The traditions of sumo stretch back more than 1,500 years into Japanese history. The sport, as we know it today, involves both strength and skill. The wrestlers typically weigh around 160 kilograms (350 pounds). When they collide in the ring, the force can be felt throughout the arena and around the world. NHK WORLD-JAPAN’s Raja Pradhan provides play-by-play analysis in English for fans across the globe. On a visit to our program, he told us about some of the attractions of the sport and what to look for. Later on, we introduce the show GRAND SUMO Highlights, on which Raja also appears, and some episodes from Sumopedia, on the program's website.
Living in Japan. Hello everyone and thanks for tuning into our show. I'm Ruth. I'm Stuart.
Living in Japan is a program for international residents in Japan, now or in the future.
We share hints and tips to make the most of your life here.
Ruth, you told me that you like golf. Yes.
I like to play golf too. I'm not very good at it though. But as a sport to watch, my choice is Japanese wrestling, sumo.
Sumo? I like watching that too. But I actually don't know that much about it.
So I never know how to explain it to my friends. Or many of my friends from overseas ask me to explain, and I don't know the finer points.
I think you're not alone in that. But today, we're going to solve that problem.
Our guest is a play-by-play announcer who can tell us the ins and outs of sumo.
Excellent. Let's get started. Okay.
HINTS FROM SENPAIOkay, it's time for our main section, Hints from Senpai.
Senpai is a Japanese word for someone who has more knowledge or experience.
Every single show, we welcome a senpai who can tell us how to do things better.
Indeed. And today's guest is Raja Pradhan. He's a regular anchor for NHK NEWSLINE, a TV news program on NHK WORLD-JAPAN, and also a play-by-play announcer for grand sumo in English.
Raja, welcome. Thank you so much guys, for having me.
Terrific. Thank you for coming along. As I mentioned, I love watching sumo. So, I'm really excited today. Can you tell us how long you've been involved with it?
Well, I've been doing the play-by-play for nearly twelve years now. I was born and raised here in Japan, so I knew about the traditional sport to some extent.
But I had to study a lot for doing the commentary especially its history and techniques, and I'm still studying.
What is it that you like about sumo?
Well, sumo is not only about what happens in the ring, where wrestlers called Rikishi clash into each other wearing nothing but a Mawashi loincloth.
The sport actually entails the traditional rituals and customs from centuries ago, and every action has a meaning. And that's why the more you learn about sumo, the more you get attracted to it.
I appreciate the meritocracy of sumo and I love the fact that the only tools that the wrestlers bring to the ring are their bodies and their minds and their skills.
But as Raja said, many people from overseas get into sumo because of its history and its culture. So can you tell us more about that?
Definitely. Stuart, as you know, sumo is without a doubt one of the most Japanese of sports.
It was originally a court function and it's said to have a history of about 1500 years. What?
Yes, and both were held in front of the emperor and their outcome provided insights into how the year would turn out.
And that's actually the earliest form of sumo. Sumo then took place to pray for a good harvest and world peace, as well as to put up a show of strength to entertain the Shinto deities.
And in the 18th century, commercial sumo tournaments began to be held across Japan and it turned out to become an extremely popular form of entertainment, along with Kabuki and Bunraku.
And today, the sport is known as grand sumo. Wrestlers with an average weight of more than 160 kg, or 350 lb., clash in the sacred ring to claim the Emperor's Cup.
The history is fantastic. So fascinating.
And the grand sumo tournaments are held every other month. Three times in Tokyo and once each in Osaka, Nagoya, and in Kyushu. But those aren't the only opportunities for people to watch sumo, right? Exactly.
There's a provincial tour in-between tournaments, they're called Jungyo. They're focused on entertaining fans who live far from those venues.
Yes, and you can watch practice sessions, bouts between the top rankers, and even some comical sumo that teaches you the dos and don'ts of the sport, the forbidden bits. Yeah.
So, you get to really see the Rikishi up close, and if you're lucky, you can even get a picture with them. So, I really think this is a perfect opportunity for fans to interact with wrestlers when they're relieved from all the pressure during contests.
Yeah, they're great. They're really, really good. Yes.
Okay, but let's get back to basics. What are the essential things someone needs to know to understand what's going on in a sumo match?
Well, first of all, sumo is fought in the ring called a Dohyo.
It's about four and a half meters across, and Rikishi wins a bout by forcing his opponent out of the Dohyo or by making him touch the ground with any part of his body except the soles of his feet, using techniques such as a throw.
And over 600 Rikishi currently compete in grand sumo. And the interesting thing is, there are no weight classes. So, a wrestler locks horns with his opponent no matter how much taller or heavier he is.
And that's why a David and Goliath situation always brings the crowd to its feet.
So the Rikishi are divided into six divisions by ability on the official listing of ranks called the Banzuke. And the highest division is known as Makunouchi, and that includes the top dogs reigning at the summit of the hierarchy, such as Yokozuna and Ozeki.
And Stuart, you must know, but grand summer tournaments run for 15 days in a row, and the man with the most victories at the end is the winner, who grabs the Emperor's Cup.
