An unlikely epitome of a Western ideal
Sumo is certainly not one of the martial arts that are an instant hit with women like me, or with most Westerners for that matter, many of us being notoriously focused on the outer shell of things.
The reasons for that are, quite literally, visibly evident. Sumo wrestlers, with their mostly disrobed appearance, are less than visually pleasing. Matches often last for not more than a few seconds. Uninformed onlookers can easily be fooled into thinking that encounters will be won by the heavier, hence seemingly stronger, opponent, as no technique is in any way immediately perceptible.
In general, Sumo appears at first sight as an activity foreign to Western civilisation and its tradition of elaborate games and promotion of the physically fit. This perception is, partially at least, wrong. The main difference between Sumo and other Eastern martial arts is also what should bring it closest to the Western mind that still retains the capability to look beyond the immediate. The promotion system in Sumo is a true meritocracy in an East where otherwise seniority makes the difference in most walks of life. Attained positions must constantly be defended, sometimes even as frequently as every two months. The West on the other hand, where merit seems to be the Zeitgeist, has nothing quite as purist to match it. In many respects, an eminently Eastern sport is the epitome of Western ideals.
Although identified as a modern Japanese martial art, the origins of Sumo lie in the interplay between spirits and humans that forms the foundation of much of Japanese culture. Sumo matches are elaborate affairs, although the actual physical confrontation rarely lasts for more than half a minute. However, the gear-up for it is reminiscent of ancient rituals, while also serving the practical purpose of allowing future opponents to assess and intimidate each other. In Sumo, the devil is in the detail.
Sumo draws most of its acolytes from the lower classes of Japanese society, attracted by the promise of eventually making it big. It is also a chance for males prone to obesity and physically unattractive to nevertheless gain love and admiration. Most successful Sumo wrestlers are famous for marrying very beautiful women.
The lives of the young men change drastically after recruitment into the world of Sumo. They have to leave their families and schools and join training stables, where they share their daily lives with other trainees and wrestlers. These establishments can be found all across the country and are in many respects similar to permanent training camps.
Once in the stables, the trainees have a strict daily schedule and follow a clearly defined diet. Wrestlers are expected to be exemplary in both their appearance and their conduct. The philosophy behind their lives and evolution is grounded in the teachings of Confucius. Their morality is based on the seven virtues of benevolence, wisdom, propriety, courage, righteousness, sincerity, and honour. Values we have all but forgotten in our Western daily races.
When they participate in tournaments, wrestlers do so as representatives of their stable, wearing distinctive marks of their affiliation. The stable is responsible for forming the wrestler and promoting him through competitions, as well as negotiating his prizes. Naturally, a return is expected on this investment, and a varying percentage of the wrestler's income goes towards the stable's treasury.
Sumo is only practiced professionally in Japan. Despite regular exhibition games and an effort to popularise the sport, it has so far not caught on in the West. Amateur associations do exist, most notably in the United States, and some of the most successful professional wrestlers in Japan are of European origin, but not much else has developed beyond that.
One obvious explanation is its less than immediate entertainment value. European audiences are used to long-wound strategic games in which tactics are easily identifiable. A Sumo spectator needs a trained eye and a lot of attention before starting to notice the details within the few seconds of an average match that tip the balance towards one of the opponents or the other.
Patience, however, is not what characterises the majority of us Westerners, who increasingly require evident and extravagant amusement to stay focussed on one pursuit. Yet, as with most things in life, the most rewarding and inspiring ones turn out to be those which require a bit of effort. Sumo, with its captivating simplicity surrounded by elaborate rituals, may just be one of them.
Text by Oana Uiorean
Copyright Michael Chia 2013