In the center of the circle, two wrestlers silently stare each other down. Their gleaming bodies are poised like enormous springs, perfectly balanced, waiting. The referee calls out and in a flash they collide, gripping, pushing, straining, in a struggle more of sheer will than mere muscle. This is sumo.
But the location is L.A., not Tokyo, and any casual observer at the 12th Annual US Sumo Open at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center (JACCC) Noguchi Plaza, held Sept. 22, could spot the difference. For one thing, there were women.
“I think it’s a good thing,” said Oldenborg Japanese language resident Aki Kishihara, who led a student field trip to the event, noting that women are barred from official competition in Japan. In fact, they are even barred from touching the dohyo, or wrestling ring. According to Yttrium Sua PO ’15, however, the women’s matches were “less intense” and “people really started cheering” when the men’s matches began. But the mere presence of female athletes signaled that this was not sumo as usual.
Then there were the names—Safarov, Ulambayar, Henderson. Names from Mongolia, Tajikistan, Brazil, Tonga, Egypt, Iran, Tennessee– a veritable sumo Olympics. Only one wrestler hailed from Japan: Judy Morrow, who at 13 years old was also the Open’s youngest competitor.
In an official statement, the Open’s director, Andrew Freund, said, “It’s an honor to welcome elite sumo competitors from around the world.” He added that wrestlers from every continent were present. So far, 25 countries have been represented in the Open’s history.
Sumo’s new international flavor is evident even in Japan, despite the sport’s strong ties to nationalism and the traditional Japanese religion of Shinto.
“There’s no help for it,” Kishihara said, since most of the younger generation is not interested in assuming the austere lifestyle required of professional wrestlers, Japan must rely on foreigners to keep its most Japanese sport alive. The only three men since 2000 to achieve the status of yokozuna (sumo’s highest rank) share one hometown: Ulaanbataar, Mongolia.
Questions of cultural change, tradition and diversity aside, sumo’s real point is entertainment, and Saturday’s Open delivered just that. The fact that the Open is sponsored by Sapporo Premium Beer and Hakutsuru Sake didn’t hurt either.
Though the ticket price of $20 was “a little expensive” according to Kishihara, “It’s more interesting than one event,” since the grounds also included various restaurants, shops and cafés, most of them Japanese. Sushi was, inevitably, served.
For those with a more intellectual bent, Gregory Willis, the CEO and President of the JACCC, suggests the Center’s “prominent Aratani/Japan America Theatre, the arresting Irvine Japanese Garden [and] the inspiring Doizaki art galleries.” Visitors who strayed a bit farther afield might have found themselves stepping into the Jodo Shu Buddhist Temple, perusing theonigiri selection at Mitsuwa Marketplace or “accidentally” buying a sparkly Hello Kitty lunchbox, well, anywhere. Little Tokyo has room for many tastes–after all, the Sumo Open only comes once a year.
Cultural activities and demographic shifts aside, there is still a prevailing association most Americans have with the sport of sumo. Asked to give his takeaway observation from the trip, Sua demurred in classic Pomona style, “I don’t want to sound not-PC.”
After considering, he concluded, “Even though they are fat, they are very fit.”