Saturday, March 17, 2007

Kombat Kulcha VIII

Checking my records, I find I have not blogged for a full month; and today is St. Patrick's Day, a big event in Matsue, so I feel I should post some notes concerning Sumo, and the most recent conversation I had with Mr. Y while driving to Yonago to do some kickboxing. The conversations are the best part of the Yonago kickboxing trips, mostly because I get 2 hours of Japanese practice and sometimes as little as 25 minutes' kickboxing practice - Mr. Y leaves his work late, and we often arrive at class halfway through.

When I told Mr. Y that I had been watching the Spring Sumo tournament (as I am watching it now while I type this) he was most amused. His amusement served to open a conversation about Sumo - which is rally a bit strange, as far as fighting arts go - and its significance, which is stranger still in some regards. Sumo, Mr. Y informed me, is a sport conducted in front of the Gods, and therefore is an essential component of Japanese civilisation. It has all the necessary ingredients to be an essential component of Japanese civilisation:
  • it is incredibly formalised
  • it happens in line with the seasons, except that
  • the number of times it happens is a bit odd
  • it is a bit odd
  • it is a religious festival and everyone knows this
  • in practice it just looks like a big picnic
It is an essential component of all culturally important, seasonal religious festivals in Japan that they be just like a big picnic. Sumo, I admit, does have a central stage where some guys have a fight; but everything that goes on around them is just like a big picnic. While they prepare to fight a chap wanders about sweeping the stage off; even though attendance is apparently difficult and expensive to secure, the audience sit around on large cushioned benches, eating the picnics they brought with them and waving at the camera; people wander in and out of the walkway by which the (religiously significant, almost holy) wrestlers enter the ring, slapping them on the shoulder, taking photos of them or wandering off to find the toilet; and throughout there is a general confused babble of talking and movement as people come and go, play with their kids, call their friends on the phone. It is just like being at a beach bbq, if the only sandy part of the beach were just large enough for two very fat men to throw each other out of.

Nonetheless, everything which occurs in that small part of the beach is of profound importance. The ring must be sanctified before the fight starts; each wrestler must drink from a cup of purified water before entering the ring, and must be given this water by the last victor to leave so there is a continuous chain of purification going on; before the important wrestlers start, the grandmaster (of whom, like the Emperor, their can be only 1) must perform a ritual dance; and before every fight there must be a ritualised ceremony involving a bit of some kind of special dance, a bit of intimidation and psyching, and a fair amount of slapping of one's own arse. At the end of the day a wrestler comes back to the ring with a special longbow and performs another dance to finish the days' events. The referee is (according to Mr. Y) something between a referee and a Shinto priest (and he talks like a shinto priest); and when they interview wrestlers the presenters have to be very very polite. The wrestlers in their turn have to be extremely humble, lest someone get the impression that just because they are the best wrestler in the world they might actually think they were good at something. In this regard the Japanese value the same trait of humility which everyone in Australia (except our cricket team) values.

Interestingly the current grandmaster is not Japanese - he is from Mongolia, where a sport like Sumo wrestling is also popular. Mr. Y revealed to me that this Mongolian chap - Asashoryu, or "morning blue dragon" - is a very popular sportsman in Japan, as is the Bulgarian Kotooshu. In fact every time Asashoryu moves, walks or breathes in the ring area he gets a cheer, so popular is he. Right now on the television they are broadcasting pictures of his father, and earlier they had a little background trip to Mongolia to show where he grew up. Such is the Japanese kindness to foreigners, which enables me to spend 2 hours discussing their national sport with Mr. Y even though I can barely talk with him in his own language and he cannot speak mine at all.

I suppose, however, that one would expect such respect from a nation which aspires to the finest of national ideals - a religiously imbued combat art as its national sport. This, my friends, is the very epitome of combat culture.


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