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Afternoon at the Tournament

Not many matches after the Sekitori's victory on the first day of the January tournament, the juryo bouts ended. I could tell from the printed schedule and the lighted scoreboards hanging over the eastern and western sides of the auditorium that the highest-ranking wrestlers, the makuuchi, would begin fighting. According to the schedule, their ring-entry ceremony, in which they would all be introduced, was about to begin.

But instead, a voice announced something over the public address system that I couldn't clearly understand, and the Japanese national anthem started playing. Everyone stood up, so I stood up too. Standing for the national anthem at a sporting event was normal enough, but then I noticed that everyone was looking up and to the front of the auditorium. I looked up, expecting to see a Japanese flag.

Instead, I saw the Emperor and Empress of Japan seated in a balcony over the auditorium's northern entrance, waving graciously to the crowd. The gray-haired imperial couple smiled and waved like kindly grandparents as the music played and I found myself strangely affected by the experience: I'd never seen a king or queen in person before, let alone an emperor or empress.

When the music stopped, the couple sat down and the tournament proceeded, with some 20 wrestlers lining up in the western hanamichi. They climbed atop the dohyo, which they circled as their names were called. Nobody elicited applause as strong as did Takamisakari, the tall, relatively lean wrestler who appears in television commercials for tea-flavored rice porridge and was famous for his flamboyant, self-consciously stiff pre-fight posturing in the ring, for which he'd earned the nickname "Robot". Rumor in the stable had it that Takamisakari gave Kitamura his cauliflower ears when the two were both on the sumo team at Nihon University.

The wrestlers filed into the ring and shiko-ed in unison, then formed a circle around its border facing the audience as their names were called. Once they had all been announced, they turned around, faced the center, clapped their hands, lifted an arm and tugged up on their apron-like kesho-mawashi, which looked vaguely lewd, like they were lifting up their skirts. Then they threw both their arms up in the air and filed out of the ring. (I'm not sure what all these actions symbolize: like much that I encounter in the sumo world, different writers offer different interpretations.)

Next the "eastern" wrestlers filed down their hanamichi and onto the dohyo. Among the eastern wrestlers, the loudest applause easily went to Kaio, the ozeki-ranked wrestler that many hoped would join the Mongolian Asashoryu as a grand-champion, or yokozuna.


Like the western group, the easterners had a couple Caucasian wrestlers among them. I could guess which one was the Bulgarian Kotooshu from his kesho-mawashi, which said "Bulgaria" in the logotype of the Japanese yogurt brand of the same name.

Kesho-mawashi are actually holdovers from Edo-era sumo. When warring between rival landowners ended in that period, some continued to battle each other in sport by sponsoring sumo wrestlers and pitting them against their adversaries'. At that time, sumo wrestlers wore kesho-mawashi with the family crest of their samurai patron.

These days, though, wrestlers get their kessho-mawashi, which cost thousands of dollars to produce, from corporate sponsors or "support groups" made up of fans. The Sekitori's kesho-mawashi, for instance, is adorned with an image of an eagle, which the guys at the stable told me was the symbol of his Saitama-based support group. Takamisakari's kesho-mawashi, meanwhile, displayed the striped logo of the Nagatanien company, in whose television advertisements for rice-porridge broth he appeared. And the Bulgaria yogurt company apparently sponsored Kotooshu.

After this group of wrestlers left the dohyo, Asashoryu entered, accompanied by two attendant wrestlers—one of whom held a sheathed sword—and a gyoji with a tassel hanging from his paddle. The yokozuna also wore a kesho-mawashi, but its design was hidden by the lightning-bolt-shaped paper cutouts that hung from under the broad white rope tied around his waist. He did his shiko for the audience in what looked like slow motion before leaving the dohyo.


Next there was a brief award ceremony for wrestlers who'd won tournaments or earned other honors in the previous year's matches. Asashoryu came back into the ring in a simple silk mawashi and was handed a giant trophy by an older man in a business suit who was visibly relieved to have it out of his hands. Then the giant portraits of Asashoryu and Kaio—painted in honor of their tournament victories—that I'd seen outside the Kokugikan the previous day were unveiled. They had been hung high over the stands in the row of portraits of wrestlers who had won previous tournaments over the years.

