Outside the Kokusai Athletic Center in coastal Fukuoka, Japan, dozens of fans huddle beneath a canopy of branches hoping for a rare, up-close glimpse of their favorite athletes. It’s November, and 42 top-division athletes are making their grand entrance for the final sumo tournament of the decade. A parade of referees, coaches, public officials and wrestlers clad in traditional kimono march by. But where are all the fat men in diapers?
Sumo wrestling is largely a combination of ancient Shinto rituals, a far cry from the inflatable fatsuits with attached diapers you can rent for an office party. Professional wrestlers, or rikishi, endure some of the most grueling and unrewarding training of any sport, tackling each other to the floor day in and out and sleeping with each other in densely packed quarters.
Very few of the traditional, often brutal nuances of sumo are captured in the West. From gimmicky Halloween costumes to team-building ‘sumo suits,’ our understanding of sumo is intertwined with a fetishization of Japanese culture. Dexter Thomas has seen the differences in sumo’s portrayal through reporting in both Japan and Los Angeles. He said that for a lot of Americans, “sumo is just a bunch of fat dudes pushing each other for comedic effect. It’s something that’s funny.”
When you mischaracterize something that belongs to a minority group, Thomas said, someone might make assumptions about that entire group. This risk “warrants being really careful and doing justice to the story when dealing with underrepresented groups.”
Andrew Freund has spent the past 20 years trying to change sumo’s stereotypes in America. He founded USA Sumo, which runs the largest and longest-standing sumo tournament outside of Japan. In the last few years, Freund brought several retired rikishi to live in Los Angeles and acts as a quasi-manager for them, helping them land TV and movie appearances. He also holds practices out of a small dojo in Long Beach, California.
One of Freund’s biggest challenges is finding that balance between sharing sumo with the West and appropriating its traditions for profit. He wants his wrestlers to be taken seriously, but he also recognizes their need to make a living, which they do by ice skating in insurance commercials or by knocking out Ed Sheeran in a music video. Thomas said this puts Freund’s wrestlers in a weird position where, “in order to make money, they kind of have to play the butt of the joke.”
While Freund’s wrestlers try to navigate the awkward balance between tradition and entertainment, Thomas said we should strive to understand the immense cultural backdrop they perform on. Otherwise, he said we risk dismissing something beautiful as, “Japanese people doing weird shit.”
In Japan, professional rikishi live an incredibly regimented life. From about the age of 15, recruits are required to live in a stable, a shared living space that includes a training area and a kitchen where unsalaried rikishi are expected to cook for their higher-ranked stablemates. On the menu is a heaping bowl of high-calorie vegetable stew called chanko-nabe, eaten twice per day. After that, they get to clean the toilets.
Other rules include the prohibition of driving or wearing anything except for traditional Japanese dress wear. Rikishi are forbidden from showing any emotion after winning or losing a match during the six annual tournaments.
Rikishi aren’t the only ones who devote their lives to the world of sumo. There are the referees, or gyouji, who carry a short sword representing their willingness to die in the event of a bad call—a ceremonial gesture in modern sumo, although they are expected to resign instead. Then there are yobidashi, who build the massive clay wrestling platform by hand before each of the six annual tournaments, and subsequently destroy it after the last bout. There are even tokoyama, whose sole responsibility is to tie the top-knots worn by rikishi in the highest division.
Each aspect of sumo is steeped in millennia of tradition. It is a confluence of art, religion and culture that reached its modern form during the 1600s. It’s a way of life, a cycle of creation and destruction that mirrors not only its Shinto origins but also its fans in Japan.
Yoshinga Yutaka has been watching sumo his entire life, calling it part of his “daily routine.” He said he doesn’t find sumo exotic, or even glamorous. “It’s tied with our daily life, to our childhood memories. That’s what makes sumo special for us,” Yoshinga said. For many sumo fans, the sport helps shape a millennia-old cultural heritage into what Freund calls “an integral part of Japanese society.”
Yoshinga said he’s happy to learn that sumo is practiced in other countries, but it’s different from what he sees in Japan, where “sumo is a ritual, performed at shrines. It’s something that people respect.”
Somewhat surprisingly, Yoshinga isn’t offended by inflatable sumo suits. “I mean it’s funny, but it’s not sumo.” His cheerful disregard echoes something Thomas has noticed. People in Japan aren’t all that affected by American misconceptions, mostly because they don’t reflect what people actually experience in Japan.
In Long Beach, Freund tries to differentiate between sumo as a sport and sumo as a culture. Wrestlers at his tournament enjoy a much more relaxed environment than the rikishi in pro-sumo. There is no salt-throwing, wrestlers wear their hair down and the ring is made from foam instead of clay. The championship winner might perform a backflip, or throw their hands in the air, all the while striving to celebrate a culture without exploiting it.