Popular Culture

Do You Even Sumo, Bro?

Coming together.JPG

Mark Guthrie Gets to Grips with Some Sweaty Summer Sumo

The sun has been up for barely an hour as I cycle into a northwest suburb of Nagoya, but the mercury has already hit the high twenties, with the humidity making it feel a lot more. From the park behind me comes the steady buzz of cicadas in the trees, and as I corner a meandrous road I almost collide with a group of chattering sailor-uniformed schoolgirls carrying brass instruments on their way to early morning practice.

But despite the insects and the kids, the most prominent sound is a slow, mournful, counting. “Ich’, ni, san, shi, go.” One, two, three, four five. It’s purposeful yet casual. “Rok’, shich’, hach’, kyu, ju, ots’”. Six, seven, eight, nine, ten, done. As the road winds past the modern new-build houses and old wooden homes, the counting grows louder until I arrive at Goshosha shrine, the temporary home of the Isenoumi Sumo Beya.

The Isenoumi beya [literally ‘room’, but in sumo commonly translated to ‘stable’] is an old and storied one. Though its current incarnation dates from 1949 it has origins in the mid-eighteenth century, with one of the first yokozuna [top-ranking sumo], the legendary Tanikaze, and his protégé Raiden, considered to be the greatest rikishi [sumo wrestler] of all time, its early champions. Today, the stable is not quite as illustrious as its glittering past, though on the day that I meet them I see Nishikigi Tetsuya, a mid-ranking maegashira [fourth-level rikishi], putting the younger men through their paces 

And they are some paces. As the morning ages, even stood in the shade of the shrine I am sweating like a rabid dog at customs, but to step closer to the training ring, with the sun hammering on its corrugated-tin roof, the heat radiating from it is choking. And in this extreme temperature these huge guys are stretching, pumping iron, practicing manoeuvres and undergoing grueling sparring bouts. It seems like utter madness.

Yet there is reason for this madness. For, while the Isenoumi Beya are based in Tokyo, each summer they, along with the other major stables, travel south to Nagoya in order to train and acclimatise for the intense humidity of the city’s Grand Tournament, the Nagoya Basho.

The Big Six

There are six such annual honbasho [professional sumo tournaments] – three in Tokyo, one in Osaka, one in Fukuoka and the Nagoya Basho, each lasting 15 days. Rikishi ranked in the top two divisions compete once each day, while those of the lower divisions wrestle seven times throughout the tournament, and the cumulative results of these bouts determine whether they will rise or fall in the rankings. While some honbasho are considered more prestigious than others, Nagoya’s intense summer humidity makes it perhaps the most demanding. It’s also a great spectacle.

The day starts at around 8:30 with the first low-ranking rikishi bouts, as the early spectators arrive. These are mostly families carting cool boxes of picnic food piled on top of the contraband beer and sake that the guards blatantly ignore (unless you happen to be a foreigner with just a couple of cans in your backpack, and then you can guarantee that they will be discovered, meaning that you have to either toss them – let’s face it, not gonna happen – or stand out in the car park necking both before you’ve even had breakfast).

Inside you make your way to your seats which range from the corporate boxes, the ringsides, mid-level tatami or the stalls in the gods, and all but the first and last consist of zabuton [seating cushions] on tatami mats. These vary in price (though are cheaper if you’ve got mates in a top company or decent yakuza group), but no matter what, you want the cushions. More on which later.

Ready? Fight!

In the first few hours the hall is pretty empty, and you can roam as you please, getting right up close to the dohyo [ring]. Within the dohyo the action is fast. Rikishi enter, and CRASH-BANG-WALLOP it’s all over and the next pair appear. It goes so quickly that, if you look down to open a can of beer (costing 800 bloody yen!) a fight has been and gone.

Few people are interested in this lower-level competition, however, instead choosing to wander the hall, meeting up with friends, getting drunk and hanging around the smoking area that is so heavy with smoke that it looks like a genie convention that all turned up at once. 

