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Saturday, July 12, 2003

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

All's fair in love and sumo


Here's how my mind works . . .

The other day upon emerging dripping from the shower, I stared at my shape in the mirror and reached a fairly quick conclusion:

"My, I'm sort of fat and funny-looking."

To be immediately struck by the notion, "What does a sumo wrestler think at this exact same moment?" Perhaps . . . "Holy Jeepers, am I fat! And what's that thing on my neck?"

"How rude," said my wife when I giggled these insights. "You should show better respect for the skills of those men! Their quick hands and balance! Their competitive zeal and stamina! And the way they won't back away from anything!"

She had surprised me. "Wow. I didn't know you cared for wrestling."

"Wrestling!? I was referring to how they eat!"

So we both had a giggle-giggle, snort-snort. She, at 40 kg, weighs about as much as one wrestler's leg. Me, about two legs, four or five fingers and an ear. There's not a sumo wrestler alive who couldn't crush us both like soda crackers.

But who cares? They don't know where we live, and besides there's bound to be a ton of restaurants and food marts between them and us. No way they get past those.

So it's safe to say that to both Japanese and foreign guests alike, sumo guys -- from their greased hair to their peek-a-boo belts and the endless flesh in-between -- are basically square pegs in the round holes of life.

"But they're rather nice square pegs," says my wife. "Plus it's all so traditional. And as a Japanese, I have to admit it touches a chord. There's just something soothing about watching two fatsos trying to knock each other down."

For which they all get a little money and a bit of applause, plus the knowledge that they have each eaten 10 to 20 years off their lives. The main difference with other fatsos elsewhere being that sumo wrestlers also get to display the results of their mouth-stuffing au natural on television.

Yet, like my wife, I very much enjoy the breech-clothed behemoths. They fill late afternoon TV like nothing else.

I have only met one: Henry Miller, or Sentoryu, the St. Louis native who battled both injuries and opponents to briefly make the bottom of the upper division a couple of years back.

What struck me about Henry, other than that he had calves larger than my skull, was that despite his he-man Japanese voice that I had had heard on TV, his English came out rather cartoony and boyish.

It was almost cute the way he said, "You know . . . I could crush you like a soda cracker."

Henry also had the one facet that I admire most in a sumo wrestler: a hairline in full military retreat.

For I can relate to such men. They are my kind of guys. I also admire the talent of their stylists, who somehow manage to fashion the sumo topknot from but a few straggling survivors of what were once firm ranks.

Typically this topknot is severed hair by hair in an emotional retirement ceremony at the end of a wrestler's career. Yet, for my kind of wrestler, the knot falls off somewhat easier -- perhaps puffed away like a bunch of dandelion fuzz.

I also enjoy the warmup rituals before each bout, where the pair of wrestlers scowl at each other for several mean seconds before lumbering off to wipe their pits.

The scowls are so intense that you can almost hear the wrestlers think to each other. Thoughts that I bet go something like this:

Wrestler one: "Hey! See that pipsqueak in the second row? What say that when we fall off the ring, we both go land in his lap?"

Wrestler two: "The guy with the polka-dot bow tie? Yeah, let's get him!"

Still another feature I'm fond of is the codifying of all the different victory techniques. It's amazing that sumo has developed so many specialized terms for what in playground terminology is simply this: a big belly bounce.

The rankings, the ring, the referees, the training, the personality of the combatants -- all of it can be fascinating, though recent injuries and retirements have left the sport aching for new faces.

Or perhaps I should say new bottoms.

"I don't look at their bottoms," claims my wife with a red face. "I focus only on their athletic skills."

Giggle-giggle, snort-snort.

"All right," she backs up. "It is true that most overweight people do not have attractive rears."

"Yes, I believe that's biblical."

However, she insists many women do find sumo wrestlers quite handsome -- from the cherubic butterballs to the bulging Clydesdales to the unshaven old boars.

"They've all got some romance. Take away about 50 kg each and they would stand out in a crowd for reasons other than their waistlines."

"Yeah. The same way Freddy Krueger stands out."

"OK. But tell me? Would Freddy Krueger be willing to show his backside in public?"

And now we see how her mind works. In the meantime, I shake free from this heady topic, with only a brief mental flash of how Freddy K. would appear stripped down and wrapped in a sumo belt.

I change gears.

"Women, you know, cannot participate in sumo. They can't even climb up on the sacred ring. Do you think that's fair?"

"Why would a woman want to do that to her body? Aren't we the more intelligent sex? I say it's perfectly fine to leave sumo to the lower life forms."

For a moment I feel oddly akin with the top-knotted wonders. With my next words, I thus speak for us all, words that echo with the essence of the male spirit:

"Oookay. So . . . when do we eat? I'm starved."

To contact Thomas Dillon, send e-mail to marriedtojapan@yahoo.com


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