The Eighty-Mat Room

Kyoko Nakajima

“He’s still not back,” Hajime Tachibana glanced up from his half-read weekly comic magazine.

“He bailed,” Yōichi Matsuyama answered.

“Already?” Hideo Kaneko said casually, while in the background Tachibana waved a hand and said, “This sucks.”

“How long was he here?” Yūji Koike, who was older than the others, muttered to nobody in particular.

“Three days.” Tachibana pushed up his glasses, then turned back to his magazine.

After that nobody said anything. The lights went out, and soon someone started snoring loudly.

Besides these four there was one more large boy in the room, but he was sleeping so deeply that he didn’t make a sound. It seemed like the snoring was coming from further back in the room.

Tachibana, who had been using the light of a small bedside lamp to stay absorbed in his comics, finally buried himself into his futon and curled up to sleep.

It was just past eleven, not too late, but the bulky, big-bellied boys all curled up or stretched out in attempts to sleep. Except for one, they were all giants. To grow bigger, to get fatter, these was just part of the job description.

No matter how much larger than average they were, the room in which they slept was still much too big for just the six of them. The sprawling, eighty-mat room didn’t even have partitions. It was like the resting areas at hot spring resorts. The blue, borderless tatami mats were simply laid out, eighty of them, one after another.

The room was part of the Matsu no Nami sumo stable. The stable had previously belonged to a larger group, but they had moved after it became too cramped; the current oyakata had taken on the building and re-opened it at the beginning of the year, and he continued to oversee the wrestlers’ progress.

In this expansive second-floor room, the six members- the four who had been accepted into the stable, a lower-division referee, and a former wrestler who had returned to coach- dropped their futons at random, surrounding themselves with metal shelves and plastic containers of clothing and various items, as if they were building encampments. The referee and two of the wrestlers were twenty, another was eighteen, the former-wrestler-turned-coach was twenty-six, and the oldest of the wrestlers had just passed thirty.

Another wrestler, who had been there up until the night before, was now gone.

One futon was left at the back of the room so that it would be ready to sleep on once someone pulled it out; it was folded into thirds, the mattress and the bedding together, waiting for its owner’s return.

The missing boy was Yutaka Kawasaki. At fifteen he was the youngest member of the stable, and had yet to even take the physical examination for new recruits. Before passing the physical one was considered a “guest” in the stable, so the training wasn’t even that hard. If he’s already run away then there’s probably not much use in bringing him back, Hajime Tachibana thought as he dazed towards sleep.

In the corner, about four mats up from where Tachibana slept, Hideo Kaneko lay buried under piles of stuffed animals, booty won from UFO catchers. He wasn’t actually sleeping, but lay awake, wondering if it was because of the sandbag squats he had made them do the day before that the boy had run away.

Or maybe it was because he had hit him twice in the rear with a shinai. He had only meant to fire the kid up, and by Kaneko’s standards he’d only tapped him with the stick, but he supposed even that would scare a kid today out of entering the sumo world.

Then again, maybe it was because, when they were making the regular chanko stew for everyone, Kawasaki was so slow that Kaneko had yelled at him. Maybe because he happened to be holding a kitchen knife and had waved it around a bit when he was yelling, and the pointed blade had scared Kawasaki into thinking he was going to get stabbed.

One Kaneko started thinking he couldn’t seem to fall asleep, and compared to other days, when he would snore louder than anyone, he was unusually quiet.

But, of the six of them, the one farthest from sleep was Yōichi Matsuyama, who lay on a futon square in the middle of the eighty-mat room; all he could think was, “Why didn’t I run away?”

Every time he was about to drift off, an image would float into the back of his mind of fists flying at his face without warning, of relentless kicks landing on his stomach and back, of furiously shaking his head as someone held him from the back, of one wrestler grabbing his hair while another stuck packing tape across his mouth. The fear that overwhelmed him as these memories bore down turned his vision white.

Before their oyakata had gone independent and brought him along to this new stable with its eighty-mat room, his peers’ attacks had been daily occurrences; back then, in a slightly smaller room with a few more people, where nobody but the young wrestlers slept, there had not been a single night when he could sleep peacefully.

When he tried to recall what went through his mind during that time, nothing came to him. At least nothing he could put into words.

To reflect or to consider or to plan, those sorts of things were beyond him. Whether he was going to live or die or breathe or bleed, those were the only ideas he could grasp.

And somehow, Matsuyama thought after a bit, even then I knew.

Violence had a will of its own.

By the time the irrational will of violence took hold of the one who would use it, it had already found a target. Violence had a sixth sense, which it used to seek out its victim. The others, they knew right away. I was their victim.

