Amid a string of devastating SCANDALS, Japanese sumo has turned to THE WRESTLER unlikely saviors like BARUTO, a big, genial Estonian, to restore this 2,000-year-old sport to GLORY. Story by Kevin Gray • Illustration by Raul Allen
The Rikish Squats
He stomps his bruised and splayed feet wide apart. He reaches back his arms, like a diver preparing to plunge, and slaps his elephantine glutes. Getting ready now, driving blood to muscle, drawing up testosterone, provoking the body into a self- inflicted urgency and rage. Animated, he smacks his own face and stares down his opponent. The sumo ring is the only place he is truly alive. Outside it, he is an artifact, culturally irrelevant, a sad cartoon standing alone on Tokyo’s bullet trains, dining with bowed head at McDonald’s, moving among fashionable Harajuku girls who are blind to him.
The rikishi once drew princes to his bouts. His profession— going back some 2,000 years—was to entertain the Shinto gods and purify himself before them. Now all he sees in the pagoda-like stands of Tokyo’s Ryogoku Kokugikan arena are yakuza gangsters, housewives and noisy German tourists, all gathered amid the thickening clouds of scandal threatening to envelop Japan’s national sport.
Just after lunch on a Tuesday, the arena is only half full. The gyoji, in his bright referee silks, shoeless in the sand-covered dohyo ring, holds up his wooden war paddle, the gunbai, to signal that the battle is about to start. A child with a sign shouts “Baruto!”
The rikishi weighs 414 pounds. He is 26 years old. His name is Baruto, a reference to the Baltic Sea. Like most sumo wrestlers today, he is not Japanese. He is Estonian. Other rikishi hail from Russia, Bulgaria, Georgia, Mongolia and Brazil. Unlike Japan’s foreign baseball players, the rikishi speak flawless Japanese. They are organized into 50 heya, or training stables, but they compete one-on-one in these two-week tournaments six times a year.
Baruto is a favorite, but his knee is giving him trouble. The gyoji lowers his paddle. Baruto charges his opponent with a series of slaps to the face and neck. The sound of massive flesh hitting flesh echoes in the small ring. Baruto’s preferred move is the migi-yotsu grip, his right hand inside and his left outside his opponent’s arms, as he goes in for the tsuridashi, or lift-out. The goal in sumo is simple: knock the other guy down or push him out of the ring. Baruto suddenly loses his balance. As his opponent pushes on his neck, he stumbles backward, out of bounds. The crowd gasps. But then it roars approval for his smaller opponent. The match, like all sumo matches, lasts only a few seconds.
Baruto bows and walks offstage.
ON A WEEKDAY MORNING I take a crowded commuter train into the suburbs of Tokyo. An hour out, the train pulls into the station and Yukiko Ono, a 41-year-old housewife and sumo fan, picks me up in the family van. When Ono was pregnant five years ago, she was stuck home watching daytime TV. One day, she turned on sumo. “I can feel their bodies because I am getting fat too,” she says. When her baby was only six months old, she brought him to the rikishi stable in her neighborhood, which is open to the public during morning training, and made friends with the wrestlers. One of the them was Baruto, then a newcomer. “He is kind and funny,” says Ono. “He has a beautiful smile. And he is a good sport.”
We turn a corner. There, open to the street on the first floor of a metallic apartment house, is Baruto’s training stable. It’s an odd sight amid the quiet homes to see a half dozen enormous men wearing nothing but mawashi, the G-string-like belts rikishi wear. We slip in to a side door and are seated, with tea, on a small platform inches from the action.
Baruto is sparring with a teenager half his size. He goes at the kid with his slap attack like a six-foot-four-inch bear smacking down a cub and jams him into a wall with a neck hold. The room, covered in sand and mocked up as a real dohyo, smells of sweat and dirt and wet heat. The big steel doors to the street let in a chilly morning air.
After he finishes, Baruto’s assistants bow, hand him clean towels to dry off and start sweeping the floor. “I do that to toughen them up,” Baruto says in perfect English, as he sits down on the wood platform, smiling almost boyishly. “But it is also for their training.”
Top rikishi like Baruto can earn $20,000 a month. They often help support assistants, who clean kimonos and towels and shoes and carry gear to arena matches.
Baruto grew up a farm boy in Estonia. He took up judo as a teen, and a local Japanese sumo promoter convinced him to try the sport. He was hesitant at first. “I told him I was interested, but I was worried about being naked,” he says. He was brought to Japan at age 20 and rose swiftly through the ranks, making one of the fastest such ascents ever. A few years ago, he hurt his knee and was knocked briefly back to a lower league. He lost his match the other day, he says, “because my feet were too far apart. And I had extended my arm too far out.” Ono adds, “It’s a simple mistake.”
