Tuesday, May 22, 2012

May 2012 Grand Sumo Tournament Part 1

Although sumo wrestling has never been legally recognized as Japan's national sport, it originated here, this is the only country where it is practiced professionally, and it is definitely a sport beloved by the Japanese people. The Grand Sumo Tournament lasts for 15 days and takes place 6 times a year, 3 of those ocurring in Tokyo at the Ryogoku Kokugikan (January, May and September).  When I saw that MWR was offering a tour to the May Grand Sumo Tournament which included brunch at the New Sanno Hotel, I made sure we got tickets (or rather, I made sure Rich went to the office and got tickets) because going to a sumo tournament was definitely on my list of things I wanted to do before leaving Japan.

The buffet at New Sanno Hotel before the Sumo Tournament
Having grown up in Hawaii, I was familiar with sumo wrestling since I grew up during a time when the success of sumo wrestlers from Hawaii was on the rise and as a result the sport/wrestlers received much publicity on Hawaii T.V. stations. In fact, Akebono was the first non-Japanese to reach the rank of Yokozuna (Grand Champion) and Musahimaru was the second non-Japanese to reach that rank.  The success of Hawaiian wrestlers led to the establishment of the number of foreigners a professional stable could have at any one time.  There haven't been many famous sumo wrestlers from Hawaii in recent years, but a number of wrestlers from other places have been very successful (Mongolia, Estonia, etc.)
We arrived at the Kokugikan around Noon.  Although some matches started earlier in the day, they were only the lower division matches so we weren't really concerned that we missed those matches.  The lower level of the arena is divided into boxes that hold up to 4 people all of whom sit on the ground on pillows.  The upper level, where we had reserved seats, has regular cushioned seats that would have been comfortable except for the fact that we were sitting on them for such long periods of time.  The very top level is open seating on plastic chairs. 

The Annaijo Entrance - these house establishments help
arange for seats, souvenirs, refreshments and other fan
services for those with reserved seats.

View inside the Kokugikan from the lower
level and the upper level.

For those of you that aren't too familiar with sumo, here are some definitions and basics about the sport and its rituals:
  • Dohyo = The ring
  • Rikishi = Wrestler
  • Gyoji = Referee
  • Banzuke = Sumo rankings
  • Mawashi = Loincloth worn by the wrestlers
Rules:  The dohyo is made out of a special kind of clay and the hard surface is covered with a thin layer of sand. A sumo bout is won when the wrestler forces his opponent out of the inner circle or throws him in the dohyo.  The wrestler who touches the ground with any part of his body OR puts any part of his body over the straw bales marking the circle loses the match.  Although there is a gyoji in the dohyo for every bout, there are also 5 judges that sit on the sides of the dohyo.  In the event there is any doubt about the gyoji's decision, the 5 judges will get into the ring and settle the matter amongst themselves - they will either uphold the referee's decision, reverse it or order a rematch.
The judges trying to make a decision on a particular match.
In this particular case, much to the crowd's displeasure,
they ruled that the wrestlers must have a rematch.
Banzuke/Rankings: There are approximately 800 rikishi in professional sumo, from the trainee (i.e., those who have to carry the bags of a more senior wrestler) all the way up to the Yokozuna.  After each tournament, the banzuke is revised with the wrestlers being promoted or demoted depending on their performance during the tournament.

The maku-uchi division is the highest division and is divided into the following ranks:
  1. Yokozuna (the Grand Champion)
  2. Ozeki
  3. Sekiwake
  4. Komusubi
  5. Maegashira
Yokozuna is the only rank that cannot be demoted but it is generally expected that should a Yokozuna have a number of poor tournament performances, he will retire. There have only been 69 Yokozuna over the past 300 years.  Although there can be more than one Yokozuna at any one time, currently Hakuho is the only Yokozuna (he has been the only one since 2010).  Hakuho is from Mongolia and is only the 4th non-Japanese Yokozuna.

The senior wrestlers entering the arena with their attendant
(a trainee or lower ranking wrestler).  I couldn't see over
the wall so Rich had to take the pictures for me.
The fans usually wait on the ground level to get a glimpse
of and to cheer on their favorite wrestler(s) as they
enter the arena.

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