The bizarre 400-year-old Japanese tradition where sumo wrestlers compete to make babies bawl
In my world, a crying baby is never a good thing. In fact, there are few sets of circumstances that are worse than a wriggling, bawling miniature person who I could bathe, feed and burp but still remains intent on shrieking till daybreak. What can I say? I’m an eight-hours-sleep-a-night kind of girl and if I don’t get them I will throw a throw a fit far louder than any bawling infant. But, believe it or not, the sound of little one howling is music to many people’s ears in Japanese tradition. Why exactly, you ask? Because it represents the sweet, (deafening) sound of victory.
There are certainly some truly bizarre festivals taking place around the world; Spanish locals taking to the streets to throw tomatoes and hundreds of competitors racing down a hill to chase a wheel of cheese certainly jump to mind. Yet the Nakizumo festival in Japan takes the cake. The event, usually held in different locations throughout the country every year over the early summer months, sees mammoth sumo wrestlers square up on stage in front of hundreds of thousands of spectators, taking part in a competition to actually make babies cry.
It sounds like a practical joke, but the festival couldn’t be more real and has been taking place for the past 400 years across the sovereign island nation in East Asia. Undoubtedly one of the country’s more unusual events, crowds stand and watch in wonder while amateur sumo wrestlers, hoping to gain a name for themselves, employ bewildering tactics to ruffle the babies’ feathers; these include making weird noises or faces at the infant, tickling them, lightly shaking them and shouting "Naki! Naki! Naki!” - “Cry! Cry! Cry!”
Would you willingly hand over your newborn to be goaded into blubbering onstage? To westerners, it seems impossible to do so and still be able to call yourself a good parent. But the truth is that Japanese new mothers and fathers line up every year to enter their children into the arena, with each and every one of them even paying top dollar for the privilege (for the event at Sensoji parents apparently pay up to ¥15,000 - over £100 - for their baby to compete).
Yet, rather than being cruel, the experience is said to be cathartic for the babies, who are dressed in brightly coloured costumes and done funky hairstyles, and good health is said to come to those who take part. Believe it or not, natives even have a saying for it that goes, "Naku ko wa sodatsu" and translates into English as “Crying babies grow fast”. In addition, it’s often believed that a loud cry from an innocent child scares away demons, ensuring that they grow up into a happy and healthy adult. And there I was thinking that a happy home life was the key to becoming a well-adjusted grown-up.
I know what you’re thinking though. What happens if a budding sumo wrestler happens to get paired with a plucky little youngster who has the heart of a lion and downright refuses to take any nonsense, even it does happen to come from a 325lb sumo wrestler?
In this case, the wrestlers, robed in mawashi loincloths, are able to utilise traditional masks to gently provoke the children on stage. Similarly to most sports, a referee is present to monitor the games and ensure that there is no foul play taking place. In most places, the baby who cries first is generally considered to be the winner of the duel, however the last to bawl may triumph in other regions of the country.
Another query you might have is, what about if both babies begin to cry their little hearts out at exactly the same time? Jinx? If this is the case, the event becomes a battle of the lungs and whichever ferocious young’un can release the loudest roar becomes the crowned champion.
According to reports, over 80 of these “duels” can be held at every Nakizumo festival across the country. Although it’s been happening for well over four centuries now, the festival still hits the western news almost every year, with people across the globe not believing their eyes at what goes down. However, the light-hearted phenomenon isn’t always well-received.
Predictively, hundreds of astonished people, unfamiliar with Japanese convention, have expressed concern for the children involved, fearing for their well-being. Will hulking men in oversized nappies be chasing them in their nightmares for decades to come? This idea itself has never been resolved, but rest assured that the timeworn tradition does the young’uns involved no harm and the young children, aged six to 18 months, are practically treated like celebrities throughout the day.
The Japanese have been stunning us with their bizarre traditions for quite some time - especially when it comes to having kids. According to tradition, after a mother gives birth, the umbilical cord is saved in a box and brought out on events like birthdays or given to a child on the day he or she leaves home or gets married in order to symbolise separation. In addition, on a little’un’s first birthday, some parents make them carry 1.8 kilograms bag of mochi (a sticky rice cake considered to be very sacred food in Shintoism) on their back, believing that it grants sacred to the child’s life.
Bearing this in mind, as outlandish as the Nakizumo festival initially sounds, are we actually shocked? We certainly shouldn’t be. Anyway, regardless of what westerners think, the Japanese tradition shows no signs of slowing down and no doubt, as we speak, little ones are eyeing the competition from their pushchairs. So remember to hit it up next time you’re over there. Enjoy it. Guaranteed, it will be the only time you’ll ever want to hear a crying baby. If that's not reason enough, then check out how beautiful some of these Asian cities look at night time.