. The older, lighter fighter somehow pirouetted, one leg almost sweeping above the onrushing leviathan, and ended up behind the Yokozuna. A quick push on Musashimaru's mawashi (loincloth - the standard wrestling attire), and the giant Hawaiian was sent sprawling out of the ring and towards several panicky pensioners who suddenly realised that their front-row seats were not the bargain they had expected. After a split-second of stunned murmurs, the crowd rose as one to salute the kin-boshi, or gold star, the feat of a non-ranked wrestler downing a grand champion. Cushions began raining down on to the dohyo from the crowd, a mark of great respect. As you would expect, back at Tsuchiyama Sky Heights, a few cushions were thrown in celebration too.

Despite this defeat, Musashimaru went on to win the tournament while this bout was the last big hurrah of Terao's career. Both men now work as trainers at a sumo stable, Terao having created his own from scratch, grooming the next generation of wrestling stars. But for one moment, just over a decade ago, the two men's paths crossed in a brief moment of balletic beauty which is still one of my strongest memories of life in Japan. Consider this post one last round of applause for 'The Old Man'; cushion included...

Photo retrieved on 20/5/10 from: