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  • Photography:Cameron Allan Mckean
  • Photography:Cameron Allan Mckean

Saburo Hatakeyama: Keep your back to the outside

, 2014/01/10

“My name is Shonosuke Kimura, but the name I was born with is Saburo Hatakeyama.” One of the only people allowed within the ring during a Sumo match Inosuke sets the pace of the matches, decides outcomes, and guides the wrestlers through prayers. He is a Gyoji, whose complex and ritualised job places him somewhere between Shinto Priest and Sumo referee. We are speaking with him today in a sprawling but empty tatami room in the basement of the Sumo Hall. He arrives in a grey suit. He is stern and concise, and doesn’t break into a smile, or overexplain anything; an impartial Judge. Inosuke quickly changes into his Gyoji uniform; an elaborate layering of patterned purple fabric, a hat, a paddle, and a blade to disembowel himself in the event that he makes a wrong judgement (thankfully it’s just symbolic these days). While other traditions in Japan require years or decades of experience before someone can actually begin doing the work, Shonosuke says he began judging matches almsot immediately after beginning, “the point is to actually learn through experience, to actually do it.” Experience is necessary to calm the nerves when you’re in front of 11,000 people in the Sumo Hall, but Shonosuke says he just “pushes everything out of his mind.” Being in the ring with two colliding giants requires intense focus. Once a falling wrestler knocked him off the ring and he passed out from a concussion, “other judges had to judge the outcome of match,” and he adds, “you also have to watch out for salt getting thrown at you.” Wrestlers sometimes throw the purifying salt recklessly during the pre-match ritual. But salt is a minor concern, the hardest thing is “always keeping your back to the outside,” as a way of staying safe. Insides and outsides are everywhere in Sumo culture. The Sumo Association which manages the matches and employee’s (including Gyoji’s) keeps information about how they operate to insiders only, leading to an air of mysticism and mystery around Sumo (and sneaking suspicions about subterfuge). More of a worry for many people is the involvement of wrestlers from outside Japan. “Foreigners are getting much stronger, there are foreigners in everything,” says Shonosuke. He is not sure why more Japanese don’t become wrestlers. Maybe it just isn’t exciting for children anymore, “maybe we need Sumo rings in schools,” he wonders, or “maybe Japanese people don’t like having so much of their body exposed?” The question is, how can Sumo capture the imagination of the modern generation without letting go of its traditional roots? “I don’t know,” says Inosuke, “I just love Sumo, the best thing about my job is that I get to see Sumo closer than anyone else.”
 
This story originally appeared in PAPERSKY’s ARGENTINA | ART Issue (no.43)

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