in Japan start wrestling from an early age in hopes
of becoming professional wrestlers. Photo
courtesy of sumoeastandwest.com
of the Hill, Japan Style
Western eyes, sumo wrestling is funny looking. It's
a game of overweight men wearing nothing but a loincloth
trying to push each other out of a ring. For the Japanese
however, sumo is a national sport that embodies centuries
of tradition and the spirit of Japanese culture.
encapsulates the feeling of being a foreigner in
Japan. You have to become Japanese to succeed."
Ferne Pearlstein became interested in making a documentary
film about Japan eleven years ago, she saw sumo as the
perfect story to tell. "Sumo encapsulates the feeling
of being a foreigner in Japan. You have to become Japanese
to succeed," said the New York-based filmmaker
at a recent screening of "Sumo East and West"
in Los Angeles' Little Tokyo.
co-producer Robert Edwards, Pearlstein first had to
find the sumo story before she could tell it. Gaining
access to the cloistered world of Japanese professional
sumo would not be easy, especially for a foreigner.
Instead of going straight to Japan, the pair showed
up with a camera to the 1999 North American Sumo Championship
where they saw contestants from across the country battle
for the right to compete in the World Championship.
prepares for battle in the ring. Photo courtesy
sumo differs from professional sumo in that there are
weight classes and competitors do not undergo the rigors
of training in a Japanese sumo stable. The size of the
ring is the same as well as the objective to force your
opponent out by either pushing or lifting. Close fisted
punching is not allowed.
sumo started a decade ago as a way to draw more people
to the sport. Today many countries from Europe, the
Americas and Asia have sumo clubs and the athletes compete
in tournaments around the world. In another bold step
from tradition, international sumo includes female competitors.
Japanese custom does not allow a woman to even step
onto the sumo ring, let alone participate.
the North American Sumo Championship, the filmmakers
met Wayne Vierra, a Hawaiian who had once trained as
a professional but had to retire for medical reasons.
Vierra won the event and also became one of the stories
for the documentary as the producers decided to examine
the impact of foreigners, mostly from Hawaii, who were
challenging the sacred traditions of Japanese sumo.
the concept in place and Vierra's connections, Pearlstein
and Edwards were granted access to the unknown world
of sumo. They went behind the scenes to capture the
life of a sumo wrestler, from the arduous demands of
an apprentice to the daily rigors of training. They
interviewed sumo stable masters who were past champions
to gain insight as to why sumo is more than a sport
to the Japanese. As Vierra says in the film, "Strength
is not enough, sumo is about spirit, skill and body.
You must be a great human being as well as a wrestler
Vierra is interviewed after winning the North American
Sumo Championship. Photo courtesy of sumoeastandwest.com
traced the history of sumo in the modern era and how
it spread to Hawaii and California with Japanese immigration.
Hawaiian born Jesse Kuhaulua became the first foreigner
to break into the sumo ranks in 1964 under the wrestling
name Takamiyama. He paved the way for Konishiki and
Akebono, the first foreign-born grand champion or yokozuna.
The more successful the Hawaiians became, the more it
challenged the cultural identity of sumo as a Japanese
to the top of professional sumo was not easy for the
Hawaiians. Arriving in Japan, they did not speak any
Japanese and had to learn the language quickly in order
to survive in and out of the ring. While the Hawaiians
possessed great size and physical ability, they lacked
technique and in the beginning were easily defeated
by much smaller opponents. In addition, they had to
deal with an anti-foreigner sentiment held by some Japanese,
especially with something so sacred as sumo.
producers succeeded in capturing the world of sumo and
telling the story of how something so culturally Japanese
was broken open to accept outsiders. The documentary
they completed is beautifully shot with images of traditional
and modern Japan and shows the sport of sumo from a
variety of perspectives forcing the viewer to see beyond
just fat men in loinclothes.
the Los Angeles screening, Yokozuna Akebono, whose real
name is Chad Rowan, flew out from Tokyo to watch the
film with the audience and answer some questions afterwards
with Pearlstein and Roberts. While a warrior in the
ring, the good-humored giant kept his fans smiling with
his answers. When a young boy asked "What is your
favorite food?" He replied with a heavy Hawaiian
accent, "Basically I eat anything that doesn't
eat me first."
International Sumo Federation hopes to one
day make amateur sumo an Olympic sport.
only collegiate sumo club in the United States
is at UCLA and the coach is from Bulgaria.
professional sumo, there are six grand tournaments
a year, each lasting 15 days.
In the modern era, there have only been 67
yokozuna or grand champions.
who is now retired, revealed that his stable master
Takamiyama was very hard on the boys from Hawaii because
he wanted them to be tough enough to succeed in Japan.
He added, "My biggest fear was not winning or losing,
I felt I didn't want to do anything to embarrass my
stable master or my family." The grand champion's
friends and family have nothing to be embarrassed about
as Akebono has carried himself with strength and honor
throughout his great career.
film "Sumo East and West" is still screening
in film festivals and is currently looking for distribution.
You can find more information at: sumoeastandwest.com.
information about professional sumo, please visit: www.sumo.or.jp/index_e.html.
information about international sumo, please visit: