Japanese for sumo fans

Part of the reason I started learning Japanese again was because I started following Grand Sumo. New sumo fans are confronted with a lot of untranslated terminology which takes a good while to get up to speed on. After a scant ten months of sumo fandom, I can tell makushita (third division) from makunouchi (top division) and oshidashi (shovey-outy) from oshitaoshi (shovey-downy).

Is any of this Japanese terminology useful in the context of learning Japanese though? I wanted to know if common sumo terms like ashitori, tsukebito, oshidashi or shitatenage could give me a leg-up on my vocab and grammar. It turns out the answer is yes – if you break them up a bit and do your homework. This is what I hope to show you how to do.

The basics

If you’re completely new to Japanese, read on. If not, feel free to skip to the next section.

Japanese has a couple of gotchas we need to be aware of before we turn jargon into useful language. Fortunately it’s also an extremely regular language compared to English with all its exceptions.. well, regular except in the way it’s written. More on that later.

Sound groups

The sounds of Japanese group together a little bit differently than in English. Mostly it’s like ka-ki-ku-ke-ko or na-ni-nu-ne-no, but sometimes you get ta-chi-tsu-te-to, sa-shi-su-se-so or ha-hi-fu-he-ho. While we’d say that the sound at the beginning of “tea” and “turtle” are the same, the sounds at the beginning of “cheese” and “turtle” are different. In Japanese, they’re variations of the same sound. The same goes for “sap” and “sheep”. To spell a sound like at the beginning of “sharp” they smoosh “shi” together with “ya”.

Sound changes

The Japanese word for person is hito. When it’s compounded with certain words, it becomes -bito. This change happens all over and it’s the bane of every novice Japanese learner. The Japanese call it rendaku (“sequential voicing”). All you need to remember is that in some names and compound words, k becomes g (mae + kashira = maegashira), t becomes d, h becomes b (kin + hoshi = kinboshi), s becomes z (oo + seki = oozeki), ts can also become z (yoko + tsuna = yokozuna) and ch becomes j.

Kanji and kana

Japanese has three distinct writing systems on top of the ones you already know. (Japanese uses Roman letters like the ones you’re reading and Arabic numbers like 234.)

The two phonetic (what-you-write-is-what-it-sounds-like) writing systems are called kana, both with about 50 letters which each represent a phonetic unit called a mora (“syllable-but-not-quite”). There’s hiragana which is used for native words and katakana which is often used to spell out abstract noises and foreign words.

The two kana systems are pretty easy to tell apart. This is cursive round squishy hiragana: これがひらがな。This is angular sharp stabby katakana: アフリカパソコン。

Japanese also uses a complicated system of characters called kanji. There’s maybe about 50,000 kanji characters, but people are only expected to know a couple of thousand of them by the time they finish school. Kanji are relevant to learning Japanese with sumo because the names of the rikishi and stables are all spelt almost entirely using kanji.

Kanji are however slippery because they often sound different depending on which word they’re being used in. Even just looking in top division sumo, we can find the kanji 大, meaning “big” or “great”, realised as three different sounds: Chiyotairyu 千代大龍, Daieisho 大栄翔 and the rank of oozeki 大関. (Sidenote: Chiyotairyu’s name means “Eternal Great Dragon” and that’s pretty awesome.)

I mention the different kinds of writing because they have helpful clues.

Mining sumo jargon for verbs

Kimarite are sumo’s winning techniques. Each of them has a name like oshidashi, abisetaoshi, uwatenage, yorikiri and so on. Sumo fans learn the more common ones by heart.

Many of these terms are actually compound verbs in “stem” form. One giveaway for this is if you see kanji intermixed with kana: 押 (oshidashi), 浴 (abisetaoshi), 上手投 (uwatenage – one kana still counts) and 寄 (yorikiri). The other giveaway is the sound: notice how there’s a lot of something-y-something-y? That’s the telltale sound of Japan’s doing words having little word parties, that is.

How can we use this though? Japanese has two (and a bit) groups of verb. There’s Group I which has a stem form ending in -i, and Group II where the stem form might end in -e or -i. If you want to extract verbs from kimarite names, you can start by splitting them up where a -i or -e occurs. This might net you two verb stems. It might not. The two irregular verbs aren’t worth mentioning here.

To get a “plain form” verb which you can use in sentences and look up in dictionaries, you can change the final -i to an -u (remembering that -chi becomes -tsu and -shi becomes -su). For Group II verbs, you add -ru if the stem ends in -e. Some stems ending in -i are actually Group II which means having to add -ru to them. You can try one if you get no luck with the other.

And no matter what, you can take the stem form, whack -masu on the end and have a ready to go polite verb.

Let’s give it a whirl!

First, let’s try oshidashi. Split the word up to get oshi 押し and dashi 出し. Change from stem to plain form to get osu 押す and dasu 出す. Wouldn’t you know it: osu means “push” or “overwhelm” and dasu means “put out”. To overwhelm and put out.

Let’s see what we can do with 浴せ倒し – abisetaoshi! Split it up to get abise 浴せ and taoshi 倒し. Abise ends in -e which means it might be a Group II verb, so we add a whole -ru to the end and look for abiseru 浴せる. The other half taoshi becomes taosu 倒す. Again we’re in luck: abiseru means “pour something on” and taosu means “knock down”. Oh the words we already know.

Kimarite are not always verb stems, however. My absolute favourite kimarite is ashitori 足取り where one rikishi picks up the other rikishi’s leg and hops them out backwards. This looks like it’s spelled a bit different to the first two examples though. There’s no kana dividing the two characters. We can find toru 取る meaning “pick up”, but we won’t find asu because the word we’re after is actually ashi 足 meaning “leg” or “foot”. The lack of kana is the big clue there. (If we look for a verb like 足す we’ll find the word “to add”. And it’s pronounced tasu.)

There’s a similar thing waiting for us with uwatenage 上手投げ. Are we looking for uwateru and nageru? Not quite. Again, the relative lack of kana in the spelling is the clue here. While nageru 投げる definitely means “to throw” (also “to launch”), uwateru isn’t a word. Looking for just uwate turns up “over-arm grip”. When you see -te- 手 in the name of a kimarite, it often refers to an action of the arm or hand – te 手 means hand or arm. And the character 上 has the implication of above or over. Literally: over-arm throw.

Wait on, there’s a -te at the end of kimarite. And there’s a lot of kana in its Japanese spelling: 決まり手. So is kimaru a verb too? Yep! It means “to be decided” or “to be settled” – as in, settling a match. One of the many meanings of te is “technique”. Kimarite literally means “deciding technique”. Nice!

Finally, let’s look at yorikiri 寄り切り – the standard issue frontal force-out beloved of top division’s belt-focussed wrestlers. Using the methods above, we get yoru 寄る and kiru 切る. Yoru means “get up close” (among other things) and kiru means.. “cut”? Sort of. As the second part of a compound verb, kiru acts as an auxilliary verb. (English auxiliary verbs include ought and must along with go when it’s used in sentences like “go suck eggs”.) So instead of “cut”, kiru means “to finish and complete”. That means in the word yorikiri we have the notion of getting up close to someone with an implication that something is completed.. like shoving them out of a ring! 🙂

Of course, if you’re more of a foodie than a sumo fan, perhaps you’d prefer to break up words like teriyaki 照り焼き – you’ll soon discover teru 照る (to shine) and yaku 焼く (to barbecue) lurking within. It works for yakitori as well.

I hope you enjoyed this peek into vocabulary building and that I’ve inspired you to find out more. Thanks for reading and here’s to a great 2019 January Basho! (魁聖関、頑張れ!)