Saturday, January 15, 2011

A Seated Mountain

My longings continue to revolve around Japan, my reading more and more of a type to feed wistful thoughts. The Donald Richie journals are again coloring the memories, reminding me of that marvelous comment by Pico Iyer that Richie has made his life in Japan and in doing so has made Japan his art. Few observers of the Japanese scene have the eye that sees what Richie does, and when his vision lands upon the rare or non-public setting, the reader feels then the very breath of that moment on the back of the neck.

Turning through his journal pages today with no real direction, looking for this or that passage remembered from an earlier reading, I came upon this entry about a visit to a sumo stable. Unlike the changing generations of Japanese young people celebrating Coming of Age Day, the glimpse offered below is of a solidly traditional and unchanging corner of Japan, the same now as it was in 1700.

5 MAY 1978

With Lynn Levy-Matsuoka to sketch the sumo wrestlers. Met her on the other side of the river in Ryogoku, center of the city in the eighteenth century, now all warehouses. The sumo stadium is still there, however, and so are the stables of the wrestlers.

It is a small world of its own, and a closed one. We are admitted by six-foot apprentices in stiff loincloths, and then sit on the dais and watch the practice. This consists of one young wrestler after another trying to push the head wrestler, an enormous man, from the earthen ring. He does not budge—then slaps them to one side and they roll to the ground. One after another they take their turn. The man stands there like a mountain.

Lynn sketches—her strong line holding the bulging form, suggesting the latent force. When practice is over all the wrestlers go to take a bath, and we are invited upstairs to watch them and then eat with them. A large tatami room, their wash drying at the windows, a long low table, and a big kitchen, since they eat a lot. The younger wrestlers already busy, grating daikon, slicing squid and cabbage, their enormous fingers awkwardly holding knives and chopsticks—all still in their stiff loincloths as they stand, sit or squat. It is like a boys’ school, or like a barracks.

It is also like a stable. The men are so enormous that they are like animals—fat animals, with slabs and rolls of meat and wide, vacant faces. And they behave with the silent deference of beasts, swinging their heads. I am bid to eat with syllables and lowered eyes and an awkward hand. In contrast, the oyabun, a seated mountain, is at ease and it is I who defer to him and use my most polite language, sitting properly all through the meal on my aching calves.

Theirs is a world of order—the old order where differences in station are never questioned. Without a word, he holds out his rice bowl and a young wrestler hurries forward, eyes averted, to take it. The older man leans on an elbow, his strength, his visible power, making him appear arrogant. As he eats, another young wrestler squats and massages his thigh. In the corner of the kitchen, two more young wrestlers whisper, hug each other, and giggle. He pays no attention, shaking his head as though a fly is bothering him—a very intelligent bull. All of this Lynn captures with her pencil, this whole Genroku world she is so in love with, this living remnant of old Edo.

Note: The drawing of the sumo wrestler is one by Lynn Matsuoka.


  1. Thanks for sharing these wonderful reflections on Donald Richie! The journals continue to inspire... Do take a look at our site for other Richie titles, and keep your eyes peeled for forthcoming work by Richie this fall.

    All the best,

    Jeanne Platt
    Publicist, Stone Bridge Press

  2. Wow, I JUST saw this. I miss Donald, he was a friend and a brilliant observer of all sides of Japanese life....


About Me

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America