Brilliant. Now, if you're watching on TV, you'll probably only see the top bouts, but there are many, many more in a typical day of sumo.
Wow. Wait a minute. So, I've watched it on TV, and it felt very long, but there's even more than that!? So, if you went to the arena, how long does it take to see the whole thing?
Oh, I mean, the doors basically open at around 8:30 in the morning, and the bouts kick off right away, starting from the lowest Jonokuchi division, and it moves up the sumo pyramid all the way to the top Makunouchi division.
And everything wraps up at 6:00 p.m. So it's a full day, and if you have a ticket, you can, of course, watch the matches from the morning. But a lot of people, as Stuart said, tend to arrive at around 3:00 p.m. to watch the top two divisions, Juryo and Makunouchi.
Okay, well, I have an interesting question for you. There's a type of bento I know of called Makunouchi bento that has a lot of side dishes. And you just said that the Makunouchi is the top division of sumo. Yeah.
So, are these two things related? Is that a crazy question?
That is a great question. There are actually quite a few stories behind the origin of the Makunouchi bento. And these lunchboxes are said to have been eaten by spectators watching Kabuki or other forms of theater during the Edo period.
And “maku” means curtain, and “uchi” means inside in Japanese. So, people enjoyed these meals while the actors were behind the curtain during intermission. And the rice balls, or called Omusubi, inside the boxes are said to be made small enough for people to eat easily and quickly, just pop it in their mouth during the break. Sure.
And that seems to have been linked with Komusubi, which is one of the ranks within grand sumo's top division of Makunouchi. All right. That is so interesting.
There are many different stories behind it, but as far as I know.
So we can buy or eat a lunch at the venue. Is that correct? And what are some of the unique pleasures you can enjoy at the venue, or what is the seating like?
Yes. First, eating and drinking at the venue is permitted.
That's possible. And seating wise, there are basically three types of seats at every venue. The Tamariseki are the ringside seats where Rikishi can come flying at you.
So, it's actually pretty dangerous. Oh, yeah.
And children and the elderly are not allowed there. Okay.
Only you have to be at least 16 years old to be able to sit around the ring. And the Masuseki, or box seats with cushions, cover the first floor in each of these venues and are the most popular.
You've probably heard of them. But these are mostly for two or four people. I recommend the box for two, even if it gets a little pricey, because a four-seater really leaves you no space at all to extend your legs and relax.
And we also have the chair seats on the second floor. And for those of you who don't want to get squished into a box on the first floor, I strongly recommend the front rows of these chair seats because you get a perfect bird's eye view of the entire Dohyo, and I really recommend that angle.
And watching sumo live is just a totally different experience from seeing the action on TV.
And I'm sure the sound of the initial charge called Tachiai between the titans will surprise you, and the entire atmosphere, the ambiance of the stadium, is like taking a trip to the Edo period.
Now, when you do though, I recommend the Hanamichi-masuseki. Okay.
Now, the Hanamichi is on the east and the west side, and that's where the Rikishi walk into the ring. Now, if you get one right on that Hanamichi on that aisle seat, you can see the Rikishi as they come in. Perfect photo opportunity. It is, yeah, absolutely.
Now, we can also enjoy a variety of food at the venue as well, Raja. Yes.
So, Ruth and Stuart, if you do plan to head to the Ryogoku Kokugikan in downtown Tokyo anytime soon, there's one must-try gourmet menu. And you know, the stalls sell bento boxes. They also have Makunouchi bento.
They also have bento boxes featuring popular Rikishi, the top division people. But I definitely recommend eating the yakitori or grilled chicken skewers. There's actually--maybe even you, Stuart, you won't know--but there's a huge yakitori factory in the basement of the Kokugikan. Okay. That's interesting.
The yakitori is so delicious, they usually sell out quickly. And actually, to go there, be sure to check when the tickets go on sale, since they usually sell out in an instant, as they're available online.
I'm really bad at that, like, when it sells out at an instant, getting a ticket. But my son is super good at it, so I'm going to ask him. I'm sure all of us listeners, everyone listening, has somebody in their circle of friends who can do this. So get them to do it. Yeah.
GOOD TO KNOWNow it's time for Good to Know. Today, we will share with you a TV program from NHK WORLD-JAPAN that Raja is a huge part of: GRAND SUMO Highlights. Raja, take it away.
GRAND SUMO Highlights is a recap of the day's top division bouts, and it provides quick analysis during the 15 days of a tournament for those especially for who are unable to catch the live broadcast.
Okay, this is so helpful, right? Let's hear a little bit of Raja doing his play-by-play.
All right. This is one of the key bouts I did for day eight of the March 2023 Grand Sumo Tournament. It's between AOIYAMA and then sole leader MIDORIFUJI.
Here's our first highlight bout of day eight. The only unblemished man, MIDORIFUJI, seven wins goes head-to-head with AOIYAMA from Bulgaria, who has four and three. Seventy-two kg. weight difference here. Good hit by AOIYAMA and thrusting away, but MIDORIFUJI doesn't budge.
