Saturday, July 15, 2017

Survival of the Fattest?

To a greater or lesser degree, most of you know something about the traditional Japanese sport known in the Western world as sumo wrestling. It is sometimes jokingly said that sumo is the sport which features the survival of the fattest.
Introduction to Sumo
Our family of four arrived in Japan on September 1, 1966, and lived for the first two years in Tokyo. Sometime during our second week there, I went to Akihabara, the well-known shopping center for household electronic goods, and bought a small black and white television set.
When I got home, we turned the new TV on to NHK, Japan's national public broadcasting channel (similar to BBC in Great Britain). It was late afternoon and the September sumo tournament was being telecast.
Having never seen sumo before, we were surprised, and fascinated, by what we saw. In just a few days we learned more about sumo from our fellow language school students and have been sumo fans ever since.
The Basics of Sumo
The rules of sumo are quite simple. Two rikishi (sumo wrestlers) face off with each other in the middle of a ring that is about 15 feet in diameter. When the bout starts, each tries to push the other out of the ring or to throw him down in the ring.
Sumo is not at all like Western-style wrestling, and there are no weight divisions. Naturally, those who are heaviest have an advantage—thus the tag “survival of the fattest”—although skillful movement and technique can be used well by the smaller rikishi.
“Smaller,” though, is a relative term. There are few rikishi who weigh less than 300 pounds.
There are six tournaments a year, each lasting 15 days. The one with the best won/lost record wins the championship. The minimal goal of each rikishi is achieving kachikoshi, more wins than losses during the tourney, making promotion likely.
The American Rikishi
Shortly before we arrived in Japan, Jesse Kuhaulua, a young Hawaiian rikishi had become the first American in the top sumo division. We enjoyed rooting for him during our first years as sumo fans.
On July 19, 1972, we returned to Japan after our first year of furlough in the States. We soon were happily informed by some of our missionary colleagues that Jesse had, amazingly, won the championship in the tournament that ended on July 16.
Jesse competed under the sumo name Takamiyama, and his victory was met with considerable consternation in Japan. This was the first time a “foreigner” had won the championship in the traditional Japanese sport. But it would not be the last.
Following Takamiyama were Konishiki, Akebono, and Musashimaru. Those three ended up winning 3, 11, and 12 championships, respectively.
Konishiki holds the record for being the heaviest rikishi ever: at his peak he weighed over 630 pounds. Akebono was the tallest (at 6 feet 8 inches) and second heaviest (at over 550 pounds).
Konishiki (1991)
Even though I had seen them repeatedly on television, when I first met Konishiki and, later, Akebono, I was overwhelmed at the former’s massiveness and the latter’s height and size. 
The Mongolian Rikishi
In recent years, the sumo world in Japan has been dominated by wrestlers from Mongolia. Three of the current yokozuna (grand champions) are Mongolian, and Hakuhō, one of the three, has become one of the most successful rikishi of all times—even though he weighs a “mere” 340 pounds. 
Much to the relief of most Japanese, in January of this year Kisenosato, a Japanese rikishi, was promoted to yokozuna—for the first time since 1998. Weighing almost 390 pounds, it remains to be seen how long he will survive with the lighter, and more skillful, Mongolian yokozuna.
At the suggestion of my son (thanks, Keith!), I am adding this link to a two-minute YouTube video explaining sumo and showing some actual action in the ring.


  1. Unfortunately, Kisenosato, about whom I wrote in the last paragraph, has had to withdraw from the current tournament because of an ankle injury.

    1. The first comment I received this morning, just 30 minutes after I posted the article, was from a local Thinking Friend who wrote, "Just when you think you've heard it all, you learn that your friend is a sumo fan."

      I'm not sure how to respond to that. I don't know if he was somehow disappointed at my being a fan of a lowbrow sport--as I guess I would be of someone who said they were a fan of pro wrestling in the U.S. (I can assure you, though, that there is a world of difference between sumo in Japan and pro wrestling here.)

      Or was that a light-hearted comment about his surprise at the breadth of my interests? Perhaps.

