This is a scan of one card from our collection of sumo postcards. This one is called "Five Giant Sumo Wrestlers" and the fellows pictured on the card are: top left - Mitoizumi, top right - Onokuni, center - Asashio, lower right - Konishiki, lower left - Kitao (later Yokozuna Futahaguro who was bounced from sumo after roughing up his stable leader a little). Konishiki is the only non-Japanese wrestler on the card.
Sumo is Japan's national sport but it seems to be so mainly because of inertia. The Japanese people, by and large, have little or no interest in sumo and know relatively little about it. They prefer baseball and soccer. Because of this, sumo is likely the one area of Japanese culture in which my husband and I can often run circles around Japanese people when it comes to our knowledge of it.
That knowledge is somewhat rusty in terms of who is hot and who's not in the current sumo scene but, in regards to the traditions, techniques, rituals, and rules of play, we still know it quite well. There was a time when we were absolutely potty for sumo. It was a love affair that began around 1990 and ended around 1996 and is marked by a collection of cherished sumo memorabilia that is in the closet right now but will be taken home and lovingly displayed when we get there.
In the earliest days of our time in Japan, we had a tiny little television which could offer bilingual broadcasts on the rare occasions when they were offered. This is done by essentially dividing the stereo up into a Japanese "channel" and an English "sub-channel". Bilingual T.V.s allowed you to turn off the Japanese part and only listen to the English. Cable T.V. was either in limited use or not available in our area at that time and English language programming was relatively hard to find. One of the things that you could watch in English was sumo. This was why and how we learned about sumo initially. With limited options, we chose the only English programming we could find.
Later, we just started to watch the "Sumo Digest" in Japanese since it was shorter and we were working during much of the original English language broadcast but we could only understand the all Japanese broadcast after listening to the English for some time. One of the good things about watching sumo so much is that the vocabulary is specialized and you heard the same words again and again. This helped one memorize them pretty rapidly. The only down side is that the vocabulary is so specialized that it's not very useful in everyday living in Japan.
Those who don't know sumo think it's a couple of fat guys pushing each other around until one of them falls down. This is a notion that is reinforced by the brevity of the matches. Like many things in life, the view of the outsider underestimates what is involved and only those who are on the inside or who carefully study the situation know that it's much harder and more complex than it looks. Winning at sumo is not all about weight, speed, and center of gravity. There's also a fair amount of technique involved as well as psychology and the use of the belt (mawashi) is very important in determining a win.
The psychological aspect comes during the part most people find boring where the wrestlers spend time before each bout pacing around the ring and occasionally crouching to stare at each other. There is no time limit on this "warm-up" period and no signal to say that the wrestlers are ready to start. They just work it out by the look in each others eyes which says "let's do it now". On rare occasions, one wrestler or another will misinterpret the subtle signal to begin and there will be a false start. This type of vagueness and communication that relies on reading between the lines rather than any sort of obvious signaling is incredibly Japanese.
If you watch this stare down, you can really see a lot of interesting things going on in the faces of the wrestlers. They don't grimace or pull faces. The look is mainly in the eyes and the slightest look around the mouth. Sometimes the looks really could wilt a fresh flower. Those who are a part of the sumo culture and business say sometimes a bout is won or lost at this point and I can believe it. You can also see a lack of confidence in a wrestler's eyes sometimes. When American grand champion (yokozuna) Akebono was on his game, his looks were extremely fierce. When he was off his game, you could see the doubt in his eyes. It was amazing how clear this was.
As for the belt, you could often tell once a wrestler got his hands on his opponent's belt in a certain way that he was going to win or lose. Getting the hands inside or outside and the point along the belt where one grabs goes a long way toward determining a win or loss. Sometimes this could result in extremely dramatic turns of play. There is a technique whereby someone who is up against the edge of the ring and looks like he's about to be pushed out (for a loss) will grab his opponent's belt and twist his body so he forces him down before he is pushed out. It's a dramatic come-back maneuver. This technique is called utchari and is extremely impressive to see. Unless a wrestler has the right grip of the belt though, he cannot get the leverage to perform this move.
So, sumo is definitely a lot more than a couple of almost naked beefy guys shoving and slapping at each other but a lot of the technique can only be seen if you pay attention to the subtle and small things that are going on. This is what really makes it so uniquely Japanese as it's a byproduct of distinctly Japanese cultural aspects.