Holding on to History and Sumo in the USA

November 19, 2010

Our November Active Cultures was a wild one pairing a conservation professional with a bunch of Sumo wrestlers. Jonathan S. Bell – a conservation professional and Andrew Freund – director of Sumo USA’s professional backgrounds may have seemed very different but the two discussed the issue of preserving authenticity and value in their respective fields.

Jonathan’s presentation focused on preserving China’s 5000 years of recorded history. China is home to an incredible wealth of historic buildings, archaeological sites, and cultural landscapes which have suffered the ravages of time and face a new threat: rapid development. As China grows and urbanizes at a rate never before seen by humankind, people, ways of life, and the legacies of the past are threatened. The Chinese government and heritage professionals strive to mitigate these threats through multiple efforts to educate a new generation of professionals, establish guidelines for the care and protection of cultural heritage sites, and respond to the growing numbers of tourists and infrastructure development. Jonathan’s talk considered two sites in detail, Mogao Grottoes in Gansu Province and Dhe-Tsang Monastery in Sichuan Province, to highlight some of the threats to these historic places and the challenges faced by heritage professionals in China.

Andrew began his presentation with a short history of Sumo, which is Japan’s “kokugi” (or national sport).  In most ways, professional sumo wrestlers today live exactly like their predecessors did in centuries past especially in their daily training schedule, meals (quantity and type of food), observation of a very detailed hierarchy among wrestlers, coaches, leaders, referees, and attendants, hairstyle and apparel.  Andrew emphasized that Sumo wrestlers are real athletes (contrary to some American stereotypes).  As audience members observed at the live presentation, Byamba (who spent 5 years in pro sumo in Japan) not only demonstrated feats of strength, but his speed is lightning-fast, his balance is astounding, and his flexibility was exemplified by his performance of a full leg-split, with face on the floor.  Even at nearly 350 lbs, his body fat percentage is around 12%.  Sumo in the USA keeps the sport aspect of sumo alive, but many of the lifestyle trappings of professional sumo have to be dropped to make the sports accessible to Americans.  Anyone can practice and compete, but it would not be feasible for people to spend 30+ hours a week training, plus all the time required for two massive daily meals, afternoon naps, and grueling chores. So, the sport of sumo is possible here, but not the professional sumo lifestyle (like they live in Japan).

The presentations were followed by a very lively demo with Byamba and his sparring partner Kamir showing us their Sumo skills. Then Jonathan and Andrew took questions from the audience!