After a few more awards were distributed, the makuuchi wrestlers began fighting. They arrived from the same hanamichi as the lower-ranked wrestlers, but they were preceded by younger attendants who placed plush cushions next to the dohyo for them to sit on. The winners of these matches remained on the stage after their opponents departed and were presented with thin envelopes of cash that the gyoji held out on his paddle.

Before some of the matches, a few young yobidashi in thin yellow topcoats circled the dohyo holding advertisements on banners. The companies being advertised were offering extra prize money to the match's winner, about $500 for each banner. The wrestlers also took this money off the gyoji's paddle after the match; the more banners there were before a match, the more envelopes the victor took from the gyoji's paddle when it was over.

Like commercials during network newscasts in the United States, most of the banners advertised medicines, dietary supplements and hospitals. And when I looked around the auditorium, I saw that the sumo demographic is similar to that of network news: old fans clearly outnumbered the young ones, although the apparently foreign spectators, of whom there were many, were on the young side.

Before Takamisakari's bout against Roho, the tall Russian with a vicious pockmarked face, nine yobidashi circled the dohyo, each carrying a striped Nagatanien rice-porridge banner. This was the largest number of banners yet to appear and the crowd cheered wildly as the yobidashi walked around the dohyo and the announcer shilled for the rice porridge.

When Takamisakari first appeared on the hanamichi, the audience had applauded him loudly and called out his name. He'd smiled humbly and sat down on the cushion his attendant had put out for him while he waited for the preceding match to be fought.

Now it was his turn to fight and he mounted the dohyo as the banner-bearing yobidashi left the ring. He played it cool at first, disinterestedly walking into his corner to warm up and scatter a little salt. He returned to the center of the ring to face Roho the first time, then went back to his corner and sprung into action.

First he threw out his huge arms, exhaling so forcefully that I could hear the air leaving his lungs. The crowd went nuts, and he kept the applause coming: he slapped himself in the face like Curly from the Three Stooges; he pounded on his chest with his fists; he did his trademark robotic shiko. When he tossed a heaping handful of salt into the center of the ring, the crowd exploded.

I was getting caught up in the excitement myself. This was easily the most exciting pre-fight posturing I'd seen all day. Before, when the only time I ever watched sumo was on television, I found antics like these hopelessly boring and usually skipped the live sumo broadcasts in favor of the highlights that played on television after the matches, which only showed the bouts themselves.

But here at the tournament, it was a completely different story. Taking everything in at once—the wrestlers working simultaneously to psyche each other out; the shouts from the audience; the salt crystals streaming through the air and catching the glare from the overhead lights—was absolutely exhilarating. (Baseball's the same way: waiting for a pitch while watching a game on television is duller than I can handle; at the ballpark, though, where you can feel the tension, it's exciting.)

If fact, over the years, these pre-fight warm-up/psych-out sessions were abbreviated with broadcast audiences in mind. Until early in the century, they'd go on as long as the wrestlers wanted. But when live radio broadcasts of matches began, the posturing was limited to 10 minutes. Now, with television broadcast schedules to stick to, wrestlers only have four minutes to stretch out and throw salt (over 100 pounds each day).

In most cases, though, four minutes is still often several hundred times longer than it takes for the wrestlers to actually fight. Takamisakari's match against Roho, at about a minute, was an eternity compared to many other matches, which last mere seconds. The two met in the center of the ring, grabbed each other's mawashi and pushed each other by millimeters until Roho thrust Takamisakari forward and out of the ring in one exerted shove. Takamisakari left the ring looking genuinely upset; he actually pouted, something wrestlers usually don't do. Roho, meanwhile, went home with the cash that Takamisakari's sponsor had ponied up.

A few matches later when it was Kaio's turn to fight, even more banner-bearing yobidashi circled the stage: 10 this time. Kaio's opponent, Iwakiyama, had a protruding jaw and forehead that made him resemble Jay Leno—except that his face was likely indented from being repeatedly bashed in by the heads of his opponents. The two seemed well matched during the bout's initial moments, but when his opponent lost his footing near the edge of the dohyo, Kaio easily pushed him out of bounds. Iwakiyama nearly stammered off the raised dohyo.

The cheering reached a new crescendo. Seeing Kaio make his way toward potential elevation to yokozuna rank was arguably what most of the fans had come hoping for. The next and final match, in which Asashoryu beat fellow Mongolian Hakuho, felt like an anticlimax after Kaio's victory.