SI Vault
Kenny Moore
May 27, 1974
Even in the present day, sacred rites of servitude bind sumo wrestlers to Japan's feudal past
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May 27, 1974

Pride In Bondage

Even in the present day, sacred rites of servitude bind sumo wrestlers to Japan's feudal past

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Shortly, a self-assured man in Western dress presented himself and sat. He was Yasutaro Inouye of Nagoya, a sushi restaurateur and organizer of the Nagoya supporting group for Hanakago stable. He told of the involved finances of sumo, a legacy of feudal patronage. Each sekitori wrestler gathers his income from a combination of fixed salary, monthly allowance, special tournament allowances, repeating rewards for performance (for example, if a wrestler once upsets a yokozuna he receives a gold star—kinboshi—and 10,000 yen after every tournament he wrestles for the rest of his career), prize money and gifts from supporters. Inouye-san's Nagoya group, made up of 100 politicians and restaurant people who pay monthly dues of 5,000 yen ($18), gives money to Hanakago as well as donating refrigerators and stoves. He said everyone knew full well that the Sumo Association gave a fairly substantial allowance to each stable boss for his establishment's operation, so when fan clubs pay to make ends meet, as often as not the boss just pockets the cash. "It is part of the price of being close," he said.

A major expense, for which wrestlers definitely need help, is the fancy kesho-mawashi. When Wajima was promoted to yokozuna in May of 1973, he needed not one, but three, for his attendants in the dohyo-iri. They cost his backers 2½ million yen (just under $10,000). But from across the country donations poured in. Inouye said that Wajima now had 14 sets of three matching ceremonial aprons, worth about $150,000.

An apprentice servant appeared. The yokozuna was in. The visitors again trailed through a confusion of passageways and descents, trotting down corridors freezing with the ocean winds or through clouds of steam past the bathing area. Despairing of ever seeing their shoes again, they were ushered into a Western sitting room, with burnt-orange couches, coffee table, thick shag rug and the sun coming through gauzy curtains. Wajima, dressed in a blue sweat suit, had a stablemate with him, Seiho Ryuko, a 6'1", 295-pound maegashira. Both wrestlers sat for a moment on the couch, looking uncomfortable, then dropped to the floor. Henceforth they used the furniture only to lean on. Wajima smoked a Hope cigarette and said, in answer to a question about his training, that few stables permitted wrestlers to run. Ryuko explained. "Oyakata like stamping because the most important thing in sumo is to keep your feet inside the dohyo, keep them down hard on the earth. Running is detaching your feet from the ground. And it makes your hips lighter and makes you lose weight if you do too much. All very bad."

Wajima was asked whether it was necessary to perpetuate sumo's feudal pecking order. Could a recruit live outside the stable and just come for training?

"No," he said. "Sumodo [the way of sumo as practiced for centuries] is best. It was extremely difficult for me to make the adjustment, but it would have been impossible to become as good as I am without living in the stable. The spirit is different. It is unthinkable."

Ryuko, at 33 seven years older than his superior, said it was hard for Wajima, or any other wrestler, to answer such a question objectively. "His success has come through the present system. Some of the young apprentices might have different feelings. There is an enormous difference between professional and amateur sumo. In baseball the best amateur might be able to play in the big leagues. But when Wajima was an amateur, the best in all Japan, he couldn't have made the bottom of maku-uchi division in professional sumo. Sumo people are sure this is because professional sumo is a way of life."

Like Daiju, Wajima said he hadn't thought of what to do after retirement, he only wanted to be a good yokozuna. He added the strange remark that when he retires he must either join the Sumo Association for life or get out entirely. In this serious fight, no dabbling is permitted.

The foreigner wondered if Wajima ever wanted to take a vacation longer than the permissible week following tournaments. "That's the rule," he said, shrugging. "I can't help." Ryuko thought they did indeed wrestle too much. "Ninety days a year, such a severe tension, it's too much for a human being."

Do sumotori contract ulcers?

"Yes, especially after retirement many do. But we get more troubles of the liver and kidneys than anything. Sumotori are perhaps symbolic of appetite to the Japanese people. We have to live up to that."

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