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Sumo wrestling is a traditional martial art that originated the 9th century and is closely associated with Shinto, the indigenous religion of Japan. The objective of a Sumo bout is simple – the over-sized combatants aim to force their opponents out of the dohyo (ring) or onto the ground using a mixture of slapping, wrestling and shoving. Although wrestlers grasp the mawashi (loincloth ) of their opponents in an attempt to throw them, grasping the opponent’s testicles and squeezing them is frowned upon and is, in fact, a violation of the rules.

The dohyo is considered sacred ground and is blessed by a Shinto priest before every bout. When the wrestlers enter the dohyo they perform an elaborate series of Shinto rituals, starting with a foot-stomping exercise to drive away evil spirits. Foreign visitors to a sumo tournament have been known to panic when stomping starts, mistaking the mild rumblings from the dohyo for the start of an earthquake.

After the foot-stomping, the wrestlers rinse out their mouths with a ladle of chikara mizu, or “power water,” and dry them with paper tissues called chikara gami, or “power paper.” Finally, before a bout begins, the wrestlers toss a handful of salt into the dohyo to purify it. Although as a tactic throwing salt into the eyes of an opponent would certainly give a wrestler an advantage, there is no known case this ever happening.

Once the bout begins, the action can be fast and furious with the wrestlers slapping, shoving and pushing or trying to trip each other. The winner is the wrestler who forces his opponent out of the dohyo or to touch the ground with any part of his body except for the feet. A wrestler who loses his mawashi during a bout is automatically disqualified as the sight of a male sumo wrestler naked from the waist down can be a traumatic experience for those unfortunate to experience it.

The sight of a female sumo wrestler losing her mawashi during a bout, however, has never shocked anyone in Japan. Moreover, totally naked women sumo wrestlers were once revered. In times of drought, for example, naked women wrestled in shrine precincts to provoke the anger of the Gods and cause rain.

In the eighteenth century onna zumo, women’s sumo, took off as a sport in Osaka, where it was popular in the brothel quarter. As well as bouts between women, there were also bouts between women and blind men (men who could see were ineligible as it was considered that they would not be able to concentrate on the sport).

By 1744, women’s sumo bouts featured regularly at the Sensoji Temple in Asakusa, Edo (now Tokyo), and they were immensely popular, especially with the owners of the nearby brothels. In 1926 the authorities eventually prohibited naked female sumo on the presumption that it promoted immorality. Female sumo did, however, manage to survive until after World War II in cabarets and beer halls, where there was no false pretense of modesty.   

In recent years sumo has been beset by scandals that have seriously damaged the reputation for sportsmanship and purity it had long enjoyed. These scandals include match-fixing, betting on baseball and golf as well as other professional sports, and drug taking. One of the top foreign wrestlers, and perhaps the greatest of his generation, Asashoryu, was forced to retire after beating up the former head of a biker gang after an argument in Roppongi. Other foreign wrestlers have been sacked for smoking marijuana.

Whether sumo recovers from the recent scandals or not is uncertain. Younger Japanese do not seem to have the spirit to put up with the rigid discipline of life in a sumo stable. There are also more attractive sporting opportunities for those with athletic ability, including careers in soccer or baseball.

One should not, however, write sumo off. As a sport, it has been around for a very long time, longer than most sports still practiced today. It is culturally ingrained in the Japanese psyche, and it has overcome crises before. Expect it to do so again.

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Akira Toyoda’s mobile started vibrating in his pocket; he ignored it and took another swig of Newcastle Brown Ale. The vibrating persisted. Shit, he thought, it’s got to be headquarters. For a moment he considered switching it off; then he relented. There was no point in getting himself into any more trouble.

He took the phone out of his pocket and checked the call number on the liquid crystal display screen. He was right: headquarters. That could mean only one thing—the end to his Friday night. He leant over the table and shouted, “Back in a minute.” Yelena stuck her tongue out.

Toyoda pushed his way through a rowdy crowd of drunken foreign brokers, some of whom looked as if they’d been drinking since lunchtime, and stepped out into the balmy, grimy night air of Roppongi.

Although the second-floor terrace that fronted Inn for the Night was not as comfortable as the interior—there was no air-conditioning—it was just as crowded and just as noisy. The overhead speakers blasted out White Room by Cream. Everybody on the terrace was speaking at full volume.

One man, an American, was drowning out Eric Clapton’s meaty guitar solo with boasts about his business acumen. And a young Japanese woman, the only person trying to follow the man’s one-way conversation, was awestruck.

For a split second, Toyoda thought of giving the man a shove that would send him crashing down the stairs and knock the wind out of him. Then he relented and squeezed past him to go down to the street.

The humidity was stifling. It had rained until mid-afternoon, then the sun had come out, and the temperature had risen to thirty-five degrees. But it was the humidity—it stood at about ninety percent—that hit Toyoda the hardest. By the time he arrived at street level, Toyoda was drenched. He dialed headquarters and got an answer at the first ring.

“Where are you?” snapped Superintendent Tanaka. “I’ve been ringing for ages.”

