Setsubun is a Japanese festival to celebrate the coming of Spring. It falls on February 3, which should be easy for Americans to remember as the day after Groundhog Day. For non-Americans among Tachiai readership, let’s just say Groundhog Day is a great movie by Bill Murray and leave it at that.*
The ritual at the center of setsubun is the bean throwing, mamemaki (豆撒き), shown here in this tweet found by Herouth (@SumoFollower).
Long ago, in an 英会話 far away, your correspondent was a terrified, socially awkward foreigner in 日吉. I was plopped into a classroom with virtually no training in the middle of October 2003. After a few fits and starts, I was able to grasp the gist of the our school’s methodology: keep the students entertained and help them learn something. There were amazing days and quite a few challenging ones. In this context, when December rolled around I was introduced to the wonderful Japanese custom of the Bonenkai.
Japan has many New Year customs which this blog will highlight with several posts in the coming weeks. Do not worry, their relevance to sumo will be apparent. In this post, I will highlight the Bonenkai. A literal translation of the kanji is “forget the year gathering”. Unlike the many customs, like setsubun, which are family oriented, the Bonenkai is different because it is oriented toward business and friends. This is more similar to “the company Christmas party” in the West. Many businesses will be closed for the first week of the new year so these parties are generally held before that break.
So, for a business person in Japan, December can be a super busy month. Often there will be a Bonenkai with your section or division, then there will be another one with clients, others with friends. This party is generally an alcohol fueled gathering at a local izakaya where colleagues and friends will celebrate the end of the last year. At an izakaya there are no photocopiers, though, so our grand tradition of getting drunk and photocopying our butts is sorely missed. Instead, many izakaya have a karaoke machine which lend themselves to my horrible renditions of 90s grunge classics.
While the name may demonstrate the reason for the party, these gatherings are not dismal affairs. Rather than dwelling on the challenges of the past year, colleagues and friends focus on appreciation for their support and look forward to the new year.
So, with December upon us, I urge Tachiai readers to go out and have your own Bonenkai where we can put this horrible 2017 behind us. Yes, we were blessed with a new Yokozuna and Ozeki only to quickly lose both to the disabled list. We quickly lost two ozeki and our electrifying youngster, Ura, went down to injury. Adding in the fallout from the fight in Tottori, we can see the reasons for our Bonenkai. If you have your own Bonenkai, take pictures and if you share them on Twitter, I’ll retweet and like them.
Rather than dwell on these past challenges, we raise a glass (with a few “Banzai!”) to Hakuho’s 40th, the resurgence of Uncle Sumo (Aminishiki), the continued growth of young talents from Asanoyama to Enho to Wakaichiro, and the comebacks of Endo and Okinoumi. Who will make the next Ozeki run? Takakeisho, Onosho, Tamawashi, Hokutofuji, or other?
Kisenosato and Takayasu had a bit of a homecoming today as the Fall Jungyo made a stop in their home prefecture of Ibaraki. Ibaraki is to the north-east of Tokyo and lies along the Pacific Ocean, south of Fukushima. The Fukuroda Falls are located in the Northern Ibaraki town of Daigo. The capital city is Mito. For those who like natto, Mito natto is supposedly “the bomb”. There’s a mountain called Tsukuba-san and one of the major cities is Tsukuba, home of the well-known University of Tsukuba.
There are two big lakes in Ibaraki called Kasumigaura and Kitaura. Ura means lake and you will recognize it from one famous shikona — no, not Ura (宇良). Ishiura’s “ura” (石浦) means “lake”.
The site of the Jungyo event was in Chikusei city. Chikusei City was created by the merger of several smaller towns with the city of Shimodate. The area is famous for its agriculture and produce, particularly watermelons, pears and strawberries. Chikusei’s website features a mascot (Chikkun) whose body is a watermelon and he has a pear and strawberry in his hat. For example, Tochiotome strawberries come from Ibaraki, as well as neighboring Tochigi and Aichi.