Sumo is a sport of ritual. Rikishi are bound by rules in and out of the ring. They must wear kimonos in public (brighter colors indicate higher rank). They are not allowed to sit on subways or trains (out of respect for other riders, and because they would take up more than one seat) even if the cars are empty. They are not allowed to drive because they are forbidden to hurt others, a rule that could be broken if they were in an accident. Baruto owns a brand new white Hummer, but his young Russian wife drives it. He instead rides his bicycle everywhere—to the local McDonald’s and to play pachinko.
Last year, dozens of rikishi disgraced their hallowed sport when they were found to be gambling on baseball games with organized crime figures. The local newspapers ran front-page photos of gangsters sitting in the front row at meets. The scandal shocked the Japanese, and many of them turned their backs on the sport, further eroding its dwindling fan base. The national TV network refused to broadcast the summer tournament and is now considering halting sumo broadcasts altogether. Prior to that, the sport was tainted by the discovery of marijuana use among four rikishi and the 2008 hazing death of a young wrestler at the hands of a trainer. In February of this year came the most damaging news yet: Police produced evidence of rampant match- rigging, and the sumo association was forced to cancel its spring tournament. “If it is true,” said Japan’s prime minister, Naoto Kan, of the allegations, “it is a very serious betrayal of the people.”
Amid the wreckage, the Japan Sumo Association is counting on rikishi like Baruto—who is unfailingly cheery in and out of the ring, in defeat or in triumph—to help repair its image. To his most devoted fans, Baruto is known as Leo, because he looks a bit like an enormous Leonardo DiCaprio. Most retiring rikishi end up doing one of two things: starting a chankonabe restaurant (the heavy meat and fish stew they eat with rice twice a day to keep up their weight) or running a heya. Baruto has a foreign idea. “I want to be an actor,” he says. Ono smiles warmly up at him. “I knew him before he was famous,” she says.
THE SMALL GROUPS OF TOURISTS, single women and businessmen entertaining clients who gather in front of the stadium the next day snap photos of the rikishi as they go inside. A large sandwich board out front reads “No Mafia.” Inside, I grab the $3 headphones to hear the in-house English- language radio transmission of the matches. The best seats are the massuseki, the four-person box seats on the lower level, where you sit in traditional Japanese style. They’re pricey, $125 apiece, compared to $30 for the upper level, but worth it. From here, you can order fried fish and dumplings, sushi and beer, and lotus-shaped orange sherbet balls from waiters who work the teahouses in the front hall. K-Go Mizutani, a 36-year-old musician who studied jazz in New York City and performed on the soundtrack for PlayStation’s Gran Turismo 5, says young people can’t afford to attend sumo matches. “It only costs ten dollars for a baseball ticket,” he says. “And always, the young people don’t think the traditional stuff is cool. Nobody thinks sumo is very cool.”
But it is beautiful. Which comes as a surprise. During the dohyo-iri, the opening ring ceremony, the wrestlers come out before their bouts begin. Each is clustered into two groups—East and West. They take turns entering the ring, forming a circle and facing the crowd. Then they turn inward, facing each other, and lift their kesho-mawashi, large decorative aprons, and raise both hands in unison, meant to show no one is armed.
By the time Baruto comes out, around 4 p.m., when the best of the best are wrestling, the crowd has thickened. He wastes no time going after his opponent with force and speed. Baruto is the second-largest rikishi in sumo today. He rapidly slaps his opponent. There’s none of the hesitation or slipping from the previous fight, as if he means to make up for it. He uses his size to perform a double-arm thrusting maneuver, lifting the other rikishi up and out of the ring in seconds. The crowd cheers.
K-Go is pleased. He likes Baruto for the same reason everyone seems to like him. Baruto seems very Japanese—in his respect for opponents and for his fans. K-Go points to two couples sitting next to us, an older businessman and his younger associate and their wives. “You see, if an older person bought me a ticket to the match, I would be sitting there straight and proper and polite, like he is,” says K-Go of the associate. “Shyness is a beautiful thing in Japan—respecting other people, not to be bothering, like the samurai or sumo. You have to bear things. The samurai, even if he is hungry, he has a toothpick in his mouth to show he is full. Not to be a burden on other people, to bear up on your own strength.”
KEVIN GRAY, a business and crime reporter, wrestled in middle school, but never achieved the girth needed to launch his sumo career.