Sometime around lunch, as people start pulling onigiri [rice balls] and packets of dried squid from on top of the quickly-depleting booze caches, more and more people file in. At about three o’clock an appreciable buzz fills the air, and within the crowd can be seen pockets of beautiful women in exquisite kimono. These are the sujo [short for sumo joshi, sumo girls] who admire the rikishi for more than their athletic prowess, making me wonder where they were when my university-days’ diet of donner pizzas and Greggs pasties caused my weight to balloon to near-sumo stature. I would’ve been well in.

By half-past three the hall is packed and the atmosphere is as palpable as the insane heat, rising to a crescendo as the makuuchi [top-ranked] and juryo [second-ranked] rikishi are paraded into the ring for their dohyo-iri [ring-entering ceremony] clad in gorgeous, ornate loincloths. The yokozuna then perform dohyo-iri of their own, thunderous applause accompanying every ritualised stamp of feet and clap of hands, as they expel bad spirits from the ring.

Getting Down to Business

Whereas the earlier bouts are undertaken with relative abruptness, for these high-level rikishi posturing is a key element. The battle does not begin until both fighters touch their knuckles to the dust of the dohyo, but before this can happen they cast huge fistfuls of purifying salt around the ring. The rikishi face each other, but time and time again one may stand up, toss some more salt and stretch, before returning to starting positions; Alex Fergusson-level mind games.

Then, in a flash, all four fists have touched the ground and they collide. There are eighty-two sanctioned winning moves in sumo, but most bouts end with one rikishi forcing the other out of the ring. It is then that, if you were lucky (or rich) enough to have acquired a front row seat, you may begin to regret your decision, as the wrestlers regularly topple into the crowd. It’s like one and a half sweaty baby elephants falling ungraciously into your lap. 

Finally, the day reaches its climax, with the final bouts usually involving one of the yokozuna. There are currently only two yokozuna in action, and as such, the basho often ends with one taking on a lower-ranked wrestler, which is where the drama really heightens.

Commonly the Yokozuna are victorious – they’re the top guys for a reason – but on occasion the lesser-fighter overcomes his more esteemed competitor, which is when the whole place erupts. To show their gratitude for the performance, the fans hurl their cushions in a cavalcade of padded seating into the ring. I told you you’d need the cushions.

With the fight concluded the two men return to the ring, neither showing such undignified emotions as joy in conquest or dismay in defeat, and the victor is handed envelopes stuffed with cash from sponsors and admirers. After the final fight of the honbasho an elaborate ceremony is held to announce the champion, complete with prizes that include a trophy so big you’d need to strap it to the roof of your car to get it home, ¥2 million [£16,000] as well as other gifts from sponsors sometimes including cars: which is handy what with the trophy transportation issue.

All of which makes me wish that there was a sumo team at my uni when I was at my Greggs-induced fattest. It sure pays better than journalism, I can tell you!

Originally published in NEO Magazine

Five Japanese Authors You Should Read


From the stories of twelfth century court life in the world’s oldest novel, Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji, to the epic tales of Nobel-Laureate-in-waiting Hideo Furukawa, Japan has a rich history of spellbinding writing.

To get you started on your journey into Japanese literature, below are five authors that should be your jumping off points.

Natsume Soseki

Soseki is probably the godfather of Japanese literature, to such an extent that if prior to 2004 you opened your wallet you’d find him staring back out at you from a 1,000 yen note. Often considered the greatest writer in modern Japanese history, much of Soseki’s work deals with the relation between Japanese and Western culture, the eternal Japanese conflict between duty and desire, and of ordinary people combating economic hardship.

Noted work: I Am a Cat

Soseki’s best known work is a satirical novel that examines the Japanese preoccupancy with, and aping of, Western culture at the turn of the 20th century. Told from the viewpoint of a pompous, sneering cat who commentates on the hoity-toity, supercilious middle classes with whom he lives, it purrs with bile and cynicism.