The more I read about Chikusei, the more I want to go. Unfortunately, the website is not really optimized for English. There’s a Google Translate dropdown menu at the top of the page. Look for the kanji for “translate” (翻訳). Hover over it and you’ll see many language options. So, basically you need to recognize the kanji before you can see the translation in your language.
On a tip from Nicolaah, I checked out Kyokara’s Instagram where he shared a map of their trip. お疲れ様です。I hope they’re able to spend tomorrow enjoying the sights and food. Ibaraki is on my list for places to go next time I am in Japan! It’s not far from Tokyo and there are JR Line trains that go out there. I don’t think it will be a little day trip, though.
One thing that stood out to me was the lack of attendance of a representative of the Imperial household at day 1 (or any day) of the Aki basho. Typically the Emperor or the Crown Prince will attend a portion of day 1 of any basho held in the Kokugikan. To my knowledge, this was not the case for Aki. During May’s Natsu Basho, the duty went to Crown Prince Naruhito, who was warmly received by the crowd. Emperor Hirohito (Showa) was a massive sumo fan, and would regularly attend.
Much of this is likely due to the declining health of the current monarch, Emperor Akihito, who will likely abdicate the throne in favor of the Crown Prince, quite possibly at the end of 2018. While purely ceremonial, the presence of the Imperial Household at sumo and other public events is a foundation element of Japanese cultural and civic life.
Japanese taboo regarding the use of strong painkillers is the key difference in athletic injury care when compared with other countries. Many wrestlers with chronic joint injuries would face a life struggling with a delicate balance between managing pain and avoiding addiction. The United States’ well publicized opioid epidemic serves as a cautionary tale in how readily available and easily prescribed narcotics can lead to serious long term battles with addiction. This may be why some foreign wrestlers are seeking care in their home countries. It is notoriously difficult to obtain a prescription for the medicine and strict penalties hinder the importation of these medicines.
This is a very serious issue for athletes, even those in high school and even middle school. With athletics comes injury and often, surgery. When an athlete reaches the professional ranks, they often have numerous procedures under their belt to go along with any trophies earned along the way. A distant relative of Tachiai had a long, successful professional career in one of America’s four major sports. He continues to battle with his own addiction to opioids, a result of treatment for a score of injuries and resulting surgeries.
Two years ago, the Tachiai blog flew to Japan to visit relatives for a few weeks, just as news of the Julie Hamp scandal broke. Mrs. Hamp was just named as one of Toyota’s executives and as a female, her ascension brought wide news coverage. However, that coverage paled in comparison to the coverage of her fall when she was caught importing opioids hidden in jewelry boxes.
My wife was terrified when we landed in Japan. I joked that, “at least we’re not in Taiwan, the airports there have big signs pronouncing in bold letters that you risk the death penalty for bringing drugs into that country.” She didn’t find me funny. It was also very interesting to see how her friends reacted when they heard her tell the story. The taboo is certainly real.
In the US, however, it is quite easy for doctors to turn to the morphine genie. When another pebble pops loose from one of my kidneys and begins to meander down to my bladder (the last one looked more like a shard of glass than a “stone”) holy crap that hurts. When I make it to the Emergency Room, I am inevitably treated with a morphine drip, a quick MRI scan to see where it is and how big, then I’m sent home with a prescription for opioids. Thankfully none of mine have been large enough to remove surgically. Perhaps that should be “unfortunately,” though, as it means I must let them find their way out, naturally.
My kidney woes crop up every couple of years so thankfully I don’t have to dance with the devil in the medicine cabinet because I don’t keep it around. I know it’s dangerous to have that stuff, especially with the kids around, so I rely on those IV drips at the hospital when I get the pain, which isn’t often. But athletes face this kind of treatment on a continual basis, particularly with chronic joint or muscle issues. If Terunofuji, Kotoshogiku, Aminishiki, and Osunaarashi were athletes in the United States, they would certainly be provided opioids on an almost continual basis. As a result, they would be in prime danger for opioid addiction. I believe this aversion to opioid treatment leads to many of the ongoing injury issues we witness basho after basho.
