TOKYO >> As the leader of the free world, and a man never shy around the spotlight, President Donald Trump is rarely a spectator to the events surrounding him. Leave it to a bunch of sumo wrestlers to steal his thunder.
Today, inside the Ryogoku Kokugikan, a stadium near the Sumida River in Tokyo, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe introduced Trump to Japan’s national sport. It was the last day of an annual grand tournament, and most of the 11,000 fans in attendance sat on mats and cheered the loinclothed wrestlers as they barreled into each other with forces that seemed to defy physics.
Trump’s experience was different. After a day of creature comforts like golf and a double-cheeseburger lunch as part of Abe’s four-day charm offensive, the president settled into a low-backed chair near the raised ring to take in the final few bouts. It was one of several exceptions the Japanese made to sumo’s rigid rules to accommodate their guest.
The president watched intently at times as the fleshy men stomped their feet or threw handfuls of salt around the ring to cleanse the dirt, and he periodically asked Abe or his aides questions about what was happening before him. But he did not always visibly react to decisive moments during the bouts or to some of the more ceremonial parts of the evening.
During his time at the sumo stadium, there were signs of support — a large Trump 2020 sign greeted the president as he approached the arena. And Trump seemed to make an entrance similar to those at any “Make America Great Again” rally — he clapped, fist-pumped and waved, greeting the attendees as if they had assembled on his behalf.
But within seconds, the crowd’s attention turned back to the tournament at hand, the first since Japan’s new emperor, Naruhito, ascended the throne this month. It quickly became clear that this event, rooted in sumo’s ancient traditions, would not be as Trump-focused as the president’s past visits to televised professional wrestling spectacles in the United States.
The sumo ring is a sacred space, where the same set of rules and rituals has applied to its inhabitants for centuries. Women are not allowed. Neither are shoes. And foreign leaders are not usually given their own mini-ceremony during a tournament, called a basho.
Trump arrived in Tokyo as the first American president to come bearing his own trophy for a sumo champion — a four-foot-tall object called the President’s Cup. So when the last match ended, a wooden set of stairs was wheeled up to the sumo mound — another innovation for this day — and Trump approached clad in slippers fashioned to look like real shoes.
The president bowed slightly as he entered the ring, and with the help of a kimono-attired sumo official, he handed the trophy to the champion. Moments earlier, Abe had presented his own Prime Minister’s Cup — a smaller man lifting an even bigger hunk of metal by himself and drawing smiles from the crowd.
Trump then addressed the champion, Asanoyama, a wrestler in the lower ranks of Japan’s top tier of sumo who had sealed his victory the day before. “In honor of your outstanding achievement as sumo grand champion, I hereby award you the United States President’s Cup,” Trump told the wrestler. The president grinned briefly and clapped.
The president later summed up his day, which included dinner with his hosts at a hibachi restaurant. “That was an incredible evening at sumo,” he said. “We brought that beautiful trophy, which you’ll have hopefully for many hundreds of years.”