'Spiritual calm' under threat as Japan sells sumo to the world

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In any sumo wrestling match, the magical moment - when the audience draws a collective breath - comes before the fight has even begun, in the last few seconds before the wrestlers touch. The two mighty antagonists have climbed on to the clay ring dressed in their great nappy-like loincloths.

In any sumo wrestling match, the magical moment - when the audience draws a collective breath - comes before the fight has even begun, in the last few seconds before the wrestlers touch. The two mighty antagonists have climbed on to the clay ring dressed in their great nappy-like loincloths.

But first there is a moment of intense calm. The wrestlers practise a kind of breathing called Ah-Unh, symbolising the first and last letters of the Sanskrit alphabet - the alpha and omega, the yin and yang. No signal is given telling them when they should start; instinctively they know when the time has come.

"In Christianity you have the Trinity, and in sumo we have something like it too," says Takahiro Ono, a former wrestler. "It's the harmony of three people - the wrestler on the east, the wrestler on the west, and the referee. It is impossible to express in words." It is one of the things that makes sumo so much more than merely a competitive sport - a ceremonial rite, a rich fusion of Japanese religion, history and culture.

But recently the purity of the Ah-Unh moment has come under threat, not from Japan itself, but from abroad.

For sumo finds itself suffering from something of an identity crisis, with audiences in long-term decline. Wrestling commissars want to have sumo recognised as an Olympic sport. Amateur sumo is more popular than ever, and 84 countries from Kazakhstan to Britain are members of the International Sumo Federation.

Next month, the federation holds its 9th Sumo World Championship in São Paulo, Brazil. But internationalisation is having its effect on the sport's traditions. "I don't think that foreigners really understand sumo," says Mr Ono, who teaches amateur sumo at Senshu University in Tokyo. "They can understand the customs - bowing to your opponent and so on. But the cultural and spiritual aspects of sumo - they don't really get it."

One thing that has proved almost impossible to explain is the meeting of minds which takes place before the fight. Foreign wrestlers were continually launching themselves into combat too soon or too late, so in sumo competitions outside Japan, a different system was adopted. When both of the wrestlers have rested both of their knuckles on the clay, the referee simply shouts " Hakkeyoi!" meaning "Start!" - and they do.

Professional sumo still uses the old system but, for the sake of uniformity, the hakkeyoi rule was adopted by amateur wrestlers earlier this year, to the dismay and disappointment of many competitors.

But the biggest change wrought by amateurs in the world of sumo has been the entry into the ring of women wrestlers. There are only 100 or so in Japan, yet the numbers are growing. In professional sumo, no woman is allowed so much as to set foot on the clay. Matters came to a head at this year's tournament in Osaka at which, by tradition, the prefectural governor presents the trophy. But this year the newly elected governor happened to be a woman. She was keen to carry out her duty, but the Sumo Association was uncompromising and a male deputy did the job instead.

But a sport excluding women on the grounds that their menstrual blood might upset the Shinto gods would probably not go down well with the International Olympic Committee.

Japanese female wrestlers devised their own costume consisting of a leotard and loose trousers. But a number of female foreign wrestlers caused a sensation at the international tournament in Germany last year by competing in the famous nappy-loin cloths called mawashi.

There were other difficulties in Germany. Organisers let a feature film be shot in which the wrestlers featured as colourful extras; they also insisted on surrounding the dohyo, or ring, with commercial adverts. "For a Japanese that would be unthinkable," says Mr Ono. "Westerners don't hesitate to use it for the purposes of commerce."

And the final, humiliating blow may be several years down the road. Assuming that the sport does become part of the Olympics, and enough foreign wrestlers take it up - the day may one day come when foreign wrestlers defeat their Japanese teachers. Hakkeyoi!

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