In 1989 I was in Japan for six weeks or so on an exchange trip. During that time I discovered NHK’s live coverage of a sumo tournament (or basho), and I was quickly transfixed.
Over the course of the basho I became more and more involved. There is something elemental about sumo – like the Pauli Exclusion principle (using my science background there!), no two sumo wrestlers (or rikishi) may occupy the same ring at the same time. It’s as simple as that.
(First posted 8 May 2002, although it’s been around in one form or another on the web since early 1998.)
And yet it’s not. There is so much history, religious ritual and culture involved; it almost seems in some senses a microcosm of Japanese culture. There are also the people involved, the different styles of attack, sizes and strengths. When I first watched my favourite was Chiyonofuji, the best grand champion (yokozuna) of the last 20 years; his staredowns were legendary and allied with huge strength and technique. My other favourite was Konishiki, the largest rikishi ever, a Hawaiian directly challenging the Japanese in their semi-sacred national sport.
But the one I liked best, was Mainoumi. He was the smallest, and most tricksy of all the top rikishi. (As a comparison, Mainoumi is 173 cm tall and when fighting weighed 98 kg, whereas the aforementioned Konishiki weighed in at 275kg and is 185cm tall!). He was famous for being able to beat even the biggest champion on the good day, by using the most outrageous moves. Because his size made him more manouverable, he could often quickly slip around the back of an opposing rikishi and let the lumbering behemoth’s own momentum complete the job.
His life story is also pretty interesting. Mainoumi (born Nagao Shuhei), while a good sumo wrestler at college level, never believed he would go further and become a professional. Masumi Abe, one of the “gurus” of the sumo mailing list, continues (my editorial insertions in square brackets):
“… Mainoumi (Nagao when he was in college) [was] determined to get into Ozumo. According to his story, while Nagao was in Nichidai [Nihon University in Tokyo], high school national champion Narita from the same town came to Nichidai. Nagao decided to help Narita becoming the best rikishi he can be and treated him just like his own brother. Nagao took care of Narita. Many expected Narita to be a national champion of the future, and makuuchi [high ranking] rikishi after his graduation. Then suddenly Narita died (I don’t remember what exactly happened to him). It was Nagao’s senior year. Nagao was disappointed and disgusted with his close friend’s death. He skipped sumo practice. After many days of thinking about his future, (he was to teach at a high school after graduation), he recognized how short his life could be. Nagao wanted to try what he really want to try, that was Ozumo. Mainoumi said if he did not have experienced Narita’s death, he would be just a teacher teaching social study at a high school near his home town in Aomori.”
Unfortunately, although he had the talent, Mainoumi lacked the physical size to join the ranks of the professionals – he was several centimeters below the minimum height required. In order for him to meet the requirement he had a silicon implant inserted in his scalp. Abe-san says:
"According to Mainoumi, his head was all bloody after the operation and after taking silicon out. He needed to play sumo with bloody head. In his case, a medical practitioner put a bag between the head skin and the skull. As soon as the operated opening of skin closed (more-or-less, because of lack of the time), the health practitioner put silicon small amount at a time, and gradually increase the amount. Since the silicon give pressure between the skull and the skin, it caused the further tension to pull the skin off the skull. Mainoumi said he constantly vomit because of the pain. His friends from college (Nichidai Sumo Team) helped during the difficult time, and keeping the wound clean with towels and the towels getting all bloody because of the unhealed wound on top of the head.The Kyokai has since banned the use of such prosthetics.
“It is sickening even in just listening to Mainoumi’s story.”
Then, in July 1996 he suffered a terrible, almost farcical injury during a bout with the largest rikishi Konishiki. He had already managed to beat Konishiki, but as Konishiki fell he trapped and twisted Mainoumi’s leg, tearing a ligament. A rikishi injured must start in the lower ranks, and work up again. It took him until May 1997 to secure his place in the top rankings again. If you’ve ever seen pictures of Konishiki you would understand why the injury was so serious.
In late 1997 Mainoumi got married. One interesting news report of the time said that he had a good chance to marry the daughter of his stable boss (or oyakata). Instead, he married a nightclub manager, and thus (apparently) gave up his chances of becoming oyakata of his current stable (or heya). As his particular heya, the Dewanoumi heya, is one of the largest and most prestigious, traditionally the Dewanoumi oyakata becomes head of the Sumo Kyokai. Mainoumi gave up a lot for love, said the article, and it went on to praise this as a brave move. It’s hard to imagine this sort of bizarre thing in any other sport. In sumo, after a while, it seems to make sense.
So why was I so interested in Mainoumi in particular? If you had ever seen him fight you would know the answer. Perhaps also I saw him as being similar to me – at least in height and age, anyway. Little else was similar.
Oh, and one last thing. “Gambatte!” means “Go!” or “Get up and Fight!”. I once had plans of getting to the stadium in Tokyo, and yelling “Gambatte Mainoumi!!”. Unfortunately, by the time I get there it will have been years since his retirement. (Life’s like that sometimes.)