The dark side of Sumo

Trip Start Jun 27, 2009
Trip End Jun 25, 2011

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Flag of Japan  ,
Thursday, May 1, 2008

In March, Lily and I organized another Wakayama JET event and a group of about 30 of us went to watch the Grand Sumo Tournament in Osaka. Sumo in Japanese is pronounced 'smo' without the u, and is the symbol of the country and it's national sport. The Japanese take great pride in sumo (as they do in everything they do) and it has been around for over 2,000 years!

Recently sumo wrestling has been in the news because of apparent fixed matches and scandals involving money. I'm not going to write about that or the rules of sumo, but rather the more interesting part of sumo (at least to me) - life after the match . The life of a sumo wrestler is highly regimented. The behavior of sumo wrestlers is prescribed by The Sumo Association and is often associated with life in a commune!

Every sumo wrestler belongs to a stable, which is where they live while they are young. A stable is managed by a stable master, a retired wrestler who was a good wrestler in his prime. There are currently 54 stables throughout Japan. Referees, ushers, and hairdressers also live in the stables. The stable master is referred to as oyakata (boss), and his wife, who is called okamisan, plays an important supporting role behind the scenes.

Here are some of the rules upon entering life in the stables:
1. Grow your hair long to make a topknot - similar to the hairstyle of the samurai
2. Always dress in traditional attire when in public including wooden shoes (geta) and thin cotton robe (yukata) (only the higher ranking wrestlers can wear straw shoes and a warmer overcoat on top of the yukata)
3. Lowest ranking wrestlers get up at 5am to do chores, cook and begin training.
4. Lowest ranking wrestlers are not allowed breakfast. Instead they being their day with lunch. The traditional Chanko or "sumo meal" consists of a simmering stew which contains various fish, meat, and vegetables. It is usually eaten with rice and washed down with beer. This regimen of no breakfast and a large lunch followed by a nap helps wrestlers put on weight.
5. In the afternoon the lowest sumo wrestlers act as personal servants to the higher ranking wrestlers.
6. The highest ranking wrestlers are given their own room in the stable or, may live in their own apartments. In contrast, the lower ranking wrestlers sleep in communal dormitories. Thus the world of the sumo wrestler is split broadly between low ranking, who serve, and the high ranking, who are served. Life is especially harsh for new recruits, to whom the worst jobs tend to be allocated, and there is a high dropout rate at this stage.

Health Risks:

Sumo wrestlers have a life expectancy of between 60-65, more than 10 years shorter than the average Japanese male! (side note: Japanese people are the longest lived people in the world). They often develop diabetes and high blood pressure, and are prone to heart attacks. The excessive intake of alcohol can lead to liver problems and the stress on their joints can cause arthritis. Recently, the standards of weight gain are becoming less strict, in an effort to improve the overall health of the wrestlers and the average height of sumo wrestlers is around 5' 10".

Sumo stables also use hazing and physical punishment of young wrestlers in order to "toughen them up." Stable masters have often been proud to show to the media how they frequently use a shinai (a long bamboo stick used in martial arts) to beat up on those who make mistakes, and elder wrestlers are often put in charge of bullying younger ones to keep them in line, for instance, by making them hold heavy objects for long periods of time.

However, this system of hazing was made public and highly criticizes in late 2007 when a 17 year old sumo trainee named Takashi Saito died after a serious bullying incident involving his stable master hitting him in the head with a large beer bottle and fellow wrestlers being subsequently ordered to physically abuse him further. The (now ex) stable master and three other wrestlers who were involved were arrested in February 2008, after which Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda demanded the Sumo Association take steps to ensure such an incident never happens again.

From the article, "Bullying and top-down hazing, however, are hardly unique to the sumo stables where wrestlers live and train. That may be why the death of the young wrestler has resonated with the Japanese. 'This happens all across the country, in schools and workplaces, and it is probably one of the cultural characteristics we have in Japan,' said Naoki Ogi, a professor of education at Hosei University in Tokyo and longtime critic of the culture of discipline in Japanese schools.

Here's the link to an article:

The abuse that occurs in sumo stables, Ogi said, is a contemporary echo of the beatings that were routine inside the Japanese military in the years before World War II, when the armed forces had pervasive influence on Japanese society. This abusive pattern, persists in business and education, often times in ways that are far more psychological than physical.

'As a society, Japan has yet to go through a full democratic review of this kind of behavior,' he said."

That brings me to a whole new issue..suicide in Japan.
I'll leave that for another blog.

Have a great day everyone :)

<3 Kate
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