This is Life

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Introducing an Introduction to Sumo


You know, every time I make a post to my blog I tell myself, "Dean, you need to make posts more often". I even say it out loud, sometimes with an accent for effect. Anyway, the real reason that I don`t post often these days is that well, there just isn`t much to report. No longer am I living the cozy life of a JET (Japanese Exchange and Teaching Programme) in rural Japan. Noooope, I gots me a real job with real hours. Not that I don`t think being a JET was a real job ... OK, I don`t think it was a real job. I often tell people it was a working holiday in the most sincere sense of the word. I mean, come on, 35 hours a week, which includes finishing at 11:30 every Friday, a default long weekend, EVERY weekend! Wait, does that make me a French expat?

So, what I am trying to say is that I miss it terribly and strongly encourage any recent university grads to apply. Experience of a lifetime. Did I mention the 20 days paid vacation every year, on top of national holidays and school holidays?

Ok, so there are some good things about my new job. For one, it is challenging and I have learned a lot. I have also been on national TV in Japan, albeit unintentionally. I work in financial PR in Tokyo and some of our clients are doing pretty big things so it is exciting. It is pretty neat to be behind the scenes, helping shape the news. Living in Tokyo can be pretty interesting too so let`s just leave it at that and not talk about having to pay $60+ for a decent brunch. Nope, let`s not talk about it.

Recently, I haven't done too much traveling, but I will post a few pictures. There is one thing in Japan, however, that I have become obsessed with. I often tell people that every foreigner in Japan has at least one aspect of Japanese culture that they latch onto. For some it is history, or traditional arts (Kabuki, Noh, Taiko, Bunraku, Tea Ceremony, Ikebana, etc.). Pop culture is probably the most common (manga, anime, pop art, music, etc.). Surely no one is interested in Japanese TV dramas (words can never explain just how awful they are). And of course there are the martial arts (karate, judo, aikido, ninjutsu, kendo, etc.). In my case, it is watching fat men in loincloths dance, clap, throw salt and finally, wrestle. Methinks Deano has some 'splaining to do.

If you haven't figured it out yet, I am talking about sumo, one of the oldest Japanese martial arts, dating back some 1500 years. Just fat dudes wrestling in their underwear was my first impression of sumo and admittedly, on the surface that is pretty much what it looks like. However, as with most things in Japan, the joy of sumo hides beneath the surface. Japan is a country where its greatest treasures, figuratively and literally, are draped in layers of history, ritual, and even misdirection and one needs to put in some effort to fully appreciate everything it has to offer.

First, let`s look at some facts about sumo that you probably didn`t know:
  • The average sumo wrestler has a lower body fat percentage than the average Japanese businessman (probably than you too, no offense). In fact, former Yokozuna (Grand Champion) Chiyonofuji had the same body fat ratio as Olympic marathon runners
  • There are six sumo tournaments held each year, every two months, with each lasting for 15 days (three in Tokyo, one each in Osaka, Nagoya, and Fukuoka)
  • 82 officially recognized kimarite (winning techniques)
  • The first officially recorded sumo match was performed for visiting Korean dignitaries in the 7th century
Personally, I became a fan of sumo about six months after arriving in Japan, upon seeing my first tournament live in Tokyo. After that first experience, I have returned to Tokyo for every major tournament save one, having now been over ten times. In truth, ten times is not that impressive a number, but bear in mind that the first seven times I was not living in Tokyo and had to travel 200-300 kilometers for the pleasure.

My obsession with sumo has gotten to the point that I now tell people that my dream job is being a color commentator for the english broadcasts of sumo on the NHK (Japan`s national public broadcaster). They always laugh and I laugh too. Then I say, "No, seriously". People in Japan are always surprised, if not shocked, at my interest in the sport. Unfortunately, the truth is that the sport is dying in Japan. Despite its global fame and deep association with Japan, sumo has an increasingly limited following and has yielded its place in Japanese hearts to baseball, which itself is giving way to football (a.k.a. soccer). My estimate is that less than 5% of the population actually follow it these days, most of which are retired or, oddly enough, other foreigners. To see Japanese teeneagers at a sumo event is more rare than licorice-flavored carrots (I`ve never had any, have you?).

Anyway, I have a semi-rehearsed diatribe that I "offer" to pretty much any Japanese person that supporting sumo is as much about preserving the culture as it is about the sport. I try to explain what outsiders' (what foreigners are referred to in Japan) impressions are of Japan and Japanese culture. To illustrate my point, let's play a word association gave. I will say a word and you need to write down the first five words that come into your head. For example, if I said "genius" the first five things you might have thought of could be Einstein, Newton, Michaelangelo, Da Vinci and Mario Cart. Understand? Ok, here we go. What are the first three things you think of when I say "Japan"?

Done?

I imagine you said at least two, if not three, of the following - Sushi, Sumo, Samurai, Geisha, or Manga/Anime. Sushi has never been more popular, but give it time. There are only so many fish out there. Manga/Anime also on the up and up. Sumo, as you are learning is not doing so well. In the 1920s there were over 80,000 Geisha in Japan. Now there are between 1000-2000. And unless you count the millions of Japanese businessmen, the samurai class was abolished during the Meiji Restoration in the late 1860s.

What Japanese people don`t realize is how important these things are as cultural treasures. These are the things that make Japan so unique and they are being disrespectfully neglected and pushed into a side column on page 6 of the sports section. I worry that soon it will be too late, if it isn't already, to save sumo. As a Canadian, I only wish I had something about my culture that is globally famous (for those Canadians that don`t already know, truth is, people only know us for our maple syrup).

So, I hope that my passion for the sport, and for the culture, somehow makes the Japanese I meet think about issues that they might otherwise not and reconsider their position on not only sumo, but on a neglected culture. I also hope to initiate people outside of Japan, yanking them beyond their pre/mis-conceptions, and helping them understand a little about the great sport of "Grand Sumo".

Let`s get started (was all of the above an introduction?). Forget it. I will talk about sumo next time. Hopefully it won't take so long.

To be continued...

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