Mark’s Recommendation: Botchan

The work that cemented Soseki’s position in the Japanese cannon, Botchan (young master) follows the eponymous reckless – and somewhat repugnant – youth through childhood, and into adulthood. Following the death of his parents he relocates to a small town to teach, where his arrogance sees his career blow up in spectacular fashion.

Jun’ichiro Tanizaki

Another author who explores the juxtaposition between Japan and the West, Tanizaki is considered by some to be the rival to Soseki for the crown of Japan’s greatest modern writer. While some works are subtle portrayals of family life, others delve into a world of shocking sexuality and eroticism. Tanizaki was shortlisted for the 1964 Nobel Prize in Literature, and the Tanizaki Prize is one of Japan’s most sought-after literary awards.

Noted work: Naomi

In this tale of obsession, power and domination, Joji, a well-educated salaryman from a wealthy family, yearns to break free from the staid tradition of his family, as he fetishizes the Western modernity sweeping across Japan. Personifying this desire is Naomi, a fifteen-year-old cafe worker with ‘Eurasian looks’, whom Joji decides to groom her into his ideal, glamorous Western-style woman. Or so he thinks.

Mark’s Recommendation: Quicksand

Another story of destructive obsession, Quicksand shares themes with the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, particularly in its depiction of the inherently vacuous lives of the leisure classes. However, Tanizaki’s tale of a four-way bisexual tryst gone awry is darker still than Fitzgerald’s oeuvre, and must have been shocking for its bold depiction of sexuality on its 1928 release.

Yukio Mishima

Very much the macho man of the Japan literary world – think Hemingway, but swap the pipe and beard for a sword and six pack – Mishima was also a playwright, actor, model and nationalist, though it is the latter that comes close to overshadowing his extraordinary writing career. Vowing to protect the emperor from Marxist revolutionaries, Mishima formed a militia and on November 25, 1970, stormed a Tokyo military base in order to persuade the soldiers to join him in overturning Japan’s pacifist Constitution. When they refused, Mishima, descended from a once-powerful samurai family, committed ritual suicide, aged 45.

Noted work: Confessions of a Mask

First published in 1949, Mishima’s second novel launched him to national fame despite being still in his early twenties. Kochan, who bears striking similarities to Mishima himself, struggles in his childhood to conform to Japanese ideals of fitness, cultural normality and sexuality. As he grows, his inability to conform is reflected in his distain for the others participating in the ‘reluctant masquerade’ of life.

Mark’s Recommendation: The Temple of the Golden Pavilion

Loosely based on the arson attack on Kyoto’s Kinkakuji Temple that shocked Japan in 1950, Mishima’s novel follows a young, stammering Buddhist acolyte whose appetite for destruction becomes an obsession, an expression of hatred for the beauty of the world around him, and a symbol of his intention to leave his mark, for good or for ill.

Haruki Murakami

Yes, it’s obvious, but you can’t really not include him. Perhaps the best-known of the modern Japanese authors, Murakami’s novels have a mystical, ethereal air giving the reader a floating sensation as he flows through the prose. While he definitely has his regular tropes (to the extent that there is a Murakami Bingo poster), he creates the most fantastic worlds and intriguing characters that you are likely to find in Japanese literature.

Noted work: 1Q84

The work that catapulted Murakami to worldwide fame, 1Q84 (the title a play on the fact that ‘9’ in Japanese is pronounced ‘kyu’) is a sprawling tale of parallel universes, assassins, the literary world, precocious teens and shady villains (Bingo!). High in concept and long of story, it is a must-read of modern Japanese literature.

Mark’s Recommendation: Kafka on The Shore

While I enjoyed 1Q84, I felt somewhat let down at the end (a common problem for Murakami, in my opinion). Perhaps I had just wanted it too much. However, personally, I find Kafka… a much more satisfying read. A tale split between two characters – runaway teen Kafka, and finder of lost cats Nakata – the vicious, sexual and supernatural elements of Murakami’s work are very much to the fore.

