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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"No, Wajima isn't at his optimum weight. He needs a little more. Thirty or 40 pounds, to 300." He went on to say that training in his stable included more than wrestling, stamping and pounding. Running on the beach and up stairs was also done, and in Tokyo, weight lifting. "Men gain power more quickly with modern methods than with just shiko or teppo." What was more, the Hanakago stable was one of the few that fed its wrestlers milk.

Does Hanakago recruit?

"We have fan clubs, supporters' groups in every prefecture. They watch for strong prospects. When they find one, we get in touch with the boy. It is hard convincing. Sometimes the parents agree but the boy doesn't. There is more freedom than there used to be. One problem is all young boys want to go to college [a pursuit impossible to mix with the total sumo of the stable]."

But Wajima graduated from Tokyo's Nihon University before he went to professional sumo. He is the first college graduate yokozuna. Might this be the wave of the future?

"It is changing. This will help. But Wajima is a special man." By this, said Matsuo-san, Hanakago meant that though Wajima made it by waiting until he was 21 to join the stable, less gifted men could not.

What are the criteria for elevation to yokozuna? Hanakago said a matter of being able to win tournaments consistently and of having the right character. Had there ever been a winning wrestler whose character was not approved? "No," he said. "All of our yokozuna have had good character. They could not have won if they had not."

The visitors hoped that the conversation so far had warmed the oyakata. "Do you know," they asked, "if there is much betting on sumo?"

Hanakago gave a low, spitting, gurgling exclamation, which Matsuo-san softly translated as, "He doesn't know."

Sumo's appeal, said the stable master, was its place in Japanese tradition. "Sumo has never been considered separately from the lives of Japanese people. Any boy, when old enough to walk, will do sumo, especially on the futon when the beds are put down on the floor at night. It is perfectly natural for us."

Hanakago left to oversee practice. Wajima still had not arrived in his white, 10-million-yen Continental Mark IV. An apprentice came by, speaking of having caught a couple of snakes, from which, when eaten, would come more stamina. He led the way inside the hotel, upstairs, through a maze of identical passages and finally into a cold room. Open windows gave a view of the sea and coastal apartments, docks and refineries. A color TV was on, teaching flower arrangement.

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