Last quarter, I had the amazing opportunity to study in Japan through the Education Abroad Program. While most of the students in my program were concerned with exploring Japanese culture through wearing those pretty kimono dresses and participating in the stimulating tea ceremony, I was determined to find out more about the culture through learning about its sports.
If you were to think of sports that have their origin in Japan, sumo might be the first thing to pop into your head. The image that you get in your head might be two fat, sweaty guys dressed in nothing but a diaper-like garment, furiously trying to push each other out of a ring. That was my impression of the sport, too. However, after actually witnessing sumo as a spectator at one of the main tournaments in Tokyo, I came away with a much more appreciative view of this exciting and traditional sport.
While watching the tournament and conversing with a few people next to me, I learned a little bit about the life of the sumo wrestler, the history and the rules of the sport. While there were various types of wrestling that took place in ancient Japan, professional sumo can be traced all the way back to the 17th century. Most likely, the earliest competitors were samurai who were in need of extra income. Currently, professional wrestlers live with other wrestlers in a stable run by a former sumo competitor. Here in the stable, sumo wrestlers are required to do massive amounts of training and also a great deal of eating. The eating is then followed by napping to help promote extensive weight gain.
The actual sport is very ritualistic and before each match there are certain things that must be completed. First, the competitors come into the ring from opposite sides, are introduced and go through about three cycles of leg stomps, cleaning out their mouths with water, throwing salt to purify the ring and getting in their set positions. The match then begins with the two wrestlers bursting out of their set positions using all of their weight and technique to battle their opponent. A winner is declared when one of the wrestlers is forced outside the circle, called the dohy, or falls off their feet.
I was stunned at how attentive the crowd was and at their vocal responses to the action being unfolded before them. I have to admit that the matches, despite lasting only a few seconds, were very intense and had me on the edge of my seat. I was definitely entertained by all that I saw and experienced.
The other sport that I learned more about while living in Japan was one that might be a little bit more familiar to you: baseball. Fortunately, it was still baseball season when I arrived in September, so I attempted to get tickets to the closest team, the Yokohama Baystars. I was successful, with the help of a Japanese friend, in purchasing tickets from a ticket machine located in the nearest 7-Eleven convenience store.
On the day of the game, a few buddies and I took the train into Yokohama, the second-largest city in Japan. As we approached Yokohama Stadium, I was shocked at how bland and unattractive it was. No overly large portraits of star players and no huge helmets like I usually see when entering Angel Stadium. However, in sharp contrast to the dull, gray stadium, the fans were lively and filled with tons of energy. Fans at American baseball games are primarily concerned with buying $6 cups of beer and disrespectfully booing players from the opposing team, but in Japan the fans actually come out in order to give it their all. Representing both the Baystars and the visiting team, the crowd sang various team songs in unison, displayed huge flags and even played drums and instruments. The atmosphere was great and the crowd continually filled the stadium with cheers and noise. I was amazed at the energy level present throughout the whole event. Even when the game was basically in the bag with the Baystars winning in the ninth inning, fans of the opposing team were still relentless in their cheers and chants.
The game itself was basically the same as it is here in the States. I think that the biggest difference I saw dealt with the arrival of the relief pitchers. I am accustomed to seeing pitchers from the bullpen hustle all the way out to the mound. However, in Japan the pitchers are conveniently transported across the field in a car. Yes, a car picks them up in the bullpen and makes sure they do not break a sweat on their way to the mound.
After the game had come to a close, with the Baystars prevailing 8-1, I left the stadium feeling like I had received a solid glimpse of the baseball scene in Japan. Much like my experience with the sumo tournament, I felt fortunate to have been able to learn about a sport so important to Japan. These sports definitely served as a conduit to understanding more about one aspect of Japan’s interesting culture.