The Naked Samurai

On the Go

Sarjano’s close-up experiences of Sumo wrestlers in Tokyo.

They eat like oxen, fight like bulls, but die very young, like butterflies.

They are the modern samurai of Sumo. In Japan, where everything is small and miniaturized, where even giant oaks are contracted into tiny bonsai, the most ancient sport, the most sacred one, the most representative of the country, is this clash of human pachyderms called Sumo.

And yet, you have to enter a dohyo, the stadium–temple where the Imperial Sumo Tournaments are held, to understand such apparent contradiction: just because Japan is the country of small things, they adore the enormous. And because the greatest Japanese virtue is patience, they worship a sport where each game lasts about ten second – if it is a long one!

Just because the obsession instilled into each student is order, here people adore such confused, fulminous scuffle, in which half a ton of human flesh clashes, before collapsing to the ground with a thud.

A Sumo wrestler is exactly all that a normal Japanese is not, will never be able to be, and doesn’t even want to be: the exception that confirms the rule.

Historians say that this form of ritualistic wrestling is very ancient, like many other forms of wrestling are. The origins of Sumo – literally translated as ‘wrestling’ – go back to over two thousand years ago, and it has been professional for at least one thousand six hundred years. Despite the invasion of mass sports, such as the very popular basu–boru (baseball) or the futtu–buru (soccer), or the gorufu (golf), samurai wrestling, or Sumo, remains the most popular sport in Japan.

What I find the most beautiful thing about this sport is that the winner never displays a sign of victory, or utters triumphal cries: he must never be immodest or haughty on account of his success. The winner bows down to the loser, acknowledges in gratitude the tray with the sealed purse which the referee–priest hands to him and leaves the ring with all the dignity that he can muster in carrying such a huge naked ass, to finally return to his buckets of rice and his monastic life.

So, let’s go for a visit to one of these monasteries cum martial arts colleges. The school is in Ryogoku, the only area in Tokyo where you can find trousers in size 84, or even 90 for that matter! Apart from some impudent girls who enter these shops (and I’m not making this up!) to find out if just one pair of trousers can accommodate two of them, the most regular customers are Sumo wrestlers, who require, needless to say, this special size of clothing – just extra–large won’t do it!

As in every Sumo school, students apply for admission at the age of 15, which is considered the right age to start such a discipline. There are only two pre–requisites: the students have to weigh a minimum of 75 kilos and to be at least 175 cm tall. It is a kind of boarding school, where the students – once admitted – don’t have to pay any fee. On the contrary, they receive a small monthly salary from the very beginning. They are, in fact, an investment, because these kids will stay with the same school throughout their whole career, and the school will administrate all their earnings.

It is about seven o’clock in the morning when I arrived at the school gate with my Japanese interpreter, an ancient girl–friend, who has to translate each and every word, because no matter how hard they try, Japanese find it VERY difficult to understand English… and even more our sense of humor. She has (literally) saved my life in many circumstances, and I could never thank her enough for that – so, “Thank you, Gulestan!”

The very first impression is that these kids are HUUUUUGE , and a dozen of them are already training. Usually no one is allowed to take pictures, but the Master decides to honor me by making an exception – to which I answer arigato!.

So, I can take some shoots during the training, which is quite impressive, I must to tell you! Considering their gigantic size, they move quite fast and lightly, and they are so beautiful and so full of life that suddenly I got the feeling that I want to wrestle too with these big boys!

Unfortunately my loving guide suggests it is better not to – “They’d kill you,” – she simply states.

“But they are only sixteen years old!” – I protest.

“Yes, but they weigh 150 kilos each, and you are not even 70 kilos…. If one of these guys just falls on you – and you can bet he will – you’ll be reduced to an omelet!”

So, I have to content myself with just shooting pictures and this too, without getting too close! At the end of the practice (around 10.30 in the morning) I ask if I can take some photos while the wrestlers are eating – I have heard so much about it! Their trainer says yes, I can take some pictures around twelve, when they have their meal.

Unfortunately – I really have to tell you this for the sake of the story – we decided to hang around meanwhile in a posh salad–bar, which works like a kind of buffet: you pay a certain amount of money, and then you can take as much salad, as many times as you can eat. And this is not ordinary salad – it is full of sea–weed, slices of raw fish, and many other strange animals, such as eels crawling and slithering around.

Well, you know, in order to learn the local tradition, I served myself four or five times, just to get accustomed to the Japanese taste, so when we heads towards the school I am stuffed like a pig!

All the Sumo students are waiting for us and everybody stands in line with great expectations. Somebody look at the food on display with obvious desire, almost salivating! The food is ready and looks like it has been sitting on the table for some time…and I am wondering why they have not started eating, and then I came to know about another tradition: we are the guests, and we MUST start first! Nobody can touch food BEFORE we have eaten – that’s why those kids were salivating !

On the table there is a huge vat of rice, plus a half dozen of meat dishes, plus a half dozen of fish dishes, without counting potatoes and other vegetables spread in great abundance. “You just have to have a taste of each item,” – whispers my loving guide – “you don’t have to eat ALL of it!”

I decided at once that I won’t be intimidated by any tradition, no matter how established or sacred, so I look the big guys straight in their eyes and say: “Okay guys, too bad you had to wait for us. We were in a salad bar, stuffing ourselves to the limit, and there is NO WAY we can eat with you. But I respect your tradition, and I will never want to hurt your feelings, so I will have as much rice as I can grab with these sticks you have provided, and that will be it. I’ll taste your food, then you start eating and I can take my pictures!”

With these damned sticks I never managed to pick up more than one grain of rice at a time, and that was my second meal! I must have been very convincing – or they were just too young – but they really understood my position, and they ate EVERYTHING in five minutes.

While taking pictures, I also asked some questions, and that’s how I came to know what their dream is…

”To become big and famous like Akebono (a big star in Sumo) so that all the girls look at you, everybody respects you…”

“And I can marry some famous actress and make heaps of dollars advertising drinks or big cars like him!” – says someone else.

Dreams of young kids, nothing wrong with it, but what no one told me is that the respect for the samurai, the glory of the Sumo wrestler often comes at a terrible price. In reality these are dreams to be paid for with their lives: nearly all Sumo wrestlers die young, destroyed by a life which is halfway between that of a fattened goose and a fighting bull. Not bad for a country that claims a great deal of respect for animals and their rights!

Text and photos by Sarjano

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