“Roppongi,” he answered. “I didn’t hear the phone ringing.”

“I bet you didn’t,” said Tanaka. “What the hell are you doing there? Don’t you see enough foreigners when you’re on duty?”

“It’s Friday evening so I was just ….”

Tanaka cut him off. “Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed yourself, because you’ve got work to do now. Get yourself off to Minami-Senju. And I mean now, not after another drink!”

“Minami-Senju?” groaned Toyoda, “What’s going on up there?”

“Suspicious death,” said Tanaka. “A dead foreigner, so that means we are involved.”

“Homicide?” asked Toyoda.

“How the hell should I know?” growled Tanaka. All I know is that we have a dead foreigner on our hands. Don’t ask any more questions; just get up there as fast as you can. Oh, and by the way, don’t even think about driving up there in that flashy Mercedes of yours! I’ve no intention of covering for you again.”

“It’s not a Mercedes, it’s a Porsche,” said Toyoda, cringing at the reminder of his latest, and most serious cockup, a reckless act of stupidity that could have cost him his career. Tanaka had covered up for him, but that meant he owed his boss something. And Tanaka would wait for the right moment before calling in his debt. Meanwhile, Toyoda had to jump every time Tanaka barked. And Tanaka had just barked.

“I’ll get a squad car from Azabu police station,” said Toyoda, “I wouldn’t risk taking my own car up to Senju. It would probably get stolen.”

He rang off and looked at the time before putting the phone back in his pocket. It had just turned seven o’clock; the evening had hardly begun but for him it had already ended—in tatters. He cursed his luck as he climbed the stairs back to the pub.

As he pushed the door open and entered, one of the foreigners dropped his pants and mooned him. The others cheered and howled with laughter. It was a sickening sight. The mooner was grossly overweight and carried a great part of his weight on his buttocks. Most Japanese would have froze, turned and gone straight back down the steps. But Toyoda was made of sterner stuff. Besides, he had seen it all before. He walked straight past the mooner, shoved a short, fat bald foreigner to one side and forced his way through the crowd.

One of the foreigners was slouched back in a chair with his legs stretched out across the floor. On his way past, Toyoda tripped over the legs and fell into the foreigner, elbowing him in the chest as he did so. The man grunted and dropped his glass, sending beer cascading across the floor. Before the foreigner realized what was happening, Toyoda apologized: “Sorry mate, tripped over some bugger’s foot!” He patted the foreigner on the shoulder, winked and walked into the back of the bar, where Yelena was waiting for him. As he walked away the foreigners all fell silent and stared after him.

“What the fuck was that all about?” said one of the foreigners.

“A Japanese with a Geordie accent!” said another. “I’ve heard it all now.”

“You should have decked him,” said the first one who had spoken.

“I don’t think it would have worked,” said the other. “Look at the size of the bastard. He was just hoping you would try something, and then he would have decked you. Confident bastard; he’s got to be connected.”

Yelena was talking into her cell phone when Toyoda dropped into his seat. She flashed a perfunctory smile and went on talking. Toyoda picked up his cigarettes, put them in his shirt pocket and stood up. Yelena covered the mouthpiece with her hand, “Just a moment, I’m almost finished.”

“Take your time,” said Toyoda, “I have to go.”

Yelena spoke hurriedly into the phone and rang off. “What do you mean, you have to go?” she said sharply. “You promised to take me to that new German restaurant. I haven’t eaten since breakfast and I’m starving.”

He shrugged. “Sorry. Something has happened, and I have to go. I’ll get back as soon as I can,” he promised, then he left her at the table and pushed his way through the crowd again. This time the foreigners saw him coming and moved respectfully out of the way.

He stopped at the door and turned back towards the foreigners. He looked the mooner straight in the eye. “You want to be careful who you show your arse to around here, mate. There are a lot of fellows who might find it too much temptation. And you wouldn’t want to lead anyone on, would you?” He tapped his nose and left the pub. A raucous bout of laughter followed him out the door.

He turned towards the Roppongi Intersection and set off for Azabu police station. The street was bustling. Although it was still early, the African touts were out in force. One of them grabbed his arm and tried to drag him towards a club. Toyoda shook himself free.

Another of the Africans, a gigantic man in a floral shirt, baggy trousers and a beret laughed out loud. He shouted something in Yoruba to the other African, who responded in the same language and then laughed.

“What’s the joke, Sonny?” Toyoda stopped in front of the large African, who held out his hand. Toyoda took it.

“He’s new on the street. I told him that he’d just tried to hustle a cop.”

Toyoda smiled. “That’s nothing,” he said. “A guy up there,” Toyoda pointed to the pub he had just left, “flashed me as I walked through the door.”

The African laughed “You should have flashed him…..with your warrant card. That would have brought him back to reality.”

Toyoda shook his head. “No point in giving that kind of information out unless it is really necessary.”

The African nodded in agreement. Toyoda turned and waved his hand in the air as he walked away.