Banana Yoshimoto

Yoshimoto, whose father is the famous poet and critic Takaaki Yoshimoto, began her writing career while working as a waitress at a golf club restaurant. Her works center on the problems faced by youth, urban existentialism, and teenagers trapped between imagination and reality. Banana (not her real name) details her themes as being “the exhaustion of young Japanese in contemporary Japan” and “the way in which terrible experiences shape a person’s life”.

Noted work: Moonlight Shadow

Winner of the 16th Izumi Kyōka Prize for Literature, the novella tells the story of Satsuki coming to terms with the death of her boyfriend in a car accident and her friendship with her boyfriend’s brother whose girlfriend also died in the same accident. Moonlight Shadow is a surrealist portrayal of grief, loss and hope.

Mark’s Recommendation: Kitchen

Another story of coping with loss, in Kitchen, Mikage struggles to overcome the death of her grandmother. After growing close to one of her grandmother’s friends, she moves in with him and his transgender mother, Eriko. There she discovers loss, love and a joy for culinary exploration against the backdrop of tragedy.

Notable others

Ryonosuke Akutagawa, ‘Rashomon
Ryu Murakami, ‘In the Miso Soup‘ *
Yasunari Kawabata, ‘Snow Country‘ *
Miyuki Miyabe, ‘All She Was Worth
Sayaka Murata, ‘Convenience Store Woman‘ *

*Mark’s personal favourites

Originally published for H&R Group

Go Figure - Discovering Japan's Anime Figure Bars

Anime Cafe Staff.jpg

While many people come to Japan due to their deep-seeded interest in Japanese culture, I arrived here possessing absolutely zero knowledge of what was going on around me, popular culture-wise. I couldn’t tell Pokémon from Doraemon, AKB from Arashi, or Pet Cafes from Maid Cafes.

I had such little understanding of otaku [pop-culture obsessive to a nerdy degree] culture that when a new friend told me that he was ranked number six in the UK at Yu-Gi-Oh!, my first question was, “what the hell is that?” before taking a wary step backwards, presuming it to be some kind of dangerous martial art. After he informed me that it was a card battling game (and after he had explained what a card battling game was) I re-tracked my step confidently, and followed up with two further questions: “But aren’t you twenty-five years old? And don’t you have a girlfriend?” To my mind this sounded like one of those childish pursuits that we put away when we become adults, like believing in Santa Claus and getting drunk in the park.

But that seems not to be the case in Japan. As well as enjoying a few Asahi beers in cherry blossom-lined parks in spring, grown adults seem to relish what I consider ‘kids stuff’. My friend Yoshi is a prime example.

Yoshi is in his early thirties, a salesman for an aeronautics company and engaged to be married; someone you would very much consider ‘an adult’. However, having been invited over for dinner, his fiancé gave me the guided tour of their home and we came to his ‘office’. But rather than the regular trappings of the businessman as I expected, this room was lined floor to ceiling with cases of anime and manga figures.

When I voiced my surprise, my friend’s fiancé just shrugged. “It’s normal, no?” No, I replied. It’s crazy. My friend smiled broadly. “You think that’s crazy? Let’s go for a drink at a little bar I know.”

Figuring it all out

Yoshi slid open the door and quickly made his way to a stool at the end of the bar which, I was to later discover, was his regular seat. I, however, had barely made it in past the entrance, mesmerised as I was by the insane number of figures that took up every square inch of surface.

Amusement Bar Water 7 is dedicated to the popular pirate anime One Piece and is one of the growing number of figure bars that are springing up around Japan.

“When I was younger, I used to hang out at Manga Cafes and game centres, but at uni I discovered the joys of drinking, and when I started work company I kind of slipped away from the otaku life,” Yoshi explained. “But about three years ago I noticed these places springing up around town, and I found that I could share the adult side of my life – drinking and partying – with my favourite figures.”

Yoshi wasn’t the only one, and while we ordered a pair of beers served in pirate tankards (naturally) Water 7 soon started filling up. As my only prior experience of otaku hang outs had been walking past maid cafés, where young girls in terrifyingly skimpy uniforms loiter outside touting for the business of a very specific clientele, I was surprised to find it was a varied crowd. In one corner a pair of women in their twenties sipped One Piece themed cocktails, in another a group of men and women of mixed ages seemed to be regulars, and along the bar from us a trio of German tourists took selfies.  

Otaku are regular people too, apparently

I was intrigued to find that, although they shared their table space with dozens of character figures, they weren’t all deeply ensconced in detailed, nerdy conversations of obscure episodes and fan fiction, but they were just chatting about regular, day to day stuff: work, family, boyfriend troubles.

“What did you expect?” Yoshi asked as we headed out into the street towards the next spot. “They’re otaku, but they’re just regular people, like me. Think of these places as sports bars, places where you get together with friends, chat and watch the occasional game. Our sport just happens to be anime figures.”

Sieg Zeon is a Gundam theme figure bar, and though there are fewer figures on the bar and counter than in Water 7, Yoshi pointed out to me, with a hushed reverence, boxes of the toy robots that have been signed by animators and voice actors. I was more interested in the bar’s landlord, a regular-looking middle-aged guy, who if you poured him into a polyester suit wouldn’t look out of place working in a low-level accountancy firm, but dotted around the bar I found a number of photographs of him in impressively-full cosplay. Appearances can be deceiving…

Everyone loves anime, right?

We left Sieg Zeon after just one drink (it was too quiet, and it doesn’t usually pick up in there until well after 1 am, according to Yoshi) before ending up in Toaru Anime Izakaya. This was a decidedly younger hang out, and the clientele were heartily engaged in the young folk pastimes of getting drunk and chatting up the opposite sex.

Flicking through the menu I became far too confused by the wide array of anime-styled cocktails and plumped for a beer. As I placed it amongst a few figures on the bar I chatted with the barman who informed me that the figure bar phenomenon has really started to explode over the last three years. I asked him why he thought they were so in vogue. 

“Everyone loves anime, don’t they?” he asked. Recalling Yoshi’s comment that these places were like sports bars, and also that saying in a couple of bars in which I have drunk in the past that you aren’t interested in sport is tantamount to saying that you enjoy drowning kittens, I replied with caution. “Well, personally I don’t know much about it.” “No? Do you know who this guy is?” the barman replied, picking up a figure from the bar. “Yeah,” I replied with confidence, “that’s Lupin.” The barman looked impressed, if not entirely sincere. “You know well. So, you’re from England, you like football, right…?”

As figure bars grow in popularity, it’s likely that I’ll be seeing many more of them springing up around town. Which gets me to thinking about back home in the UK. I wonder if there is a market for figure bars there? What do you reckon? Bar Thundercats, Ho! Could be a winner.

Originally published in NEO Magazine (UK Print)

Yasuke: African Samurai

Black Sumo.jpg

Mark Guthrie charts the amazing rise of Yasuke, from slavery to samurai

Despite it being more than 150 years since Japan ended its self-imposed isolation from the world, the country remains a nation of homogeneity. Foreigners make up less than two per cent of residents, with some seventy per cent of those living within the three major metropolitan areas of Tokyo, Osaka and Yokohama.

This means that even today, for many Japanese, coming across a foreigner in the flesh can be something of a novelty, and curiosity often overrides good manners. Many gaijin [foreigners] find that they are openly gawped at in public, and while there is rarely any malevolence in the attention, it can be a little disconcerting; comparable to possessing the residual fame of a male member of S Club 7, or an X-factor contestant from 2011.