This is conjecture, but I believe the NSK feels that if the rules were loosened for rikishi, this would not only lead to addiction among wrestlers, it would bring yakuza back into the sport. With the door opened for sumo wrestlers to be routinely treated with opioid pain killers, inevitably some of those pills would trickle out of the stables and into the general population as athletes supplement their income.
Is a few days pain worth a couple of hundred dollars? This isn’t fantasy. This tradeoff is happening here in the US every day and my dad’s cousin is an example. And if the pills and pain can be traded, is it necessary to begin with? To me, this is where the danger of socialized medicine makes itself known, unnecessary tests and unnecessary treatment – including OTC and prescription medication – become rife when someone else is paying. It’s already an issue for deep-pocketed insurance companies and it becomes a bigger one for deep pocketed sovereign governments. (Ask the NHS.)
The first time I had a kidney stone, I was lucky enough to be at home. When the doctor handed me the oxycodone prescription, my dad (also a physician) reached over and plucked it out of my hands, ripped it up, and threw it away. “You won’t be needing that.” My dad’s a smart dude. I didn’t need it. I passed the stone later that day and it would be two years before my next stone. The risk of addiction and abuse is high, and so is the temptation to make a few bucks in the black market. Who’s to say a sekitori won’t start cutting his pills in half so he can trade the other half away?
According to the Japan Times, Americans consume 243.79mg of oxycodone per capita. Japanese consume the drug at the miniscule rate of 3.63mg per capita. Much of that treatment goes to cancer patients. But this article claims that even among cancer patients, there is a strong taboo when it comes to the use of opioids while in the US it is standard “palliative care” for terminal diseases.
(Note: I also wonder if this plays into the low birth rate as Japanese women do not seem to have the same access for epidurals…but I digress.)
As many of the readers here at Tachiai know, I took the big step of taking a trip to Tokyo to watch sumo live at the Kokugikan. While I thoroughly enjoyed myself, and found the trip quite rewarding, I thought I would share some of the details of the trip to help anyone considering doing the same.
Flying To Japan – JAL 065
Although I have a large number of miles and some decent status on American Airlines, I chose to fly to Tokyo on JAL. There were a number of reasons why. Firstly, I was traveling over with a long term friend who lives in San Diego. The JAL flight left from there, and was on a Boeing 787, a composite body aircraft that operates at higher cabin pressure than the 777 alternative. This translated into less jet lag, and a more comfortable trip all around. It should also be noted that the JAL economy class seats are really very nice. Wider and with more space between them than any of the US carriers provide.
As you might expect, the Japanese flight crew were the acme of customer service, attention and all around professionals. The entire trip was a notch or two above my typical international flight on American. The food was very good, too.
Living In Japan – Air BnB
Hotels in Japan cost a fortune. Space is at a premium, and accommodations for westerners, who are usually looking for more space, tend to run $300 / night more more. My friend decided to try Air BnB, and scored what in my opinion was a major coup. We rented an entire house in Sumida, just 3 blocks from the Kokugikan for about half of what we would pay for a hotel. But let’s be clear. This house was small, no, this house was tiny.
The footprint was about 12′ x 12′. When we ended up meeting the neighbors, they were surprised that two full sized Americans were living in that house. One of them said, “My house is small, but that house is too small!”. One of them referred to it as the “Rabbit Hutch”.
We found the house to be a tiny delight. Yeah, there were several adjustments we had to make to the very limited space, but it was RIGHT THERE. Sleeping was on tatami mats, and for Americans used to sleeping on beds, it took a couple of days before one could feel comfortable sleeping that way. But once used to it, I will admit my back never felt better.
Due to the preponderance of convincence stores and everything else in this neighborhood, we wanted for nothing. In fact, we were next door to a really fantastic smelling curry shop, that we kept not being able to catch open and serving food. Until the last couple of days, and then it was “Jackpot!”.