Roppongi is certainly not Japan, he thought, savoring the aroma of roast chicken wafting across the sidewalk from the illegally parked rotisserie van. The Chicken Man, as the African who owned the rotisserie was known, interrupted his conversation with one of the Turks from the kebab van parked next to him to greet Toyoda. Toyoda nodded, but did not stop. A ten minute walk along Gaien Higashi Dori, he thought, and you practically go through the United Nations.

Toyoda strode into Azabu police station and went straight up to the front desk. The uniform sitting there looked surprised when Toyoda walked in. “You’re back early,” he said. “What happened, I thought you had the night off?”

“So did I,” replied Toyoda, somehow managing not to sound bitter. “The old man called me, and now I am off to Senju. Have you got a car and a driver to take me up there?”

The uniform gave a twisted smile and shook his head. “On a Friday evening? You’ll be lucky to get one before midnight. Anyway, what’s wrong with your own car? I thought you had it parked out back.”

Toyoda leant over the desk and breathed into the younger man’s face.

The uniform jerked his head back, waved his hand in front of his nose, and pulled a face. “That’s enough! I get the picture. It’s a taxi or the subway. And if I were you and I were in a hurry, I wouldn’t even bother trying to get a taxi. You’ll only end up sitting at the crossroads for the next thirty minutes or so. You’d be there by then on the subway.”

Toyoda grabbed a magazine from the desk and turned towards the door. “See you later.”

Chapter 2

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Recently as I have been walking home from Tsukiji to Roppongi, a distance of about 6 kilometers, I have had a feeling of déjà vu. For a few days I wracked my brains, but could not figure out where the feeling was coming from. Then, this morning, as I opened my eyes, I experienced satori.

Tokyo presently resembles Berlin of the 1970s, when the city was divided in two. I lived in the West and worked in the East. The sun shone evenly on both sides of the city; so during the day there was very little difference—except for the advertizing billboards. In the West, the glitzy billboards advertised the latest in the line of automobiles such as Mercedes and Porsche, as well global brands like Coca Cola, Channel and Gucci; in the East, the giant austere billboards hosted huge photos of the Worker of the Month and text listing the achievements of the “Working Class Hero of the Deutsche Demokratic Republik.”

But when the sun went down, the difference between the two halves of the divided city was stark. The West lit up with neon while the East disappeared in darkness. In the words of the song by the singer-songwriter Paul Joses (Scottish-born but then resident of West Berlin), the red side of the Berlin Wall was like the Dark Side of the Moon.

Tokyo is by no stretch of the imagination like East Berlin of the 1970s—quite the contrary, it is still very much a vibrant and exciting city—but there are certain similarities. There are very few flashing neon lights and store fronts are dark and the interiors are on minimum lighting. But this is because everyone understands the need to save on electricity while the country is experiencing a crisis.

Towards the end of the day, many of the shelves in convenience stores are empty of milk, bakery products and the like. Large bottles of mineral water are just not available, beer is scarce and getting scarcer, and even cans of chu-hi are in short supply. The reason for the beer shortages, we are told, is that the major domestic brewers all have breweries in the Tohoku region. I have heard no excuses yet for the shortages of chu-hi.

Nevertheless, despite the dimming down (of the nighttime skyline, I mean), and the shortages of essentials like beer and chu-hi, Tokyo is not at all in crisis; nor was East Berlin in the 1970s. The difference between the two is that the situation in Tokyo is just a temporary phenomenon, while for East Berlin it was the norm, and Tokyo will light up again soon.

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Despite the hype and the hysteria in the foreign press, Tokyo is still functioning fairly normally. It certainly is not the City of the Damned that some media are painting it. If we are to believe all we read and hear, we are just waiting for the “Big One” that will erase Tokyo from the map. And if that were not bad enough, there is supposed to be a radioactive cloud headed our way. Sure, there are a few problems like shortages of certain goods in the shops, the shutdown of elevators and escalators, a reduction in the number of trains and subways, threats of a blackout and the odd aftershock or two. But the Japanese and the foreigners who were not scared out of town as soon as the tremors died down are going about their business as usual.

According to one UK daily, on one day last week, “You could find a few die-hard Brits and other expatriates who wouldn’t leave their beers on the counter in the party-time district of Roppongi for any threatening radioactive cloud, but mostly Tokyo has become eerily quiet.” Well, I was one I was one of the die-hards drinking in Roppongi that evening and I neither saw any threatening radioactive cloud nor heard of one. Moreover, I walked to Roppongi from Tsukiji, which took about 45 minutes, and passed thousands of people walking (some fairly quickly, I admit) to the stations, but there was no sign of panic. I admit, though, that there was a heavy dust cloud hanging over the city. But that was caused by the rush to Narita as the rats scuttled away from what they thought was a sinking ship.

The biggest losers in the aftermath of the Tohoku Pacific Ocean Offshore Earthquake are going to be those foreigners who scampered away from Tokyo, their tails between their legs. None of these fleet-foots will ever be able to look a Japanese in the eye again if they come crawling back to Tokyo when the media give the all clear. None of them will ever be trusted again, and I would be very surprised if any Japanese would have anything to do with them. But who could blame them for running away? After all, the media had predicted the worst. And let’s just hope they are wrong as usual!

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