Baseball in Japan-The National Sport-Wrestling and Shintoism-Fans-Wrestlers' Earnings-The National Game Building-Formalities Before the Matches-The Super-Champions-Peculiarities of Japanese Wrestling- Days OffTHOUGH the grip of the American national game upon Japan is sufficiently strong to have brought a Japanese university team to this country and to have taken one or two American university teams to Japan for return games, there is as yet no professional baseball in Nippon, and the kind of wrestling known as sumo still maintains its ancient prestige as the national sport.
Having been in Tokyo at the time of an election and again during the annual spring wrestling season, I could not but he struck by the fact that the street crowds watching the bulletin boards for the results of the physical contests were larger and more enthusiastic than the crowds which assembled to learn the results of the political struggle.
The average Japanese knows, I believe, about as much and about as little of domestic politics as the average American. He has a loose idea of the structure of the government and of political machinery; he follows political leaders rather than causes, and like us he is prone to read rich meanings into the glib banalities of politicians.
Wrestling he understands much better. He knows all its fine points. His enthusiasms on this subject are informed enthusiasms, and unlike the baseball fan, he inherits them from a long line of ancestors- for compared with wrestling, baseball is a brandnew sport. When the Greeks and Romans wrestled, the Japanese were wrestling, too. In the ninth century the Japanese throne was wrestled for. A Mikado died and left two sons, and these, instead of going to war against each other, left their claims to be settled by a wrestling match.
The sport is, furthermore, associated, in a manner more or less diaphanous, with Shintoism. Certain Shinto traditions are connected with it, and the matches used to be held in the grounds of Shinto temples-as indeed amateur matches often are today in country districts.
For many years past it has been customary to hold wrestling meets in Tokyo twice yearly, in January and May. Prior to the construction of the Kokugikwan, or National Game Building, the large steel and concrete structure in which the meets are now held, they occurred in the grounds of the Eko-in temple. January is a cold month in Tokyo and even May is often chilly, wherefore, the audience was none too comfortable at these open-air matches. Moreover, Japan is a rainy land; the old open-air matches had frequently to be declared off because of bad weather; sometimes it took twenty days to run off a ten-day meet. But the Kokugikwan has put an end to these difficulties. The modern Japanese wrestling fan keeps warm and dry, with the result that the sport now has more devotees than ever.
During the wrestling season Tokyo is profoundly excited. Men of large affairs have a way of disappearing mysteriously from their offices. Officials of banks and large corporations are vaguely reported to be "out of town for a few days." Prince Tokugawa, President of the House of Peers, suddenly becomes a difficult gentleman to find-unless, perchance, you happen to know where to look for him. So, too, with many a man of smaller consequence. If he can afford it-often whether he can afford it or not-he drops his work and vanishes. But he does not always vanish; for if his enthusiasm for wrestling verges on dementia he may adorn himself in an eccentric manner and make himself conspicuous in the auditorium by his antics and his cries. Thus certain wrestling fans of Tokyo have come to be considered privileged characters-as, for instance, the one who always appears at the great matches in a coat of scarlet silk, which his father wore before him, and whose habit it is to prance down the aisle before the wrestlers as they march in solemn procession to the ring.
When I inquired about tickets for one of the days of the great meet I was strongly reminder of the days Series baseball games. It seemed that tickets were not to be had. Eventually, however, I managed to secure them in the way such things are secured the world over-by means of "pull." I found a friend who had a sporting friend who knew a wrestler who could get seats.
The attitude of the sporting Japanese gentleman toward wrestlers resembles that of the sporting American or Englishman toward pugilists and jockeys. It is chic to know them, but not as equals. One is very genial with them and at the same time a little patronizing, whereas they are expected to assume a slightly deferential manner. Perhaps the attitude of the Japanese sporting gentleman toward his favourite wrestlers is rather more like that of the Spanish sporting gentleman toward bullfighters, for in both countries it is customary for the wealthy patron to give expensive presents to the hero. But whereas in Spain handsome jewelry is sometimes thrown to the bull-fighters in the ring, it is the custom in Japan for the fan to throw his hat, coat, pocketbook, cigarette case, or whatnot to the popular idol, who later sends the trophy back to the owner, receiving in exchange a valuable gift- frequently a gift of money.
Hence, though the actual pay of wrestlers is small, perquisites make the profession profitable to those fairly successful in it, and poor parents, having a son of unusually large proportions, are likely to look with resignation upon the Japanese theory that great size is generally accompanied by stupidity, and to rejoice in the dimensions of their offspring because of a fond hope that he may become a champion wrestler and grow rich.
