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'I thought it was fat guys in nappies pushing each other around' - Meet the Roscommon sumo wrestler

John Gunning represented Ireland at three Sumo World Championships and is now a leading authority on the sport in Japan.

Gunning in action during the 2007 World Championships in Chiang Mai Thailand.
Gunning in action during the 2007 World Championships in Chiang Mai Thailand.
Image: John Gunning

THERE’S A SCENE early in Mark Twain’s ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’ where the protagonist is wondering why, in the age of newspapers, the preacher is wasting his time reading out local notices everyone in the congregation already knows about.

He passes it off by thinking to himself: “Often, the less there is to justify a traditional custom, the harder it is to get rid of it.”

It’s a sentiment that easily applies across the sporting world. From baseball teams with culturally questionable logos to the ban on women taking part in the Nordic Combined at the Winter Olympics because organisers obviously believe their bodies will spontaneously combust should they combine cross-country skiing and ski jumping.

Likewise, sumo wrestling’s governing bodies are not huge fans of women in the ring and cite tradition for excluding them even when they’re attempting to save someone’s life.

If that seems far-fetched, it’s not. Earlier this month, Ryozo Tatami, the mayor of Maizuru in the Kyoto prefecture, was giving a speech in a sumo ring when he had a brain haemorrhage and collapsed. Several men gathered around Tatami before a female nurse arrived to start CPR. Three other women also rushed to help.

However, the referee told them to leave, which the women did, causing confusion around how the mayor should be treated. He was eventually taken to hospital for surgery.

In the wake of this incident, Roscommon’s John Gunning used his weekly sumo column in The Japan Times to address the absurdity of the ban on women, particularly as there appears to be no reason for it other than this is how the Sumo Association has always done things.

UPI 20171207 Mongolian grand sumo champion Yokozuna Harumafuji performsa a Shiranui-style entering ceremony. Source: UPI/PA Images

“I always try to look at tradition from the point of view of, if this tradition didn’t exist and we tried to introduce it, what would the reaction be?” Gunning told The42 this week.

“So, if there was no tradition of not allowing women into the ring, and we tried to introduce it, what would the reaction be?

“And if you replace the word woman with black, Jew, disabled, Irish — just take any group and replace woman — it’s so clearly offensive.

“I also ask people is there is any reason for it to be tradition other than the fact it is a tradition. The people arguing against me don’t seem to have any argument other than: ‘That’s the way it’s always been done so we should continue to do it.’ But any argument from antiquity, I just don’t believe you can use it when it’s inherently discriminatory.

“If it’s something such as a costume, then that’s fine because it’s not really harming someone. But if the tradition is actively discriminating against a certain class of people, then it’s time to change.

It’s a bit like cigarettes. They’re still allowed and legal but can you imagine if you invented cigarettes now? Telling people: ‘I’ve got this new product that causes cancer and lung disease, will probably kill you, has no nutritional value and I’m thinking of marketing it as this cool thing for young people’ — image the reaction?

“Some things were okay in the past because we didn’t have the knowledge we have now, and that’s fair enough. But we don’t still live in that time. You’ve got to be inclusive these days.

“And the thing is, people ignore the parts they want to ignore too. This week, for example, one of the sumo stables had a party and they just threw what was essentially a carpet over the ring and put tables on it and there were men and women sitting there.

“That’s a complete double standard. If they were to follow the rules and if tradition was all that important to them, then they would have torn down the ring and resanctified and repurified it in a ceremony after rebuilding it.

“But they’re not going to do that because they’re in the middle of a one-day tournament and it’s completely impractical. They ignore the rules that don’t suit them practically.”

unnamed (7) Gunning (middle) is 120kg in this picture and is dwarfed by the other wrestlers. Source: John Gunning

What happened in Kyoto is far from an isolated incident, however, as the 21st and 18th centuries clash in a bout as titanic as any seen inside the dohyo. For Gunning, he sees his role in Japanese media as helping to close a knowledge gap between what the public think sumo is versus what actually goes on.

“Sumo has been around for a long time,” he says, “but in its current form it’s probably around 300 years old. The sumo world and how they live and how they train haven’t really changed that much since the mid-1700s.

“As you can imagine it’s an increasingly difficult fit with the 21st century but, likewise, a lot of light doesn’t really get shone on what happens in the sumo world. There are a very small number of people who actually know what’s going on. So, over the last year or so, I’ve written some articles to bridge the gap between what the public perception of sumo is and what the reality is.

“I think there are a lot of urban legends and myths that have built up around the sport, misunderstandings too. So I use the column to set the record straight about why things are done the way they’re done.

