Wrestling with tradition

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 June, 2007, 12:00am

Wherever 22-year-old Wakamifuji goes, he gets noticed.

His bulky body and tidy topknot give him away immediately - he's one of the few young sumo wrestlers in Japan.

'I never thought about being a sumo when I was young,' said Wakamifuji. 'But when I was 15, a sumo master came to my house to visit me. He persuaded me to follow him and take up sumo wrestle.'

Wakamifuji was in Hong Kong last weekend to give a demonstration at a Quarry Bay shopping centre with fellow wrestler, Shumba, and two other sumo.

In modern Japan, few young people are willing to take up the reins of tradition and become sumo wrestlers.

The art of sumo can be traced back to the eighth century, and there are currently about 700 professional sumo wrestlers in Japan, but the number is decreasing.

Sumo masters are always on the lookout for young protee.

'Young people think it's embarrassing to be almost naked in front of the crowd,' said Shumba, 25.

'We wear nothing except the belt. And the life of a sumo wrestler is extremely tough. We have to live in the stable and train every day except Sunday.'

Just like ordinary young people, Wakamifuji and Shumba like hanging out with friends and eating out on Sunday. But on other days, they lead a harsh and disciplined life.

'Every morning, we get up at five and train until lunch. After lunch, we have an afternoon nap. At about four, we wake up to do household chores. We have dinner at around six, and after that we have free time. But we usually do more training and practise. We go to bed before eleven. Sunday is the only rest day' said Shumba.

Sumo wrestlers do not earn any money. They get allowances from stable masters and subsidies for participating in six Grand Tournaments a year. There's small chance of a girlfriend - they just don't have the time.

But for Wakamifuji, eating is the most difficult part. 'We have to eat huge amounts of food and our stomach grows with it! We have a traditional sumo meal - chanko nabe - for lunch. This is a simmering stew of fish, meat, and vegetables.

'At night we have two or three dishes and five bowls of rice. We sometimes wash down the food with beer,' said Wakamifuji, who weighs 197kg.

But, sumo wrestlers enjoy a high social standing in Japan. 'When I went to the airport, kids asked for my autograph. They were queuing to take photos with me. I wouldn't get any attention if I was not a sumo,' said Shumba.

Both Wakamifuji and Shumba's families are proud of them. Shumba comes from a sumo family. His uncle and two brothers are professional sumo wrestlers, too.

'I started practising sumo when I was seven,' said Shumba.

'I just wanted to be a big, strong man then. Now I fight for honour and to carry on the tradition and spirit.'