My friend the Japanese sporting gentleman (who, by the way, was a graduate of the University of Michigan) did more than obtain tickets for me. He called with his automobile and took me to the amphitheatre.
"Our mode of wrestling is not at all like yours," he said, "and I want to explain it to you."
It was about eleven in the morning when, after traversing several streets strung with rows of Japanese lanterns, and filled with hurrying throngs, we reached the great circular concrete building into which an eager crowd was pouring through many portals-an audience which, though made up for the most part of men, contained not a few women and some children. Many, though by no means all of the women were geisha, for wrestlers have about the same rank as geisha in the social scale, and they are often the heroes as well as the intimates of the fair entertainers.
As we approached the amphitheatre the thought came to me that there is a curious sameness in the atmosphere surrounding great sporting events the world over, however little the various sports themselves may resemble one another. To approach this great building in Tokyo during wrestling week is quite like approaching the Plaza de Toros in Madrid, or the building in which jai alai is played in Havana, or the Polo Grounds in New York, or the Yale Bowl, or the Harvard Stadium.
The Kokugikwan is a circular building roofed with glass and seating fourteen or fifteen thousand persons. At the centre is a mound of earth with a flat top on which the ring is marked with a border of woven straw. Over the ring is a kiosk supported by four heavy posts which are respectively red, green, black, and white in colour, and are considered to symbolize the four corners of the earth. The kiosk has a roof somewhat resembling that of a temple and is embellished with curtains of purpleand-white silk which hang down a few feet below the eaves.
The main floor of the amphitheatre is banked up toward the back. The seats at the ringside are reserved for the participant wrestlers; behind these are some tiers of chairs which are presumably occupied by the most frantic fans, and behind the chairs comes a great area of boxes, each seating from four to six persons. These boxes, like those of a typical Japanese theatre, do not contain chairs, but are floored with thick straw mats on which are cushions for the occupants to squat on. The only division between the boxes is a railing about a foot high. Above the main floor are two galleries running all the way around the building. The Imperial box is in the first gallery. People in the galleries sit in chairs, in front of which are narrow shelf-like tables from which luncheon may be eaten-for wrestling matches, like the old-style theatrical performances, last practically all day.
During the first part of the morning, bouts between numerous minor wrestlers are run off, but at about eleven the building fills up, for everyone wishes to see the two groups of champions march in. One group represents East Japan, the other West Japan; each group contains about twenty men, and their seats are at the eastern and western sides of the ring, respectively. This representation of East and West is not literal, but is the traditional division. A man from an Eastern province may be champion of the West, and vice versa.
Gross-looking creatures, naked to the waist, they enter in single file, each wearing a long velvet apron, elaborately embroidered and tasselled. These aprons, which are given to them by their patrons, are removed before the contests, a loin-cloth and short, skirt of fringe being worn beneath them.
Marching into the ring the champions form a circle and go through a series of set exercises, clapping their hands in unison, raising their legs high and stamping their feet violently upon the ground to exhibit their muscular flexibility. After these exercises they march out again.
Next enter the supreme champions of the Eastern group and of the Western group-the two great wrestlers of Japan-popular idols who, by reason of having remained undefeated throughout three or more successive wrestling meets, are entitled to wear not only the elaborate velvet apron, but a very thick white rope wound several times about their waists and knotted in a certain way.
Each of these super-champions is attended on his march to the ring by two other wrestlers. The one who precedes him is known as the tsuyu harai, or dew-brusher. In theory, he clears the way, brushing dew from imaginary grass before the feet of the mighty one. The attendant who brings up the rear is the tachi mochi, or sword-bearer; for according to old Japanese custom no wrestler except a superchampion was allowed to wear a sword, and though the sword is now only a symbol, the custom still survives, and the sword of the super-champion must be carried in behind him.
To one accustomed to the sort of wrestling practised in the Western world, many of these champions do not look like athletes, since they are, as a rule, so fat that their paunches bulge like balconies over the tops of their aprons and loin cloths, and their arms and thighs tremble like jelly when they walk. Under the Japanese method of wrestling, however, each match is quickly settled, wherefore endurance is not so important as great weight and power in the first moment of attack. It is for this reason that fat wrestlers are usually the most successful. Some of them have weighed as much as three hundred and fifty pounds. But now and then there comes along a super-champion like Tachiyama, who is not very fat, and who conquers by strength, speed, and reach rather than by mere weight.
When the super-champions have exhibited themselves, the two groups of lesser champions return and occupy their seats around the ring. The four referees-retired wrestlers-take seats on cushions, one at each corner of the kiosk, and the umpire, wearing beautiful flowing silks and a strange little pointed hat like that of a Buddhist priest, enters the ring and, holding up the lacquered wooden fan, which is his badge of office, announces in impressive tones the names of the two men who are about to meet.
The adversaries then enter the ring and go through the same old series of stampings and flexings. Each takes a handful of salt from a box at his side of the ring, puts a little in his mouth and throws the rest upon the ground before him. This is supposed to have a purifying effect, not in the antiseptic sense, but in some occult way. Salt is often used thus in Japan.
Having completed these preliminaries the two men take their positions facing each other, braced upon all fours. But this apparent readiness by no means indicates that the contest is commencing. Instead of immediately attacking, they will often remain thus poised for minutes, sharply watching each other. Then one of them will get up and take a drink, or will go for some more salt and throw it in the ring. Also one or the other will often make a false start, attacking when his adversary is not ready to accept combat; whereafter the two resume their crouching attitudes, toes braced, hands on the ground. This sort of thing may continue for ten or twenty minutes, to the accompaniment of howls from the fans, who shout the names of their favourites and bellow Japanese equivalents for such Americanisms as "Go to it!" and "Atta Boy!"
But whereas the period of preparation may often be measured in fractions of an hour, the actual struggle usually consumes but a few seconds. The men spring at each other like a pair of savage fighting dogs and the contest is settled before you know it. There is none of that straining to get a certain hold, or to break one, which is so characteristic of our style of wrestling, and you never see the contestants writhing in deadly embrace upon the floor. The vanquished need not necessarily be thrown at all, though often he is. If any portion of his body, other than the soles of his feet, touches the ground, or if (whether he be thrown or not) any portion of his body touches the ground outside the ring, that means defeat. In case both men fall, or are forced from the ring together, the one who first makes contact with the ground, or first leaves the ring, is vanquished.
Often a man is beaten by being bent over until he is forced to support himself on one hand, and there have been cases in which decisions were rendered merely because one man's head was bent down until his top-knot touched the floor. A wrestler will sometimes win in one hard push, backing his opponent out of the ring; but in this there is always the danger that the one being pushed will at the last moment step aside, causing the adversary's own momentum to carry him beyond the boundary, thus applying an underlying principle of jiu-jutsu,-or jiudo, as it is called in its improved form-in which a man's own strength is used to defeat him. Frequently, however, there will be a spectacular throw; and sometimes, when this occurs, the ringside seats, so coveted at wrestling and boxing matches in this country, are not highly desirable. I have seen huge wrestlers hurled through the air to land sprawling on their comrades in their seats.
When a close decision has to be made the umpire confers with the referees, and at such times the audience and the two opposing groups of wrestlers are vociferous in support of the contestant they favour.
To the credit of the Japanese be it said, however, that they do not yell: "Kill the umpire!" when displeased by a decision rendered in connection with their national sport; that they do not throw bottles at the umpire, and that it never becomes necessary to give police protection to art umpire whose judgment has not accorded with that of the crowd. The Japanese, you see, have not adopted every detail of Western civilization.
I must have seen twenty-five or thirty bouts that day. But, though I was interested I cannot pretend to find in Japanese wrestling the qualities of a really great sport. Skill their wrestlers have, but there is no call for stamina. Their style of wrestling seems to me to leave off where ours begins.
Japanese life runs at lower pressure than our life. There is not the nervous rush about it. Matters move at a more comfortable pace, and people seem to have more patience, An American crowd would become restless over the interminable preliminaries of each Japanese wrestling bout, and would find the bout itself unsatisfactory because of its brevity and the lack of sustained effort. The Japanese, on the other hand, seem always to be willing to wait for something to happen. One notices this in innumerable ways. Motion pictures made in Japan are likely to be, from our point of view, intolerably slow in their action. So also with the all-day plays of the typical Japanese theatre.
The Japanese business man's custom of taking a day off whenever it happens to suit him is doubtless due in part to the fact that until recently Sunday in Japan was just like any other day. There was no regular day of rest. One day a month was usually appointed as a holiday for commercial and industrial workers; later it became two days a month; and at last there developed a custom of making those days the first and third Sundays of the month. For though Sunday has, of course, no religious significance in the eyes of the large body of Japanese, it seemed the most practical day to select for a holiday if only because it was a day on which the offices of American and European residents were closed.