The rikishi dressed in colorful kimonos and wore impish grins. Their backs were as big as barn doors and their stomachs as round and hard as oak barrels. They woregeta, wooden flip-flops with an elevated base, and sleek topknots that, in the traditional Japanese dining room, harked back to an earlier epoch. Their mood was boyish and eager as they gulped greedily from their beer glasses.
I, too, drank deeply from my bottle and listened while Goushi, a 21-year-old wrestler, squawked through a Japanese karaoke classic on a stage at the back of the restaurant. His voice buckled under the stress of the high notes. The light from the small TV screen flickered on his face, and he gripped the microphone tightly in his shaky right hand.
On the tables that surrounded the stage, fellow rikishi giggled at his efforts, attempting to hide their embarrassment in mouthfuls of rice. But they didn’t criticize too much. They knew it would be their turn soon.
I was at a pre-tournament dinner, near the wrestlers’ residence in Osaka. The dinner was a night of karaoke, food, and alcohol; but mainly the sake-soaked latter. It was a brief respite for the wrestlers, who for the past two months had been rising at 5am to the prospect of yet more bruises and bone-crunching impacts. Tonight, they could enjoy the sushi, Wagyu beef, and over-sized bottles of Asahi beer.
I sat among the stable’s benefactors. The men were slim and middle-aged with loosened collars, slackened ties, and shiny watches. They gossiped about the upcoming tournament, about who they thought might perform well and what might happen in the future. And they did this with the help of inordinate amounts of alcohol and strong cigarettes. Beer, sake, wine, shochu, and Japanese whisky were all gulped and guzzled amid bursts of laughter and mucus-y coughs.
Among these men sat the oyakata (the stable’s head trainer), Eji Suzuki. Suzuki had been a sumo wrestler of high rank, and like many ex-rikishi his face was saggy, stretched by years of preternatural heaviness. Now the size of an average Japanese man, he had the look of a crumpled plastic bag.
Suzuki drank white wine from Argentina. He drank it quickly and in large quantities. And by the time I got to speak to him he was drunk.
“When I was a rikishi we woke up earlier and trained much harder,” he slurred.” These days the wrestlers are treated too well.”
Also seated at this table was Sokokourai. He looked like a slouched boulder: 300 pounds, six feet tall, and hands the size of buckets. He smelled strongly of talcum powder and the binzuke oil used to keep his hair in a tidy topknot. His gut tumbled out in front of him, and his legs were as thick as tree trunks. Sokokourai did not drink and picked fussily at his sushi rolls. He was the only rikishi seated at the top table and was there because he was one of the top-ranked competitors in the sport. But when Suzuki motioned for yet another glass of wine, Sokoukorai served him obediently.
The night continued in clouds of cigarette smoke, beer-breath, and selfies. Diffident participants screeched out Oasis and Sum 41 with varying degrees of awfulness, and the benefactors compared wristwatches.
At around 10pm, the wrestlers got up from their tables and asked Suzuki-san for permission to leave the party. In spite of the night’s brief reprieve, they still needed to be up early for training.
Slurring and stammering from his chair, Suzuki-san warned them that tomorrow would be hard and that he hoped that they hadn’t drunk too much. Then, after a pause long enough to suggest he had forgotten what he was saying, he bade them leave with an effete flick of his wrist.
Nonplussed, the rikishi bowed, muttered their goodbyes to various people, and filed out of the room like a colony of penguins. The room went silent for a moment. Then, as the last wrestler shuffled out the door, the conversation resumed: new cigarettes were lit, new beers opened, and a towering glass of shochu was placed in front of me.