The Japanese have successfully enthralled Westerners by exporting all manner of popular distractions — karaoke, manga, Super Mario Land, karate — but sumo wrestling remains, squatting stubbornly in its birthplace, refusing to leave. Valiant attempts have been made to popularize the sport outside Japan, but to little avail.
James Bond pops into a sumo stadium in You Only Live Twice, but predictably only spends a few seconds watching the action before his attention span’s dick squirms toward a beautiful female spy situated nearby. In the 1990s, Britain’s Channel 4 television optimistically dangled televised sumo tournaments in front of its audience, like a waiter making a cheery-yet-doomed attempt to interest a diner in the kangaroo-and-lemon pie instead of cod and chips. It did not catch on.
The problem is this: To a Westerner, sumo looks inherently silly. Fat men in nappies: That is our gut reaction. Skim a languid eye over it and it scarcely resembles a sport at all. At first glance it is an excuse to show off the participants’ bodies, with particular emphasis on the buttocks — a bit like beach volleyball with diabetic bus drivers. At second glance, all that pushing and shoving looks less like a martial art and more like a fight in a pub doorway. There is, of course, rather more to it than that, but you have to sit down and pay attention for some time before you unlock it.
Despite a string of recent match-fixing scandals denting its popularity, sumo remains Japan’s national sport, so when visiting Tokyo during one of the professional sumo tournaments, it would be churlish not to at least try to get a seat. The national stadium, or Kokugikan, is situated in the Ryogoku District: You cannot miss it during a tournament thanks to the hundreds of brightly colored nobori flags outside.
During a tournament, the various bouts and interspersed ceremonies go on all day, and if you are a tourist rather than a committed sumo fan, things only really get interesting in the final few hours, so plan your day accordingly.
Our seats were located up in the upper balconies, which meant upon entering I was treated to an impressive view of the entire arena. Being largely allergic to sport of any kind, it is easy for me to forget just how popular it is, and since I have only been to a few live sporting events in my life, I am always surprised and impressed by their sheer scale.
The sumo tournament was no exception to the rule — I had to catch my breath as I walked in — but the surrounding air of ancient ritual gave it an additional unreal tinge. The combination of crowds, costumes and ceremony made it feel like a cross between a cricket ground, a theater and a cathedral.
I was determined to try to enjoy the sport itself. However, first I had to get to my seat. I figured I would saunter in suavely, like James Bond had, but there were two crucial differences between me and James Bond. First, he was visiting a different stadium (the current one opened in 1985). Second, Bond arrived during the summer, so he did not walk in wearing an absurdly huge overcoat that rendered him slightly less maneuverable than a dead hovercraft.
Many of the first-floor seats are actually tatami mats the spectators sit upon, cross-legged. Up in the circle, you clamber along an insanely narrow row into a tiny seat with an arm table attached to it — handy for resting a bento box and a beer on (it even has a bottle opener attached), but infuriating when you are trying to squeeze into position while wearing a coat the size of a dinghy.