has been lost in antiquity."
Since the rank of
yokozuna was conceived, about the time of the American Revolutionary War, there
have been only 54 grand champions. Three are presently competing. Before each
evening's matches they appear to perform their own dohyo-iri, a rite of
clapping, stamping and a strangely moving gesture in which the wrestler squats,
arms outspread, twisting his feet in the sand while slowly, sensuously
thrusting his hips forward, rising to his full magnificence. Inevitably this
produces pandemonium. Yokozuna Kotozakura (page 84) carries the best stomach of
any living wrestler, a near-bursting drum.
An attendant steps
to the center of the vacated ring, inclines a fan to the heavens and whines out
the names of the first combatants, who have changed into their fighting
mawashi. They mount the dohyo and stamp to their corners, where they squat and
take a mouthful of chikara-mizu (power water) and spit it out behind a white
square of chikara-gami (power paper), which they also use to wipe their
armpits. "This paper kills all evil hiding under the soles of the
feet," whispers Nishimuta.
scoop handfuls of salt from pails fixed to the dohyo, turn and scatter it
across the clay in a final purification rite. At the far edges of the ring they
squat, folding back the sticklike fringe hanging from their mawashi, and clap
in unison. Then they lumber to the sides for more salt, pitch that and crouch,
scowling, in the center of the dohyo above two white wooden boards that mark
the point of battle. The watching gaijin, whose knees have begun to ache,
tenses. The wrestlers rise and return to the salt. That dispersed, they square
off once more, with contemptuous leers. But again they stand and back off,
retreating for still more salt. "They have four minutes for these
rituals," says Nishimuta. In that period they go to the salt six times.
"The buckets in the corners are often replenished from chests in the
aisles. It is said that a night's wrestlers will strew 65 pounds of salt over
At last the
referee, all angles and gleaming kimono and tinny screech, turns his little
paddle, which he holds like a hand mirror, and lets it lie back across his
forearm. This is the signal. The wrestlers bolt forward in the essential moment
of sumo, the tachi-ai, the charge.
usually over in seconds. Although the Sumo Association lists 70 individual
winning moves, all may be divided into two categories—those that require
grasping the belt and those in which the contestants simply slap and shove. For
the gaijin, pinned in below the dohyo, the feeling ebbing from his nether
regions, the most compelling technique is utchari, in which one wrestler gives
ground to the very edge, trying to get a grip on his opponent's belt, succeeds,
lifts and turns his man as both 300-pounders soar uncontrolled over the
precipice of the dohyo and into the crowd. The first to land loses.
Knees gone, the
foreigner's groin now cramps. His sensation is one of claustrophobic urgency.
Yet he pictures how it would be, lurching up, splintering the balsa table,
knocking aside the distinguished Japanese journalists on both sides. Convention
is too strong; he knows that he cannot move. Solace lies only in distraction.
He clutches at more details.
There is a
mesmerizing quality to the referee's movements. He is a fantastic creature who
seems calculated to be the exact opposite of the spherical, near-nude
wrestlers. Thickly silked, taut, he executes self-conscious gestures with
consuming intensity. Five times out of every six he keeps his paddle turned to
the side, assuring the hall that the wrestlers are simply posturing; but his
artifice, repeated and made rigid and predictable, as in a tea ceremony, is
done with so much care as to seem meaningful. Yet he is all flash and front. He
rules on each match, but his decision must be approved by five judges. On close
calls, a videotape replay is used.
Salt throwing is
an exercise in projecting disdain. One wrestler sprinkles a teaspoon or two, in
wondrous anticlimax to the first strewing a pound. One brushes his hand clean
with an echoing clap. The other takes five or six prissy pats.
Often the ritual
face-offs are empty, the wrestlers barely looking at each other. But when
Wajima enters, hosts of partisans bellow from the reaches of the arena. Here is
a man who makes use of the form. He refuses to be the first to turn away to the
salt. His opponent is forced to respond, with the result that both stand
stock-still, enraged and murderous, for long seconds while the hall rings with
piercing cries. When they wrestle, Wajima easily gets both hands on the belt
and lifts his man like a diapered baby out of a crib. The crowd applauds
politely and returns to what it does throughout the evening: feeding. Tiny
female vendors work the boxes incessantly, distributing squid, chestnuts,
pickles, teriyaki chicken, mandarin oranges, fish cakes, sushi, raisins, Coke,
sake and pots of tea. At night's end, when the foreigner, tottering on crumpled
legs, is assisted out, he must dig his shoes from piles of spilled salt around
the reserve chest. He slumps to brush them out and sees hundreds of little
brown ceramic teapots rolling in the aisles.