Japan from the inside out

Clearing the air at sumo matches

Posted by ampontan on Monday, November 10, 2008

SPORTS FANS around the world express their dissatisfaction with the turn of events on the playing field in different ways. Americans, for example, prefer to boo, while the Europeans whistle shrilly.

The Japanese don’t whistle, and it wasn’t until American baseball games were widely broadcast after pitcher Nomo Hideo went east in 1995 to pitch for the Los Angeles Dodgers that they picked up the booing habit. (There are still a lot fewer boo-birds in Japan than in the United States, however.)


But they definitely have their own way of making their feelings known when it comes to the national sport of sumo. Spectators attending sumo matches have been known to throw things at the ring, both in delight and anger, since the Edo period (1603-1868). In those days, the spectators would throw their haori, a short overgarment, into the ring to celebrate a win by their favorite rikishi. But the days of regular haori wearing are long gone. Instead of clothing, today’s Japanese are most likely to throw zabuton, the traditional cushions used for sitting on the floor at home.

The box seats, the prime seating areas at a sumo match, are usually sectioned off into groups of four, and the venue provides each of the seats in the box with a zabuton. Being handy and flingable, the cushions became a logical substitute for the haori, and they are hurled toward the ring by fans upset over a referee’s decision, the loss of a yokozuna (the top-ranked rikishi) to a lower-ranked opponent, or anything else that rubs them the wrong way.

That doesn’t mean the zabuton-throwing is condoned. The Japan Sumo Association, responsible for running the matches, broadcasts a request inside the hall every day of the six 15-day tournaments held during the year asking customers to refrain from abusing the furnishings. A similar written request is also printed on the daily list of scheduled matches distributed inside the hall. These have not been effective in eliminating the custom, however. It’s not easy even for the Japanese to end a centuries-old tradition just by asking nicely.

The reason for the request is that the square seat cushions don’t always fly in the direction they are flung, and someone could get hurt if they get hit by one. Says Dewano’umi, formerly known as the sekiwake Washuyama, now in charge of running the November Kyushu tournament:

“Throwing zabuton is dangerous. It’s astonishing that there haven’t been any accidents before. But it would be too late to take action after something (bad) happened. We thought of various ways to put a stop to it, and decided to make the zabuton in a shape that wouldn’t fly well.”

The new, difficult-to-throw zabuton made their debut at the Kyushu tournament at Fukuoka City’s Fukuoka Kokusai Center on Sunday the 9th. The space in the box seat areas have been expanded, and instead of having four individual square zabuton for each of the patrons in the box, they will be provided with double zabuton sets. These consist of two rectangular cushions measuring 125 centimeters (49 inches) by 50 centimeters and attached by a cord. A fan would have to be seriously upset to get one of those things airborne.


The reactions to the new cushions have been mixed. One member of a local Kyushu group with ringside seats (called suna kaburi in Japanese, or “covered with sand”) said, “I’ve been hit by flying zabuton before, and it didn’t hurt. But some people who have been hit said that it hurt a lot, so I’m glad they’re doing something about it.”

In contrast, one woman in her 20s from Fukuoka City who plans to attend the tournament said she was disappointed that she wouldn’t be able to see any flying zabuton because she thought it represented the real sumo atmosphere. A housewife in her 50s said she thought it was a bit frightening because people might decide to throw something else instead of the zabuton. (Are not those views representative of the classic difference between youth and age?)

The workers at the Fukuoka Kokusai Center, whose job it is to place them in the boxes and remove them after the matches, say that carrying the zabuton to the seats is more difficult than before, because two sets for four people weigh 4.8 kilograms (10.6 lbs). They did appreciate one benefit, however—the new cushions take less work to arrange in the box.

Others are worried that guys being guys the world over, some will try to throw them anyway, and the new types will be even more dangerous if they achieve some trajectory. But if the new zabuton work out, the association plans to use them in Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya, the other three cities where tournaments are held.

The whole issue was perhaps best summed up by another sumo association official, who said, “It’s not that people can’t throw them any more, it’s that they weren’t supposed to throw them to begin with.”

7 Responses to “Clearing the air at sumo matches”

  1. I went to a Los Angeles Raiders football game many years ago where they gave out Raiders seat cushions. The Raiders lost the game to the Kansas City Chiefs and everyone started throwing the Raiders mats onto the field. They were square shaped like the zabuton and would fly really far like a frisbee. Your picture reminded me of that.

  2. The Overthinker said

    All I can say is what I said when this topic was posted on Japan Probe. Nobody expects the Spanish Inquistion, after all.
    “Oh no! Not the…soft cushions!”

  3. bender said

    Now they’re Oakland Raiders now…when I spent my good childhood days in that area, it was the age of the “9ers”. Joe Montana was the guy. Now they hardly win a game. Darn.

  4. ampontan said

    And when they were the Oakland Raiders the first time, they also had a dominant period behind Stanford’s Jim Plunkett, just before the 49ers and the age of Joe Montana.

    Now neither of them win a lot of football games.

  5. Ken said

    At that time, Jay Schroeder’s strong arm was a kind of threat.
    By the way, yesterday’s Monday night game was damn.
    Roger Craig could have touchdown only 2 yards to goal line.

  6. Durf said

    I think zabuton-tossing is celebratory far more often than it’s a negative reaction to something. People are ecstatic when an underdog picks up the shiroboshi against a Yokozuna and they throw the mat to show elation.

  7. […] This year’s Kyushu Grand Sumo Tournament is at the halfway point, and Kyushu-based blogger Ampontan explained after the first day how the Japan Sumo Association has reconfigured the zabuton (lit. […]

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