      But I make no apology for being a fan of the Grand Sumo Tournaments in Japan, for sumo is the traditional national sport of Japan and anyone who lives in Japan and takes Japanese culture seriously must have some knowledge of and appreciation for sumo.

  2. I was surprised to hear about the US Sumo Open. What do you think of that?

    1. Thanks, Kathy, for alerting me to US Sumo Open, which I knew nothing about. I was interested to learn something about it--and surprised at its popularity.

      But seeing the website you linked to made me realize that I am not really a fan of sumo as such, but just a fan of the the Grand Sumo Tournaments in Japan and the top wrestlers who compete in those tournaments.

  3. Thank you for the introduction to sumo.

  4. My late father-in-law and I used to enjoy watching sumo highlights together in Hawai'i. A local TV station would fly in each day's highlight show tape to air on Hawai'i TV the next day. (Satellites weren't widely used for getting TV to Hawai'i at that time. Mainland network shows were a week late in Hawai'i as tapes had to be flown in.) Takamiyama was a great hero in Hawai'i and a well illustrated book about him helped me begin to appreciate the subtleties and intricacies of this great sport. Chiyonofuji attracted my attention when he was first promoted into the ranks that were featured on TV. My family went to Zimbabwe while he was just rising and I was thrilled to return to find him a champion a few years later. He never carried excess weight and was so well muscled and skilled that we decided to name our younger son after him. My wife insisted upon using his real name and now his wrestling name. We were back in Zimbabwe at the time of his birth so, her mother got the task of researching his name for us. Our son's second name is Mitsugu since that's the information my wife's mother supplied. I was very sorry to learn of Chiyonofuji's death not too long ago. Now in the isolation of Arkansas, I miss my sumo highlights. :-(

    1. Thanks, friend (and I still don't know your name), for sharing these comments about sumo.

      Thanks, too, for mentioning Chiyonofuji. He was a much loved, and highly successful, sumo wrestler. He was loved partly because of his demeanor and also because of his size--he was one of the smaller wrestlers, weighing between 260 and 280 pounds.

      Chiyonofuji won 31 championships, the third most in the modern history of sumo.

  5. I have come to enjoy the "off" sports. This is but one around the world.

    It is amazing that their skeletal and cardiovascular systems, and pancreas can hold up to the stress of that size.

  6. Thinking Friend Eric Dollard, who always has good thoughts and information to share, wrote this morning, saying,

    "Thanks, Leroy, for your interesting article about sumo wrestling.

    "A top sumo wrestler can earn $300,000 or $400,000, or perhaps more, a year, but there is a trade off. The average life expectancy for a sumo wrestler is around 63 or 64 years; the average life expectancy for Japanese men overall is about 80 years. Sumo wrestlers are at a much higher risk for type 2 diabetes, stroke, and heart attack. Is it worth it? Obviously some men think so; it is a lifestyle choice, albeit a rather dangerous one."

    1. Thanks for sharing this information, Eric. It is basically the same as I found in doing research for my article--but didn't have the space to include as I tried to keep the article to 600 words.

    2. I have just posted a comment above about Chiyonofuji, one of the most successful sumo wrestlers of all time. He died last year at the age of 61--but he weighed "only" 260-280 pounds and died of pancreatic cancer.

      The great Taiho, whom I mentioned in the article, weighed over 330 pounds, but he lived to the age of 73--a little below the national average for Japanese men born in 1940, but still not so young.

      Another sumo great from the 1970s was Kitanoumi. He died at the age of 62, but the cause of death was also given as cancer.

      And Jesse (Takamiyama), the first successful non-Japanese sumo wrestler whom I wrote about in the article, is now 73 and I haven't heard anything about him being in bad health.

      So in spite of their weight, it seems as though some of the best known sumo wrestlers lived into their 70s or died of cancer, which may have not been directly linked to their weight.

  7. When we went to Japan first time in 1977, I thought Sumo was a stupid game of two fat ugly people pushing around in a ring. But I was wrong. Whenever we watched Japanese news on TV, Sumo clips flashed and it was fascinating. We enjoyed watching Sumo tournaments especially rooting Chiyonofuji's skillful victories.

  8. During the six tournaments each year, NHK has the day's highlights on their free on-demand site: