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BOUND TO PLEASE / Former yobidashi caller reveals the secrets of sumo

By Hiromu Namiki / Japan News Staff WriterDiscover Sumo: Stories from Yobidashi Hideo

By Hideo Yamaki

Translated by Clyde Newton

Gendai Shokan, 183pp

Some readers may have enjoyed watching sumo on TV, or even had a chance to witness real bouts at venues such as Ryogoku Kokugikan in Tokyo. But how many know that food is buried in the center of the dohyo circular ring?

Dried chestnuts, washed rice, kombu and other items are put into the ring before each tournament as sacred talismans. This practice, revealed in the book “Discover Sumo,” exemplifies the long history and tradition of sumo, which is regarded as a national sport of Japan.

Author Hideo Yamaki may be the perfect person to unveil the secrets of sumo, as he once served behind the scenes at the sport. Yamaki is a retired yobidashi, one of the men who call out the names of the sumo wrestlers in each bout. In fact, Yamaki rose as high as tate yobidashi, the top rank of the job.

The book shines a spotlight on the role and daily lives of people who support wrestlers, including yobidashi, gyoji referees and tokoyama hairdressers. Yobidashi have other key duties in addition to announcing the rikishi, and constructing the dohyo ahead of tournaments is one of them. Readers who have watched sumo may have noticed men carrying prize banners before bouts; that task is also carried out by yobidashi.

According to Yamaki, some names of wrestlers were easy to call, while others were difficult. He had trouble calling short names with two or three syllables. Names including “ru” — such as former yokozuna Musashimaru — are also regarded as tough to call, as the syllable constricts one’s mouth, Yamaki says.

Yamaki also devotes some chapters to explaining about wrestlers, the main actors of the sport. It includes what food they eat, how they practice and how they get promoted. Readers might be surprised by the fact that mawashi belts worn by wrestlers at tournaments are never washed.

Interesting anecdotes about wrestlers are also revealed in the book. Takamiyama, who became the first foreign-born wrestler to win the Emperor’s Cup in 1972, had trouble getting accustomed to the hard practice and traditions of sumo when he arrived from Hawaii. According to the book, Takamiyama rode around and around the Yamanote circular rail line crying during his early days as a wrestler.

In its last chapter, the book looks into sumo’s history. According to Yamaki, sumo entered a difficult time after the Edo period ended in 1867 and Western culture was introduced. Some people thought it was uncivilized that rikishi would compete almost naked except for mawashi. There were even calls for the abolition of the sport.

Sumo is enjoying huge popularity now, helped by Kisenosato, who became the first Japan-born yokozuna in 19 years. But history shows that its popularity should never be taken for granted.

Where to Read

Take it with you while strolling around Tokyo’s Ryogoku area, a center of sumo where Ryogoku Kokugikan, many sumo stables and chanko restaurants are located. The Summer Grand Tournament starts on May 14.

Price: ¥1,500 plus tax Speech

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