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Howard 'on site'



Howard Gilbert

University of Auckland

Howard is studying for a PhD in Japanese History. He is analysing the structure and nature of amateur sumo in three regions - Japan, Oceania and Central Europe. Visits to Osaka and Toyko from September to November 2004 gave him the opportunity to observe the preparation by sumo groups for tournaments and championships, and their participation in those events. The following is a report on that period of fieldwork.

Amateur Sumo

Fieldwork in Osaka and Toyko, September - November 2004

My ten weeks of fieldwork in Japan provided the opportunity to interview athletes and administrators in amateur sumo organisations and clubs, and to observe amateur sumo activities in Osaka and Tokyo. I was particularly interested in the national and gender identities apparent in Japanese amateur sumo amid the increasing internationalization of the amateur sumo and the promotion of women's participation.

I spent the first half of my time based in Osaka, which is the historical home of university student sumo as well as the home and administrative base for women's amateur sumo (shinzumō). There I attended two of the three major annual shinzumō tournaments, and was able to meet administrators as well as a couple of athletes. I later had opportunities to speak to these officials in semi-structured interviews. Their insights gave me a much better idea about the sport's development. I also made contact with the Ritsumeikan University sumo club in nearby Kyoto. It was here that I had access to student athletes and their trainers. I had initially approached the university to contact their lone female athlete. I observed her practising with the male group once, but their different competition schedules meant she was largely absent from group training. While I found out a lot of information from her via email, I was not able to formally interview her during my time in Osaka.

The second half of my fieldwork was based in Tokyo, which is home to professional sumo, and where I saw two of the larger national amateur competitions. The first, the National Athletic Meet, includes not only sumo but many other sports. Thus, amateur sumo here was placed amid a wider sporting context, and was performed for both individual and prefectural pride. At the second, the national university sumo tournament, the cream of amateur sumo compete both in individual and team competitions, with the individual champion guaranteed a passage into professional sumo. While in Tokyo I met a Czech student competing as a member of the Tokyo University sumo club. I was able to follow him to tournaments to get a perspective of the encounters he had as a conspicuous ‘other' in Japanese amateur sumo, and we talked about the challenges he faced and the reactions he had experienced. At one local tournament I was persuaded to compete alongside him, therefore becoming a conspicuous ‘other' within the ring myself. Furthermore, I met two European men who had turned an interest in professional sumo into attempts at amateur sumo in a local club. My contact with all three was an unexpected benefit that placed national identity and sumo in new contexts.

Perhaps the most significant aspect was the opportunity to interview amateur sumo administrators who had been instrumental in establishing both international amateur sumo and shinzumō. Through the information gathered in these interviews I have a much clearer picture of the motives for and processes in establishing the sport beyond Japan's borders. I was also able to talk to non-Japanese participating at various levels in Japanese amateur sumo.