Tuesday, January 04, 2005


The first time I came to Tokyo I expected London or Paris and found a city straight out of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, a city of train lines, neon, department stores, flyovers. An ugly and impersonal city of shapeless office blocks, prefabricated houses and jerry-built apartments, made even uglier by the unburied electricity cables. No thought of visual harmony; no attempt to find a distinctive modern Japanese style. Or even recreate the castellated and turreted Meiji early 20th century style. Or do as Warsaw and Frankfurt did and recreate the old town as they had been before the War.

But buildings in Japan are not built to last. A house in Tokyo will stand for an average of 25 years. The ravage of earthquakes and fires of course, but also extremely high inheritance taxes, which put off families investing in a solid building meant to last for generations, and the traditional use of wood, which must be renewed from time to time.

In short, only a very few houses from Edo, old Tokyo, have survived earthquakes, fires and bombings. Tokyo is city with apparently no past. But it is not in the aesthetics of architecture that we must look to discover old Japan but rather in the conservation of arts such as shodo, calligraphy, pottery, kabuki theatre, and sports such as kendo, kyodo, archery, and sumo.

I arrive at the Hakkuka stable at 8 a.m., and a bleary-eyed rikishi, a sumo wrestler, resplendent in a flowery yukata gown, opens the door and guides me into the training area. I sit on the raised platform. The training session of the juniors is in full swing. They have completed their apprentice course at the sumo association in the basic moves and rules of sumo, its history and Shinto rituals, and associated arts such as calligraphy, where they have to master the special thick script in which the Banzuke, the sumo rankings, is published. They are fighting practice bouts. The winner stays in the ring to fight the next. A stocky and powerful 20 year-old, a rugby prop forward, is defeating all-comers. His shoulders are bruised. His top-knot is undone. He pushes weaker opponents out of the five metre diameter ring, neatly slips out of the way when larger wrestlers charge at him so their momentum will carry them out, and lifts those smaller than he out of the ring by their belts.

The seniors appear to carry out their exercises. They crouch and lift each leg 135 degrees outwards, for strong and supple thighs and thigh and groin muscles are the secret to sumo success. They walk in a frog and crab-like dance. They push each other out of the ring. They practice falls. They come in all shapes and sizes. One is short and flabby, sagging breasts, belly overhanging genitals, drooping inner thighs. Another is square like a brick. Another has narrow shoulders, an enormous paunch and elephant legs. Others have gorilla-like arms. Some are even quite lithe and have relatively flat bellies. And I wonder about one junior, thin and bony, 60 kilos at the most. Of course he is always carried out of the ring, for there is no weight division in sumo. Sometimes the nippier smaller guys defeat the heavies, and the crowd roars.

Everything is carried out in silence. The trainers hardly say a word. When they do, the rikishi just nod, say "Hai, Hai", or the more formal "Oos". Like all other traditional Japanese sports, repetition of the basic forms will lead to mastery and a state of perfection, where a state of calm and enlightenment can be achieved.

I smell food from the kitchen. The juniors are making the chanco nabe, the hot-pot, for lunch. Fish, chicken, vegetables, and plenty of rice.

The life of the sumo wrestler is heavily regimented and follows many of the Samurai norms from the early 19th century and before. Apprentices live in the stables with fixed duties and early curfews, for they must get lots of sleep. There are strict codes of dress, and outside the ring the wrestler will wear traditional kimono, and use the old Samurai hairstyle, with more elaborate top-knots for the higher-ranking wrestlers, which will be fashioned by one of the official Sumo Association barbers. Salaries for the different grades are fixed. And as in other sports, the Dan system of official promotion to a higher level after winning a tournament or a specific number of bouts, operates.

But there is a subtle mingling of the modern and the traditional. The wrestlers’ tournament kimono carry the names of the official sponsors, in traditional sumo calligraphy, of course. Official eyeing-up and glaring time has been gradually cut due to television requirements. Sumo wrestlers don’t seem to get involved in night-club brawls, but in the corner of the gym I see several bags of golf clubs. In Japan there are few who have they time or money to play golf on a Tuesday afternoon. Except successful sumo wrestlers.


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