But if today’s gaijin finds this a little unnerving, imagine how it felt for Yasuke, the only black samurai in sixteenth century Japan…

Stranger than strange lands

Like most African slaves of the 1500s, little, if anything, is known of Yasuke’s early life. While it is broadly believed that he originated in Portuguese Mozambique, even his birth name remains unknown, with Yasuke most likely a Japanization of his real or slave name. Furthermore, no contemporary images of him exist.

What we do know, and where the documented story begins, is that Yasuke was ‘taken on’ as a ‘servant’ (sanitising euphemisms abound) by Jesuit missionaries and posted as a page to Alessandro Valignano, Visitor of Missions in the Indies. In 1579 the high-ranking missionary brought him on a Portuguese ship for his first visit to Japan.

For a slave abducted from his African homeland and shipped halfway around the world, Yasuke’s landing in Asia would have no doubt been a dramatic experience for the young man. His reception perhaps even more so.

At this time, most Japanese had never seen a foreigner – even Valignano’s imposing height was said to draw crowds – but the arrival of a man six-foot two-inches tall and black skinned sparked pandemonium in the streets of Kyoto, with locals breaking down the door of the church in which he was residing, several being crushed to death in the clamour, just to catch a glimpse of him.

Becoming Nobunaga’s man

Yasuke’s fame travelled and soon came to the attention of Oda Nobunaga, the powerful warlord who had united Japan in this time of duelling chieftains. Nobunaga is said to have been obsessed by all things western, and is one of the first recorded Japanese to have worn western clothing, used tables and chairs and drunk wine from goblets.

Whether he truly was impressed by the foreigners or this was simply an affectation to ingratiate himself with the Portuguese and their access to superior western weaponry – and there is little more that impresses a warlord than guns – is open to debate. What is not, is that hearing of this famous black man, Nobunaga was immediately intrigued and demanded an audience with Yasuke.

Upon first seeing him, “black as an ox, healthy and good looking, and possessing the strength of ten men” as contemporary witnesses attest, the great daimyo [lord, or general] literally could not believe his eyes, and had him stripped to the waist and scrubbed to see if the ‘ink’ on his skin could be removed. Finally convinced of Yasuke’s natural state, Nobunaga was obviously impressed by his size and strength, but it was the page’s ability to speak Japanese (Valignano was a contentious figure amongst Jesuits, but his insistence on missionaries and servants being skilled the local language brought about one of the great early advancements in the understanding of the Japanese language) that made the greatest impression, enough to insist that Yasuke remained under his command while Valignano returned.

Although Nobunaga, who lived under permanent threat of assassination, understood the importance of Yasuke’s physique when retaining his services, it was not long before he found that it was his new vassal’s intellect that he relied most upon, and the former slave became one of the warlord’s most trusted advisors. As his Japanese fluency improved and Nobunaga turned to him with increasing regularity in battle and military strategy (something that has led to conjecture that Yasuke had been a warrior prior to his enslavement), his reliability was quickly rewarded. Around 1581 he was escalated to the social rank of samurai, the elite of the elite, becoming perhaps the first non-Japanese to be awarded the honour. With this standing came money, property, wives and, the greatest symbol of samurai status: the right to carry two swords.

There were even rumours at the time that he was to be made a daimyo himself, a chief amongst samurai. Whether or not this was in fact Nobunaga’s intention it never came to fruition. In June 1582, catastrophe struck, when Nobunaga was betrayed by his trusted retainer, Akechi Mitsuhide.

The fall of Nobunaga

With Nobunaga’s entourage of just thirty pages (including Yasuke) stopping at Kyoto’s Honno-ji temple to partake in a tea ceremony, Mitsuhide’s army took the opportunity to attack and initiate a coup d’état. Although Yasuke was able to fight his way to safety and escaped to Azuchi castle, Nobunaga was not so lucky. As the temple burned to the ground he committed seppuku [ritual suicide], the standard samurai response to impending defeat, bringing to an end of the Oda clan’s rule over Japan.