Watching Sumo – Kokugikan
Being 3 blocks away from the center of the sumo universe has many advantages. Firstly, no train rides fighting the crowds to or from the stadium. Secondly, you see rikishi going about their daily lives everywhere. Yes. there is the language barrier, but the Japanese public are kind, friendly people who never fail to go out of their way to help you or try to make you feel welcome in their country.
The staff at the Kokugikan include guides who speak a variety of different languages, and they will not only help you find your seat, but can help you figure out where everything is. If you catch them in the morning before it gets busy, they may even take you around and show you the stadium if you want.
I purchased my tickets through buysumotickets.com. They were not cheap, but they did an excellent job, and we had some fantastic seat. One day we were sitting on the 2nd floor, in the “chair” seats, but I was 6 seats away from the Imperial box. The view was frankly unparalleled. But if you go for the early matches, you will find the Kokugikan largely empty until Juryo. So feel free to go downstairs and check out the view of the zabuton. But do take your shoes off. In fact, you may want to consider taking slip on / off shoes with you to Japan, as you will be out of your shoes and into house sandals or slippers all the time.
There were an impressive amount of non-Japanese folks at the basho. It gave me a renewed appreciation of the potential for Sumo to be a global sport. The other thing that surprised me is that large blocks of tickets seem to go daily to groups. One day it seems to have been the little old ladies club, the next day it was the Salaryman’s Drinking Union or something like that. Around the start of Makuuchi, big groups (200+) would stream into the Kokugikan and all sit together in the same section. The other group we could always count on were the high school groups. It seemed each day 3-6 groups of highschoolers would take up several sections.
The other thing of note. Between 1:30 and 2:30, the sekitori show up at the Kokugikan. Usually this is a public affair, and they walk right down the side alley between the train station and the stadium, with their retainers in tow.
Also, as they arrive, they stop by both he guard booth, where they check in, and this tent. At the tent, the drop off their mobile phone, which is placed in a ziplock baggie, and placed in a metal box. I am going to guess this is a rule that was put in place after the betting scandals from a few years ago.
I happened to be very lucky, and I encountered Wakaichiro in the Kokugikan on day 2 after his match. In person he is the nicest fellow you could ever meet, and I am quite delighted he took the time to say hello to one of his fans and talk for a few minutes. I am sure the he had many chores waiting for him back at the stable.
Living In Japan – Food
You can eat yourself to death in Japan. There is so much good food everywhere that you can’t really go wrong. The biggest challenge once again is the language barrier. I used two applications to help me augment my somewhat shaky Japanese skills:
VoiceTra – this is a voice to voice translator. Say something in English into it, it spits out a guess of what you said in Japanese. It also shows you a round trip transaction – it passes the Japanese back re-translated to English. This helps you figure out if it guessed wrong on what you meant. It also shows you the phrase it spoke in Japanese in Kana, which is even more useful. When I got stuck, I pulled this thing out and it really helped.
Yomiwa – This is your Kanji cracker. You can take a picture of something in Kanji (say a menu) and use Yomiwa to tell you what it says. You can use a live feed from your camera, or snap a still and detect the text a few glyphs at a time. Using this tool, I was able to figure out the menus of a few of local eateries. Very helpful
Some places to eat, you get a menu. Some places you have a vending kiosk that allows you to select your food and some options. You put in your money and it spits out a printed receipt that you give to the cook and they prepare you food. Actually very fast, easy and works well if you are not quite up to stumbling through some spoke Japanese to order.
Oh, and that curry place next to the tiny house? We finally caught them open. It’s an older couple who seem to only serve the lunch crowd. Their little place can seat no more than 15 at a time. We were treated to Katsu Curry of a most remarkable flavor that it’s worthless to try and describe it. It was well worth the effort to catch them open
In summary, the entire Tokyo trip was somewhat out of the ordinary, even for folks who want to go see sumo. But I will confess that my appreciation for the sport and it’s place in the culture has been greatly expanded by my visit. I encourage our readers here at Tachiai to consider doing the same, as it is a worthy aspiration.
