Thank you, Bruce and Leonid and all the readers and commenters for another very entertaining tournament. I’m very pleased this one finished so well and it seemed to offer quite a bit of solace and distraction from the news and Covid. During the run-up to the basho, the debate in the Japanese press mentioned how at times of hardship, sumo served to distract/inspire/cheer up the nation.
Sumo is a sport where there’s SO MUCH GOING ON that when you pull on one thread there’s usually an amazing backstory that just pulls you deeper into Japanese culture. Here, we have one such thread (in a literal and figurative sense).
After Tsurugisho’s Juryo yusho last night, the Yamaguchi.shishu Instagram account posted their congratulations with the image of his kesho mawashi. I’m usually asleep during the Juryo dohyo-iri so I had not noticed his kesho mawashi before. I really enjoy their account and I’ve found them not only beautiful but very interesting and I like researching it and the connection to the wrestler — or the dentist. Sometimes it’s a high school symbol or something from their home town…or in Shodai’s case, a random dam in Gunma.
“Is that kid jumping out of a peach? And why is that on a kesho mawashi?”Me (to my wife)
For this one, though, I really didn’t know where to start so I asked my wife. Her eyes lit up and she started singing, “Mo– motaro-san, Momotaro-san, okoshi ni tsuketa kibidango…” That first bit was even in the Instagram post. Then she told me the story of the kid born from a peach to an elderly couple. He then goes on a Hobbit-type quest and defeats some Oni (demons). During the quest he’s picks up a few friends, who basically hang out with him and help him because his kibi-dango are the bomb.
A Little Tangent
Here’s where I’m going to go off on a little tangent and give some advice about studying Japanese. When you’re learning Japanese, do yourself a favor and pick up some childrens’ books. If you’re learning Persian, you’ll probably want to read Rumi. When I was studying Russian and Spanish back in college, our professors would introduce us to their newspapers and rather fine literature. Even back in High School my Latin teacher had us memorizing Caesar’s “Gallic Wars.”
Frankly, I think that’s a bit of a mistake and it’s probably done because high school and college students probably think they’ve outgrown nursery rhymes. That is definitely not-so with Japanese. You will NOT be able to pick up and read a Japanese business newspaper for the very simple fact that you have to learn all of that kanji first! And frankly, before even that you really need to master hiragana, katakana, and a lot of the basic kanji. That’s where childrens’ books come in.
So, swallow your pride and go to the childrens’ section if you ever find yourself in a Japanese bookstore, like Kinokuniya, (Don’t laugh, I go to the one in NYC all the time and I’m pretty sure there are 5 in California, and 3 in Texas — check that, there are 4 — and several more around the country.) If you’re lucky enough to make it to Japan, there’s usually at least one bookstore in every mall and there’s usually at least one mall attached to (or next to) every major train station.
The benefit of having two kids in Japanese school is that we have got a bunch of their text books and other books around the house. Momotaro is one of the more common stories that feature in their books. There’s a two-volume set that I love, pictured above. These feature 366 tales (one story per day).
Back to Momotaro-san
In the version of the story that’s in this book (July 13, in the red volume which covers July-December), the old woman goes to the river to wash clothes. She finds a nice peach floating down the river. She takes it back to her husband and as they’re going to open it, a cheerful baby jumps out. They are quite happy and name him, “Momotaro.”
He grows up healthy. “すくすく育った.” Japanese is full of these repetitive, onomatopoeic words and the kids books are full of them. They’re a huge stumbling block for me when trying to listen to the spoken language.
When he grows up, he decides to go off on his quest to the demons’ lair. As he sets off, he receives kibidango (dumplings) from the old woman. These dumplings are made from a process similar to the way mochi was made at New Year’s with the mortar and pestle. (Sumo’s ties to the mochi-tsuki run deep!) As he’s traveling, a dog, monkey, and then a pheasant accompany him, drawn by the dumplings which he shares with them as they travel.
When they make it to the demons’ hangout on Onigashima, the animals help attack while the oni were all drinking. They defeat the oni and the demon boss apologizes…with his hands on the ground. (“手をついていいました”! And people wonder how I am able to connect sumo to just about anything.) The merry band then travel back home with their plunder. I wonder if they rented the Takarabune to get back to the mainland….
There are a lot of vocabulary and kanji in these simple stories that really help with shikona and understanding basic Japanese. But the key is, it’s not such an impossible hurdle as trying to read a Japanese book about sumo, which usually has no helpful furigana. And these short stories are such bite-size chunks that it’s actually manageable, even early in your studies.
Even better, the great thing about being an adult, is that we understand metaphors and chuckle at the subtext. Just like many legends and Fairy Tales have a darker or “adult” edge, I wonder what the inside of the peach was referring to? Hold up…Venus was born from a “clam,” Athena sprang forth from Zeus’ “head,” Momotaro came from a peach… Dude, ALL these stories are dirty!
Before my thoughts sink deeper into the gutter, let’s get back on topic. What is the connection between Tsurugisho and Momotaro? Well, it’s actually his name! We often forget that shikona, wrestlers’ ring names, include the more famous surname — and a first name!
Hakuho is “Hakuho Sho.” Takakeisho is “Takakeisho Mitsunobu” while Tochinoshin is “Tochinoshin Tsuyoshi.” Tsurugisho chose Momotaro. Whether there’s a deeper personal connection between Tsurugisho and the tale of Momotaro, I’m uncertain. If you know more details, please feel free to drop such knowledge in the comments! If you made it this far, thank you.