The Fat and the Furious

Posted by on Nov 20, 2011 in Fukuoka, Travel Volunteer Journey | One Comment
The Fat and the Furious

In Europe, we’ve got our own sport for the big lads. Yes, there are some rugby players, who are much larger than average, but they’re only suited to certain positions. But I’m referring to darts, which allows a person to be as obese as they like, so long as they still have the strength in one arm to pick up a small piece of pointy metal, then a pint of lager, then possibly a meat pie. Missile in hand, they just need to find the energy to launch it at a piece of cork and – bingo! – that’s darts.

Famously, the fat boys of Japan have something that’s altogether more dignified, though try telling that to the average darts fan and they’ll likely reply: “Tee-hee! They’re fatties – in nappies!” Before going on to laugh at how sumo wrestlers bounce off each other like a couple of runaway space hoppers.

But we saw sumo today, at Fukuoka’s annual event, and I can assure you, it’s less like a kids game, and more like a brutal battle for survival. From afar, there’s a blur of blubber, before someone falls over and it’s all done, so it wasn’t until we looked at the pictures up close that we realised the level of violence done in those few seconds. Chokes, double-eye gouges, thumbs up noses, headbutts to the Adam’s apples… It’s shocking stuff. And then the coup de grâce: the mega wedgie. All of this, and when angle was right, the huge muscles underneath the fat became clear. Maybe that shouldn’t be a surprise: simply being able pick up a wrestler (or rikishi) must require a colossal amount of power.

One of the most surprising things about the whole sport is that despite the brutality, and especially the dirty tactics, when the decision comes, it is always received with good grace. In fact, winning or losing barely seems to make a difference to the wrestlers. I’m sure inside they’re dancing, or weeping, but from the outside they look like placid, rotund, mannequins. There are no gaudy celebrations here, no petulant displays of bad sportsmanship. And while that’s no doubt a good thing, we couldn’t help wishing that the wrestlers – and the crowd for that matter – would show a bit more passion.

Our out-dated guide book advises to buy tickets for these large sumo tournaments well in advance, or miss out altogether. But tonight, the stadium was only 70% full at best. That’s because since our book was written in 2007, sumo has been riddled with controversy and scandal. If it was football, or horse-racing, or boxing, or cricket, or anything to do with the Olympics, or FIFA, then y’know, it’d be no surprise at all. But the Japanese take – or at least took – sumo, the national sport, very very seriously. So when cases of match-fixing, gambling and drug-taking started to emerge (not to mention the troubling death of a trainee rikishi), they brought with them a deep and lasting shame, that the sponsors and crowds have not yet forgotten.

Added to all of that, the last ten years have seen the number of gaijin rikishi increase dramatically. Not only have the foreigners had the gumption to turn up, but they’ve been winning too. Tonight alone there were wrestlers from Russia, Bulgaria and – we think – America. (They’re easy to spot: they tend to be a good deal hairier than the home grown wrestlers.)

While wrestling has been around since before time began, sumo in something like its modern form has been around since before the Edo period, making it around 400-500 years old. I won’t pretend to know the importance and significance of the various rituals that go on before, during and after the bouts, but I can tell you this much: the Shinto faith plays a part in the traditions (including the tossing of ceremonial salt), and the distinctive sumo hair cut is designed to make the rikishi instantly recognisable in public (because a 6-foot obese Japanese man in a yukata doesn’t stick out already).

Anyway, once the cup has been sipped, the ground stomped and the salt tossed, the wrestling looked convincing, at least to our novice eyes. The crowd, finally whooping and chanting for the home-grown favourite, were pretty impressed too.









1 Comment

  1. nutcracker nj
    November 21, 2011

    kids of my preschool love Sumo fighting pretty much. Instead of watching fight, they like to see these heavy weight sumos.