I lived in Japan for most of the 1980's. I loved it – really loved it….the people, the culture, the customs - and the sports. One sport that is uniquely (and one could say peculiarly) Japanese is the art of Sumo. I call it an art - because style and custom have as much to do with the performance as the particulars of the sport itself. There are records of Sumo tournaments going back almost 1000 years. That's right - back when Europeans were little more than hovel-dwelling ignoramuses living in fear of black cats and god’s ending the world on a whim - the Japanese had a culture that prized knowledge and skill over superstition and excess religiosity. Sport and theatre were part and parcel of that; formed its basis in many ways.
Now as then - the Japanese live and breathe sumo. Wrestlers are worshipped as heroes - lionized and cosseted as if descended from the royal family itself. Even with that - every so often - a wrestler comes along whose prowess is so exceptional; it bestows an almost god-like status. These men are considered national treasures. Statues are raised in their honor. Women swoon at the mere mention of their names. They are sports hero, rock star and fertility god all wrapped up in one tasty package. In what is called sumo’s ‘recent’ history (the last few hundred years or so) – only three wrestlers have been granted the privilege of retaining their professional name outside of the ring (thus achieving instant immortality). I had the thrill and pleasure of watching one such star’s rise the decade his career shot into the stratosphere.
The man’s name was (and is) Chiyonofuji. It means ‘forever’ – a testament to his stamina and drive. Nick-named “The Wolf” (he had a piercing [and rather unnerving] stare) - Chiyonofuji dominated sumo in a way never before seen. He was the 58th recorded yokozuna (big high poobah) since the ninth century, defending this title in over 1000 matches – and winning the lot:
- 31 Emperor's Cups (for winning 31 tournaments)
- 1 Shukun-sho (Outstanding Performance Prize)
- 1 Kanto-sho (Fighting Spirit Prize)
- 5 Gino-sho (Technique Prize)
- 5 Kinboshi (Gold Star, for when a maegashira [not so high poobah] defeats a yokozuna)
In fact - during his career, Chiyonofuji won every possible title and accolade sumo offers – retiring at age 36 to supervise his own stable, passing the baton to a new generation.
Impressive – don’t you think? I first became aware of Chiyonofuji when a friend’s husband asked if I would like to attend a match. He was a real fanatic – knew every wrestler’s name and ranking. Up till then, my experience had been peripheral at best. I thought sumo a somnambulant sport – slow, plodding – not to mention way too riddled with affectation and excess custom for true enjoyment (I’m more into America’s Cup yachting, actually – or competitive cycling – anything that requires a brain). Sumo = boring – with no intellectual or stratagem components to liven it up. Just a couple fat guys bumping bellies and grunting at one another for effect.
Boy was I wrong! Matches were electric – I mean really electric - like old-time Friday night fights. I used to watch the fights with my father when I was a kid. His older brother (my uncle) was a professional boxer (bare-knuckle variety). My dad too, in his wildly misspent youth – so he loved pugilism as much as his soccer or his music. Eventually I found it all too violent (I am really not into blooded sports) and drifted away. Same thing with wrestling. Too much hoopla and bombast – too little real skill. Not so sumo. I cannot even begin to describe what attending a match was like. Some things just have to be experienced first hand. Music, loud arguments, men wearing heavily embroidered costumes that dated back centuries. And everything had this down-home, revival-hall quality that fair vibrated the skin with excitement and expectation. Totally cool. Hell - even the munchies rocked. I was hooked!
There were many smaller matches leading up to the main event - some lasting mere seconds. It was nothing like the kinds of wrestling we have here - not even close. Once you get past all the bowing and demonstrations of respect (there are tons of these) – it all boils down to one thing: a no holds barred bar brawl between ½ ton titans. Impressive. Really.
But finally we were there – the main event. The mighty Chiyonofuji was going to fight! Excitement rose to a fever pitch – people were hardly able to keep their seats – and that’s saying something in Japan. These people clap politely at rock concerts! I looked around expecting some mountain to come lumbering down the aisle. Not on your life. Chiyonofuji was gorgeous! Dark skin the color of brewed tea - deep, penetrating eyes. I’d have pegged him as Hawaiian or Samoan actually. On top of that - he didn’t look like any sumo wrestler I had ever seen. For one thing – the man weighed about 350 pounds less. Bulk isn’t necessary when you have skill. Tall, well muscled - Chiyonofuji would literally pick up his opponents and toss them out of the ring like so much confetti. The first time I saw him do it I was reminded of Vader’s final disposal of the Emperor (without the special effects).
I’ve included a video that highlights some of his more historic wins – but even that doesn’t do the man justice. I think David Benjamin’s The Joy of Sumo captures Chiyonofuji’s mystique to a ‘T’:
Chiyo, or "the Wolf" as the press liked to call him, retired in May of 1991. He was a wrestler who bore the unmistakable mark of immortality, like Pele or Julius Erving. He quietly forced the entire sumo galaxy to revolve around him. Other sumo wrestlers have recently begun to emulate his regimen, physique and style, but when I began to succumb to the pleasures of sumo back in 1987 there was no one even close to Chiyonofuji.
For one thing, he looked different. He had, f'rinstance, no boobs--just a smooth, granite slab of pectoral muscle. No jellied blankets of suet rippled beneath his skin. His belly, a small hard bulge above his belt, did not bounce like a cantaloupe in a nylon bag. His arms were not the elbowless sausages with baby-fists that seem obligatory among sumo wrestlers. His arms, really, were the striking feature of Chiyonofuji's aspect. They reminded me of the coal miners with whom I once worked, round-shouldered mountain men whose arms were a paradox of mass and dexterity. Such arms are not huge and distended like those on the denizens of Gold's Gym. But they are heavy--too heavy, certainly, to lift with a normal human shoulder--with bulges at forearm and bicep that never seem to relax, as though they've been artfully packed with riverbed stones. Yet, such arms--coal-miner, Chiyonofuji arms--swing and flex with feathery lightness. Chiyonofuji carried truncheons, but moved them like wings.
Chiyo, even without the usual indulgence one grants to the swollen face of the large athlete, was handsome. Not matinee-idol beautiful, but handsome. He affected none of the theatricality of lesser wrestlers; he was almost trancelike in his demeanor from the moment he entered the arena and bowed...to the instant of his victory when--suddenly--he betrayed himself as perhaps sumo's most expressive, emotional competitor.
One noticed Chiyonofuji, irresistibly, because in his face, his body, his skill, one could see the art and discipline of sumo.
Ha cha cha!! But that’s it exactly. The soul of sumo, if you will – in one perfect package. What got me thinking about this? There was a sumo tournament on TV this last weekend and I just couldn’t resist. I was disappointed. Mountain after mountain shambled by – not a Chiyonofuji in the bunch. One yokozuna was so apathetic, he barely tried – allowing competitor after competitor to literally nudge him out of the ring. It was depressing. No fire, no sense of style. No Chiyonofuji. But that’s OK. I saw the best of the best. So arigato, Chiyonofujisan. Domo arigato gozaimasu. ありがとうございました私の友人