As many of our readers know, I was fortunate to have an opportunity to travel to Japan for the first week of the Natsu basho this year. It was my first time back in Japan for 30 years, and it was quite a wonderful trip to make. I have promised Andy and others a recount of my adventures there, with tips for other sumo fans wishing to go. That should be posted soon.
But the first thing that hits me is the Japanese nature of sumo, and how it interlocks with the Japanese culture. Those of us who are not in Japan can get our sumo through both official and unofficial means. Official being the 25 minute daily highlight show on NHK World and the unofficial being the wonderful content on youtube.com from Jason’s All Sumo Channel, Kintamayama and One and Only.
Why is it the rest of the world only gets a subset of the bouts in Makuuchi? A hint came to me watching sumo live in the Kokugikan. The pacing is a tough sell to world sports fans that insist on rapid, continuous action. Most people who follow sports find things like baseball too slow, where nothing much might happen for minutes at a time. When the NFL recently started inserting more commercials into football broadcasts, it helped induce their catastrophic drop in ratings. When fans watch football (soccer) in Europe or rugby, the periods are non stop, no commercial festival of people running crazy on a big grassy field. Even then fans sometimes think it’s too slow and awkward – just give us the part where they try for a goal.
Sumo is a few seconds of combat surrounded by minutes of ceremony. Fans like those who read this blog are into the entire package, we dig the ceremony, we dig the build up to battle. We like that each day the intensity and stakes of the matches increase until we end our day watching the top men of sumo slugging it out for the championship.
Sitting in the Kokugikan, there were no announcers in Japanese or English. There is just you and sumo. No overlay graphics showing history, winning moves or the kanji if each rikishi’s shikona at giant size. This is what I would call “Actual” or “Organic” Sumo. Even watching the telecast on NHk with either english or japanese audio subtracts quite a bit from the organic experience.
I submit that this experience, either live or broadcast, does not translate well, and does not offer much appeal to average human beings or even average sports fans. If you “get” the ceremony, and feel the connection it has to the sport, you can and usually do become a sumo fan, and you chafe that these elements are removed from what is packaged and fed to us. It would be as if a great Western had cut out the story behind the gunfight, and just showed two men drawing their weapons in the middle of the street.
It is clear that sumo, as it is constituted right now, is made in Japan for Japanese people living in Japan. It’s not really exported in a form that would make it a world product. In fact, when discussing this with Japanese fans at the Kokugikan, they are completely baffled why foreigners want to watch sumo at all.
It was clear from the stands at the Kokugikan that Sumo has a global appeal, as the second floor chair seats were well populated with fans of European, African and Indian ancestry. But the men who run and control both sumo and the media spectacle that is packaged around sumo are only now starting to realize that there is a significant income and licensing stream possible outside of Japan.
Japan as a culture is very slow to change any traditional institution, and sumo is a very traditional institution. But the time has come for the NSK and the NHK to embrace sumo for the world. I would suggest the following steps
TheNSK should appoint/hire foreign language/culture liaisons. These people would ensure that education, outreach and licensing for sumo and sumo merchandise are set up in foreign countries. This could and should open the door for fandom to grow and flourish outside of Japan
TheNHK needs to package and make available an expanded sumo feed. I would suggest everything from the Juryo dohyo-iri to the end of Makuuchi. As NHK is now turning more to streaming for global content delivery, this could and should be a value add subscription delivered over streaming content systems. This would allow both NHK and NSK to judge if there is a market for sumo, and it would also make Jason and Kintamayama’s hard work to bring us expanded sumo coverage redundant. And let’s be clear, both NHK and NSK are working to find ways to limit and eliminate Jason and Kintamayama.
I urge them to take a page from the American playbook. If someone is beating you at what should be your own game, put them on the payroll, and let them teach you how to improve your product. Those world sumo liaisons? Jason is already in Japan, Kintamayama is fairly fluent in Japanese, and would be a great resource for advocating broader following of sumo world wide.
Are we likely to see any of this come to pass? Only if us fans urge NHK and NSK to start thinking bigger.