I’d compare it to the TV show Friends. That came up on Netflix a few months ago and I used to watch it back in the 1990s but, when I watch it now, I’m shocked by how politically incorrect a lot of the stuff is. Basically if you take out the fat and gay jokes, half the jokes of the show are gone. There’s a lot of stuff that was standard fare 20 years ago that is rightly considered fat-shaming or gender-discrimination now.

“It is a rapidly changing world and I think that, even when stuff that has come out about how tough and violent the sumo world is, it’s a little bit more difficult for people not involved in sumo to understand why it is that way. I can see the pressure increasing on them to change the way certain things are done.

“The reaction to my piece about women in sumo was almost overwhelmingly negative but not from Japan or Japanese people, instead it was from people abroad. A lot of it was telling me that a foreigner shouldn’t be trying to change Japanese culture which is ironic because I’ve spent most of my adult life here, I’ve family here, I’ve worked in sumo for 20 years. But somebody who has never even visited Japan is telling me I shouldn’t change Japanese culture.

“This is my culture and my country now but they don’t see the irony in that. A lot of people are very precious about Japanese culture and they want to keep it the way it has always been, but this is a country like any other and it has a vibrant culture.

“It’s a unique culture in that a lot of what dates from hundreds of years ago is still going and there’s definitely a living history to Japan. But it’s still a very modern country and you can’t say things like women’s rights are not part of current Japanese culture. What was okay 300 years ago is not okay now and you can’t use culture to cover those things.”

Sumo Juniors European Championship Two 12-year-olds wrestle during the Sumo Juniors European Championship in Brandenburg. Source: DPA/PA Images

But just how does a skinny footballer from Roscommon — Gunning was 60kg when he first visited Japan — end up representing Ireland at the Sumo World Championships before going on to coach the sport and become a leading authority in Japanese media?

“I came here about two decades ago on a holiday and fell in love with the place. I moved here a year later and I was doing lots of different things. I was a soccer player most of my life, not at a very high level.

“When I came here it was pre-broadband, pre-internet, all those things. TV was still the main way of getting entertainment but, when you come to Japan, if you don’t speak the language — I didn’t at first — then nothing on the TV is understandable.

But sumo was the one thing that was pretty easy to figure out. Now, like everyone who comes here at first and doesn’t really understand the sport, I just thought it was fat guys in nappies pushing each other around.

“But when you get to see it up close, you realise that actually it’s very similar to American football, particularly [offensive and defensive] line play, just without pads. I’ve actually taken guys from the NFL and it’s very much the same skill set and I always say it’s like offensive line play except they don’t have to run downfield blocking for somebody.

“After watching it on TV, I was fascinated by it so I went to a live tournament. Once you see it in person, it’s just unlike any other sporting event with competitors going in and out and you get a really sweet smell at sumo events from the hair oil that they use. It’s a unique experience and I got hooked on it.

“I was living in Osaka at the time and after a few years I moved up to Tokyo but I got old and gave up the soccer because I couldn’t run anymore, especially in the 40 degree Japanese summers chasing 17-year-olds around the pitch.

“I was looking for another sport and I started thinking about trying sumo. My thought process was: ‘How hard could it be, it’s just pushing someone?’

“That’s insane looking back at it. It’s by far the hardest sport you can do. Like I said, it’s like offensive line play but you can also kick and slap and you’re getting smashed into the ground and the training is just something out of hell.

“While wrestling, I shattered my upper arm into three pieces, top to bottom, and fractured my skull so it wasn’t as easy as I thought at the beginning. But I did it for 10 years and represented Ireland in three World Championships.

“Badly,” he laughs, “but I represented Ireland.”

unnamed (8) Gunning on TV Source: John Gunning

With a background in media, Gunning moved to the area of Tokyo where most of the sumo wrestling takes place. He now writes for The Japan Times and does live TV spots with NHK World — the Japanese equivalent of the BBC World Service — which means he is seen in about 130 countries. He also runs his own media company, Inside Sport Japan.

But no matter the format, his main goal remains the same — to shine a light on the parts of the sumo world fans don’t get to see. Even when it’s not pretty.

In fact, especially when it’s not pretty.

“People have a lot more direct information through social media of some of the stuff that goes on, but I would say they don’t have suitable contact with the sumo world. People don’t get to see into training or anything like that.

“What I do with my writing is to try and show the public how hard it is for those involved in the sumo world. I get contacted regularly by people from abroad and they want to join the sumo ranks but they only see the top divisions and the yokozuna and the glamour and fame and money.