With Nobunaga dispatched, Mitsuhide then charged on to Azuchi Castle, and though Yasuke fought valiantly the defenders were overwhelmed. Following the western tradition, Yasuke relinquished his sword to Mitsuhide’s men in defeat. Confused by this seemingly-unusual action, the soldiers deferred to Akechi who asserted that Yasuke was ‘nothing more than a beast’ who could neither be expected to understand nor be worthy of the honour of seppuku. As a result, Yasuke was stripped of his title and returned to the Jesuits.

Yasuke’s legacy

Though we know that the Jesuits were relieved to see Yasuke alive, this is where his story goes cold, and no evidence of what became of him remains. However, his legend lives on in popular culture.

Children’s author Kurusu Yoshio won the Japanese Association of Writers for Children Prize in 1969 with Kuro-suke (‘kuro’ is the Japanese word for ‘black’ and ‘suke’ is a common ending for male names), a story based on Yasuke’s tale. In 1998, manga artist Takashi Okazaki wrote and illustrated the first of his Afro Samurai comics, a manga that was later developed into a video game and anime (the latter of which starred Samuel L Jackson and was soundtracked by Wu Tang Clan’s The RZA) with the eponymous hero based on Yasuke. And in November 2018, Netflix announced plans for a new Yasuke anime set in feudal Japan, but including magic-wielding warriors and robots. 

For me, Yasuke’s legacy isn’t about media spin offs (though I am quite excited by the Netflix anime), but rather his strength, intelligence and the great things people can achieve. Many foreigners living in Japan complain about a glass ceiling, that it is impossible to escape low-paid jobs, or that they will never be truly accepted.

But if Yasuke can climb from slavery to the upper echelons of society, and if a powerful lord of a homogenised society can show acceptance of the unknown, then there is opportunity for us all.

Black Sumo.jpg  by Wikicommons Public Domain

Originally published in NEO Magazine (UK print)

Here's Blood in Your Eye

Barbed Wire, Exploding Bulbs and Blood B.JPG

Mark Guthrie discovers that Sumo is not Japan’s only wrestling

Back when I lived in the UK I had an office job alongside a lad who, in his spare time, took part in local wrestling bouts. “Like Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior?” My reference points were a little dated. “Yeah,” my co-worker confirmed. “You? Like The Undertaker and Andre the Giant?” “Yeah,” he replied, wearily. “But you’re five-foot-four!”  

If there were two things that I knew about pro-wrestling, it was that he was far too small to make it as a wrestler; and that if he was able to ‘fight’ huge roidheads and still turn up to the work without a scratch, then it was all just fake.

I was disavowed of the former assumption two years ago when my friend was signed up to WWE. The latter was annulled after I attended my first Big Japan Pro-wrestling Deathmatch.

Japan: Where Hardcore means Hardcore

Hardcore wrestling, where disqualifications, count-outs and other such safeguards don’t apply and weapons are not only permitted but encouraged, has been around since at least the mid-20th century. But it was not until a Japanese organisation, Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling (FMW), got involved in 1989 that hardcore truly came to mean ‘hardcore’.

Centred around the organisation’s founder and biggest star, Atsushi Onita, FMW was the home of ‘deathmatch’ events. In a world where huge muscles and acrobatic combat stand steroided-shoulder-to-steroided-shoulder with theatrics and pantomime, wresting is not immune to a touch of hyperbole. Yet, FMW’s deathmatches came close to their billing, combining the willingness of competitors to risk their personal safety to the Nth degree and a complete disregard for health and safety, all in the name of entertainment.

Throughout the 1990s, Japanese pro-wrestling saw a series of events that could only be described as batsh*t nuts. Piranha battles saw competitors win by holding their opponent under a bath filled with flesh-eating fish for ten seconds. Scorpion battles were similar, if more fraught with danger. Rings were covered in barbed wire as standard, with fighters being thrown into the lacerating wire or attacked with weapons coiled in it.

