July 2, 1999
On June 11, 1976, in South Bend, Indiana, an 8 day old baby was going to the bathroom (probably).
On the same day in Czechoslovakia, a 49 year old man, a persecuted writer of banned ideas, was writing a short essay about a Marxist philosopher. (The writer was Ludvik Vaculik, of course)
Almost exactly 23 years later, in Japan, the first person was reading the second person's essay while going to the bathroom.
What are the odds?
And now what you have all been waiting for. Last weekend (June 26, to be exact), my friend Jeff and I entered the only all-foreigner Sumo tournament in Japan. It was held in Anamizu, Ishikawa prefecture, which is about 6 hours away by car. While only foreigners may enter the tournament, it is real sumo, with a referee, in a real dohyo (sumo ring), and with a real mawashi (diaper). The mawashi covers even less than a diaper, though. It's more like a thong diaper, if you can imagine that. It is also not made of the softest material. Enough said.
As if wearing a mawashi wasn't embarrassing enough, when Jeff and I arrived the changing room was full, so we had to put it on (or have it put on us) in the parking lot. Yay. Then, when we joined the rest of the competitors we had to put up with the seemingly requisite raised eyebrows, giggles, and (in my case) comments about natural red-heads from our "friends." It cost us 1,000 yen (about $8) to enter the tournament, but it was free for spectators. I think this is a bit silly -- we should have been paid, and those camera-toting "friends" should have been charged for the privilege of capturing the event on film.
Sumo is basically a very simple sport. There is a circular ring about 8-10 feet in diameter. The first person to touch anywhere outside the ring, or to touch the ground with anything but their feet, is the loser. The two combatants push and shove and pull and twist in an effort to get their opponent out of the ring or push them to the ground. It is simple, and yet, as we found out, anything but easy.
The first event was a short lesson with a local high school sumo team. This consisted of stretches and a pushing exercise, but very little actual instruction. Also, any modesty that I had managed to retain was completely lost during the stretching. Then, the real wrestling started.
First there was a team competition, a round-robin tournament of 3-5 person teams. Each person was assigned one of five "weight classes," although these were very loosely defined. Jeff, for example, was placed with the heaviest group, and I was placed with the second-heaviest, even though I weigh more than he does.
For my first match, I was very nervous. I seemed to move very slowly, and I kind of froze, and while it was somehow close I stepped out just before pulling my opponent out after me. I got mad at myself, though, and I was glad that my second match was against the same guy. This time, I just grabbed him and pushed him out backwards in about 4 seconds. I was just as surprised as he was, but it felt good. My third match was the same thing, only this time it took about 3 seconds, and I was gaining confidence. Then I saw my next opponent, all 260 pounds of him. I pushed, he didn't move. He pushed, I fell down. Match over. However, there are two caveats: one, he hit me pretty hard on the head to knock me down, and I found out later that this is technically illegal in sumo (along with punching and kicking). Second, the organizers realized that they had made a mistake, and I was never supposed to wrestle him anyway.
Then came the single-elimination individual tournament. After a bye in the first round, I had a tough second round match against a guy who was a bit bigger than me. He had a better position, but I was stronger, so he couldn't push me out. Then, I managed to twist him so that he lost he balance and fell on his arm. The third round match was also very close, but unfortunately I lost. Also, I caught a fingernail under the other guy's mawashi and bent it bad pretty badly, so much that is was bleeding rather profusely. The last event was a "King of the Mountain" type thing, but I was too tired and my finger hurt too much.
In this last event, anyone who can win 3 matches in a row gets a plaque, so people just lined up and took turns. After being placed in the heaviest division, and then wrestling the 3-(now 4-) time defending champion in the individual tourney, Jeff was unofficially branded the unluckiest competitor there when he won two matches in a row three separate times, always losing the third match.
All in all, we had fun. In matches I was 3-3, but on paper (including forfeits and with that one match disallowed) I was 6-2. I was also exhausted. The next day I was so sore I could barely move, and a week later I still have some nasty bruises on my arms. I think I can safely say that my sumo career is over. But I know what you are all asking yourselves -- where are the pictures? Well, the still photographs and videotape (every match was taped) are being closely guarded. But you will see them in due time. As in, when I'm 64.