Soon after I got to Japan, my favorite sport to watch involved mostly naked men trying to push each other out of a dirt ring. This is a normal thing for most non-Japanese after they arrive in Japan.
Although almost no one watches it anymore, Sumo is still considered Japan’s national sport. I remember seeing it once on Wide World of Sports way back in the 70’s and maybe once on ESPN back when it was desperate to show any sport it could find. However, I never understood it and only had vague memories of it.
However, it’s very common for newcomers to Japan to suddenly stumble across a tournament (called a basho) on TV soon after they arrive–Basho are held every two months in the odd-numbered months–and to become fans.
At first you’re kind of amused and watch Sumo with the same glee you watch the aftermath of a train wreck. (Oh, like you don’t.) After a while, you begin to understand the rhythm’s of the sport, despite it being formal to a fault. It’s no joke that the preliminaries to a bout–which involve clapping, salt throwing and spitting–typically take longer than the bout. That said, I’ve seen more experienced wrestlers (called Rikishi) psyche out their younger opponents during the preliminaries and either put them off their game or trick them into mistakes.
I mostly got interested because when I first got to Japan, there were a few US-born rikishi in the higher ranks and it was easy to find the matches with English commentators who helped explain the sport. It was also fun to watch the tinier rikishi throw around the giant rikishi. I still remember 633 pound (287 kilogram) Konishiki getting slung around by the much smaller Mayanoumi.
Eventually I became a sumo snob and could arm-chair quarterback (so to speak) a match with the best of them. “The Yokozuna Grand Champion shouldn’t win with those tricky spin moves at the edge. He should be winning going forward.” (For the record, that is actually true. The Powers What Are in Sumo look at quality of wins and not just number of wins, although the latter should always be high.)
Then one day I just stopped watching it.
For a lot of reasons my interest in sumo went the way of some of my past collections. The formality and unwillingness to change had made it boring. Also, I was working a lot and the evening match summaries had been moved to late night/early morning. As a result, I lost interest in the sport and to this day don’t follow it, except to see who the latest foreign-born Grand Champions are.
Oh, and to see what the latest scandal is.