Ring of Fire

The deathmatch fights were perhaps best known for their pyrotechnics, with explosive barbed-wire barricades made of rigged paraffin heaters dotted around the ring, or hanging vats of what was, for all intents and purposes, flaming napalm. However, with these ‘landmines’ proving somewhat costly, wrestling organisations began to cut corners,  and began simply hanging paraffin-soaked cloths around the ring ropes (which were actually, of course, barbed wire), leading in 1992 to a ‘Hellfire deathmatch’ event where the entire ring was set ablaze leading to the evacuation of the venue. Fortunately, no one died (though according to some reports one sixty-eight-year old participant was hospitalised with serious burns and fell into a heat-induced coma) and the tradition continued, with in 1995 Yukihiro Kanemura being power bombed onto a huge inferno which removed seventy-five per cent of the skin tissue on his back and shoulders.

Not that I knew of any of this insanity. When a friend of mine suggested we check out a bout, I wasn’t necessarily enthused due to my aforementioned ‘it’s all fake’ antipathy. I was relieved of that notion pretty quickly when, as we went to grab seats and I chose chairs near ringside my mate shook his head. “Don’t want to get blood on us,” he said. I laughed. He wasn’t laughing. We moved two rows back. We should have moved further.

Reality Bites… and Kicks, Punches and Rubs Glass in Your Face

The first battle was a tag team fight featuring the legendary Abdullah Kobayashi. At five-foot-nine and 20st 7lbs, Kobayashi is a huge butterball of a man – not that I’d say that to his face – and his back is covered in a thousand lacerations that told of a lifetime in the pursuit of violent entertainment, and their source soon became apparent. This was a ‘fluorescent light tube deathmatch’, and every now and again huge strips of lighting where brought into the ring. Their purpose? For hitting each other, of course.

With the first swing of a bunch of tubes in his opponent’s face, Kobayashi sent glass everywhere. Sugar glass, I presumed, like they used in movies. But then, when I went to take a swig of my beer, I stopped mid-swallow as I noticed a chunk of glass floating in the foam. This sh*t was for real. As was the blood that splattered over a girl in the front row. She stood up. She screamed for more blood. 

The second bout on the ticket was a comparatively more sedate affair, more akin to the WWE style that I had expected – lots of posturing and acrobatics. That was until they brought out a full set of table and chairs, all wrapped in barbed wire, and it was close to being over when one guy was bombed from the top rope into the table, razors and all. But then out came the bowling balls, and victory came when a ball met its, ahem, three-pinned target. The crowd howled.

I’ll be honest, after all of that, being of a somewhat squeamish nature, I had to take a break and retired to the bar for a while where I had a fortifying beer (or three). I was going to need them. The next and final fight was the Rest in Peace Fluorescent Lightbulb Graveyard match, and when I came back out I found that the ropes were entirely covered in the glass tubes and barbed wire. This, I realised, was going to get messy.

An Angel and a Crazy Monkey

Another tag team battle, the crowd’s roar reached a crescendo when Jun “Crazy Monkey” Kasai and “Black Angel” Jaki Numazawa took to the ring. Along with Abdullah Kobayashi, these two are perhaps the best-known wrestlers on the deathmatch circuit. I finished my beer in readiness, not wanting another mouthful of glass.

Before long the ring was awash with remnants of lightbulb. If someone wanted to headbutt an opponent, it was through the tubes. Dropkicks were through glass. And when an opponent was down, handfuls of glass were rubbed into backs and faces, so that when the fight came out of the ring and clattered into the audience blood flew everywhere. Kasai, living up to his ‘Crazy’ moniker, chose to rub the glass into his own forehead, the blood cascading into his wild, odd-coloured eyes.

By the end of the show there was not a light bulb standing, not a fighter unbloodied and my sensitive psyche as scarred as Crazy Monkey’s forehead. And my opinion of Japanese pro-wrestling? As real as it comes.

Originally produced for NEO Magazine (UK Print)