MIDORIFUJI staying in contention. AOIYAMA loses his balance. Left hand outside grip for MIDORIFUJI on the left, trying to break his balance once again. But AOIYAMA circles around well, but now has no more space.
Superb! Wow. That was great. I don't even have to go. No.
It was so clear the way you explained it. It’s much better if you go there.
Okay, I will try to go. Brilliant.
Other than GRAND SUMO Highlights during a tournament, we also broadcast a related program called Grand Sumo Preview, which looks at what's at stake in the upcoming contest and provides analysis on the previous meet.
And that's on air two days before each tournament. So, the next one is scheduled for Friday, May 12th. And I usually file reports for this show in one of the segments called Sumopedia.
And if you are interested, there are tons of mini-clips explaining the tradition and rules of sumo on the GRAND SUMO Highlights website, so please check that out.
And all you need to do is click the Sumopedia tab, and along with those videos of traditions, customs, there's a section called Raja's Reports where I actually visited stables and other locations related to sumo to dig deep into the unknown features of the sport.
One of the video series mini-series you do is the sumo exercise. And that's really helpful for people who want to lose weight and get healthy because they're really, really good.
What other things do you present?
Well, one of the first reports I did was when I spent a full day at a stable called a Heya to experience the life of Rikishi. And I tried their daily morning practice, took a bath and ate lunch with them, saw them take a nap, the whole deal. Wow.
There's another where I introduce how to watch sumo at the Kokugikan. So for you Ruth, maybe this will be your starter. Okay.
And I've also put on a Mawashi belt myself numerous times for the show and challenged Rikishi and former Rikishi to learn the basics and skills of sumo from them.
And that's actually really helped me in my live commentary to explain some of the techniques, in detail.
Now, viewers around the world learn a lot about sumo from you, but what have you learned by doing these reports?
Well, one of the big things I learned is that Rikishi are really superstitious in many ways, and they do whatever they can for good luck, especially during a tournament. And they would change the color of their Mawashi belts if they have consecutive losses for a long period of time.
When they have a huge stew called Chankonabe that is full of nutritious meat and vegetable, many tend to eat just chicken during a tournament and not be for pork. And that's because unlike cows or pigs who stand on four legs, chickens stand firmly on two. Oh!
And that's exactly how Rikishi you want to be to win about, right? Brilliant.
Yes. And needless to say, the most appealing aspect of this traditional sport is the rituals. There's meaning to every single action on the Dohyo. As Rikishi prepare for their bout, they sprinkle salt into the ring to purify the sacred circle. They perform stamping with their feet called Shiko. It's not just to stretch their lower body, but to pacify the evil spirits beneath them.
The wrestlers also clap their hands before a bout and rub them as if they're cleansing their hands before entering a Shinto shrine. You know, when you go to a shrine in Japan, you see people washing their hands with a ladle at the entrance, and that comes from that.
And also, they raise their arms high in the air to prove that they're not carrying any weapons. Any weapons. That’s why!
So, all these actions are just so fascinating and contrary to the battle itself. And it makes watching sumo even more sensational once you understand the meaning behind them.
And this really shows sumo is not just a sport, but an essential part of Japanese culture. Oh, yeah, absolutely.
So, Raja, tell us again how to watch this program. Sure.
Please search for GRAND SUMO Highlights and visit the website.
The recap of each day will be available during a tournament and a few weeks after it's over. And along with Sumopedia, there are tabs you can jump to for getting details on wrestlers, techniques and the basics of sumo.
Now, what advice would you give to newcomers to sumo?
Well, first, sumo is a game of balance. And what you see on the Dohyo is exciting enough. And I told you about the David and Goliath situation when the little man tramples one of the biggest men in sumo.
But it's really not just the sheer power and the technique, but the mentality is really key to get through 15 days. Even if you're a high-ranked man, if you're not mentally stable, if you're not mentally fit, you won't be able to get through the 15 days.
Everything is just so packed in sumo, along with the traditions. That's why it makes it so unique and fun to watch. Yeah, it's fantastic. Really.
Now, NHK WORLD-JAPAN has a community of sumo fans on its official Facebook page.
So if that sounds like you, please make your way there. Raja, thank you so much for coming by. Yeah, thank you so much for coming.
No, thank you so much for having me. It's been brilliant. It was fun.
ENDINGAll this talk about sumo made me want to eat some Chankonabe.
Yeah, and it sounds so delicious. And the yakitori, the chicken, also sounded really good. Oh yeah. Maybe it'll help us with our balance.
Help us with our balance? I don't know. If you eat too much Chanko, you get too big.
Maybe you lose balance. That's true.
Well, wherever you are, you're always invited to dig into our program. You can listen online too. Go to NHK WORLD-JAPAN's website, click on On-Demand, choose Audio, and find Living in Japan.
And if you want to tell us anything or ask anything, please send us a message through the website. We'll be delighted to hear from you, of course. And be sure to come back next month for Living in Japan. Bye!