But 97% of guys taking part in sumo don’t get a salary and you’re joining a feudal society that hasn’t changed in 300 years so when you go into that society you’re essentially going back in time.

“When you join a stable, you give up all your rights, you can’t even go out to the shop. You sleep in a room with 20 other guys in a cross between a military unit and monastic order. There was one guy, I remember, he asked if the stable had wifi access which I laughed at because the boss said to him that he couldn’t use the computer or internet for the first three years. The only way he could contact his family was by writing at letter once per month. This guy was 20, I don’t think he ever put pen to paper in his life.

“The sumo world is inherently violent and is a Darwinian society designed to crush you and make you quit or else succeed. That’s just the way it’s set up. There’s a lot of stuff that people in regular society couldn’t even comprehend. It’s constantly violent, not just in the ring, because everyone is out for themselves. It’s a real dog-eat-dog world, even inside the same stable. You take guys who are aged 15-21 — which is the vast majority of them — young men, with very strong emotions, hormonal and without a lot of life experience and they’re put into a world with no freedom.

“They can’t go out, they can’t have a girlfriend. They get up a four in the morning and have to do all their chores. Then they get beaten up in the ring for three hours before cooking and serving the food to the people who beat them up. They can only eat whatever is left over. It’s just a constant physical, mental and emotional stress on these young men. There’s no outlet for the emotions that the sumo world stirs up in people. The pain, frustration and humiliation these guys go through and the only way they can let off that stress is through physical violence with someone who is lower than them.

“If you want to climb in sumo, you have to beat them up in the ring, that’s just the way it’s set up, to force extreme dominance.

Now, you can quit at any time but you can never come back. Once you’re out, you’re done. You only have one shot at it so these guys can’t take a break and come back or move to another stable. For most of them, it’s at least two or three years before they can reach the paid ranks and, as I said, very few of them do. Every person in the Sumo Association went through the same thing so there’s no sympathy for you because the guys who are still there went through it and they think the next generation should do the same.

“There’s no way for someone not in that world to understand the kind of stuff that goes on. I won’t say they keep it hidden, but it is a side of sumo that most people don’t know about. When people see it, they imagine pageantry, but they can’t imagine the turmoil going on inside each wrestler all the time until they reach the top.”

Source: John Gunning

Sumo, in various guises, can trace a path back 1500 years. But one very modern condition – chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) — is something Gunning believes is the sport’s next big challenge.

“I’ve been raising the issue on TV for the past five years but it’s something that hasn’t captured public attention yet,” he says.

“In the kids’ club, they still do the same thing and encourage the kids to come in and you hear that coconut sound of the heads cracking together.

“It’s a ticking time bomb and I’ve called it that for a long time. You can see a lot of the older guys clearly suffering from CTE but it hasn’t reached the sumo consciousness just yet. But, for someone like me who is a fan of American football, I can see it coming. You’re going head-to-head and you don’t even have a helmet. I see these guys getting dazed and knocked out and they’re just pulled off to the side until they come around.

It will become a huge thing and, for sumo, it’s going to become a much bigger issue than it is for some other sports like rugby because those sports are constantly introducing rule changes and style of play changes and those sports have a lot of moving parts so it’s easier to do that. But in sumo it’s a very simple thing, two guys clash in a ring trying to drive each other out.

“That impact is essentially what sumo is so it’s going to be very hard to introduce anything. There’s no equipment to modify, the ring itself is a hard surface but there’s nothing you can do with it that will effect head-to-head contact. When it does come, it’s going to be a difficult issue to deal with.”

It’s not all negative, of course. Gunning wouldn’t be involved with the sport if it was and you can hear the pride in his voice as he talks about the younger athletes he has trained who have gone on to join the top ranks.

But he knows the sport needs to change and if his suggestions for how that comes about clashes with tradition, well that only makes the change more needed.

“I think I would give the wrestlers more outlets for their stress. Young guys these days grew up in a very different world than even I did. They’ve never known life without the internet and are much more connected. It’s a lot harder for kids to deal with the sense of isolation that sumo brings. They shouldn’t be forced to give up their phones, for example.

“And they should also be more prepared for life after sumo. Most guys quit in their late twenties and they’re the exact same as they were at 15, they’ve no life skills and not a lot ahead of them. So I’d like more care for the guys who are in it to make things easier for them after they finish.

“I’m not saying take away all the harshness and all the physicality, it’s still a physical sport that needs a certain amount of toughness, but we live in a different world now than even 20 years ago and the needs of young people are very different.

“It’s not the 1750s any more.”

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About the author:

Steve O'Rourke

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