The only way that Matsuyama could resist the bullying that plagued him through middle school and high school was to shut himself in the tiny second-floor bedroom of his house. Even then, he had a feeling that wasn’t the answer.

Something about his nature attracted them. He had an herbivore’s scent, one that carnivores could easily pick out. Matsuyama could trace this back to the home in which he was raised.

That was why, when his dad’s friend had said, “Why don’t you try training in a sumo stable?” he had set himself to the idea and left home.

Every time someone asked why he had joined the stable he would grin and answer, “Because I can eat a lot!” But the real reason was that the oyakata had come to his house and asked, “Do you want to become stronger?” That had stuck with him.

At the time he hadn’t answered out loud, and even now he used “food” as his excuse, but each time someone asked, he would think the true reason to himself: “I want to become stronger.”

He hoped that someday, this strength would help him outrun that eerily exacting sixth sense and its twisted powers.

No, he was sure that there was no way to escape; he’d been living with it for as long as he could remember. When he became absolutely certain that there was no way out, the cruel will of violence would catch wind of his fear and sneer, that’s right. You know you’ll never be able to get away from me.

Matsuyama let out his breath, then shook his head.

Why didn’t I run away back then?

Even when he was on the bullet train to Tokyo he was followed by a bad feeling, as if it were sitting just over his shoulder and out of sight. Up until about three months after he entered the stable, nothing all that bad happened. But once that three month mark passed, little by little he started getting punched more often than the others, or kicked more often, and before he knew it they weren’t feeding him, and not a day went by when he wasn’t bruised somewhere.
No matter where he went, he couldn’t get away from that force. It didn’t help that all the guys were so buff- they all easily weighed over 100 kilograms- but Matsuyama didn’t even stop to think that he was stupid to come to a place with guys like that.

Before he knew it, he was in hell.

When the oyakata had taken over the place Matsuyama decided to change stables, and his move to the eighty-mat room had barely gotten him out of that hell alive- but even now, the terror would return to him in flashbacks.

Why didn’t I run away back then? He tossed around the question for the third time that night, but even when he scraped at the bottom of his memories, he saw no trace that the idea had ever even occurred to him.

Anyway, I didn’t have a chance to think about it, all I could think about was staying alive. Once again he let out his breath in a sigh.

“Matsuyama!” The former-wrestler-turned-coach plus manager Hideo Kaneko whispered so he wouldn’t wake up the others, but his hoarse voice bounced off the walls and flooded the eighty-mat room. Matsuyama thought that if he answered his voice would be just as loud, so he held back.

“Matsuyama!” Kaneko called one more time.

Then after a bit, in an irritated voice, he called, “I know you’re awake, shut-in!”

“Yessir!” Matsuyama replied reflexively.

“Stop worrying about other people and get some sleep, idiot.” Kaneko lifted his head from his Hello Kitty pillow and whispered again. From that, Matsuyama understood that it was Kaneko himself who was “worrying about other people and couldn’t sleep.”

After a while Hajime Tachibana, who had been sleeping face down, jumped up as if he’d been shocked.

The cell phone he had been holding in his left hand started vibrating. Tachibana turned onto his back, slipped on the glasses he’d left next to his futon, and flipped open his phone. He looked at the little pink envelope in the upper left corner of the screen, and a smile instantly broke out on his face. When he opened his email, he saw,


When he answered im up,

was wonderin how ur doin came back.

today sumthin pretty bad happened


He thought about texting that a new trainee had gone missing, but he had no idea where to start or what to type. Anyway it seemed like it would take a lot of explaining, so he just replied,

next time we meet ill tell u

when’ll that be?

prolly sunday, once i know for sure ill let u know

im waitin

At the end of this text there was a row of heart marks, which got Tachibana really excited.

yep, wait for me! He typed back, and after that there was no answer. He closed his phone and turned over into a sleeping position. When his phone started buzzing again, he opened his email and saw:

u gonna sleep now?

yep, pretty soon

After a pause came the message,

nite nite, which a little graphic of lips after it.

nite *kiss*

It seemed only fitting, so he chose the lips graphic from the menu and put it next to the text, and as he pressed the send button he held the phone up to his lips as if to kiss it.

After that he felt some odd energy down below, and he began to stiffen. Oh crap, I can’t sleep like this, he thought. When will that kid come back, I mean I’m worried too in my own way, I can’t be doing any “hand sumo” at a time like this, nobody’s asleep yet! In order to soothe it, he slapped his hard-on with an open palm.

He couldn’t imagine why a fresh recruit would run out so soon; he wondered if the boy, who had looked so uncomfortable in his corner of the room, ever managed to get a good night’s sleep there.

People like himself, or Otaru over there who wasn’t moving an inch, or even Matsu, who was such a nervous wreck that he gave credit to the idea that it’s easier for those who can sleep anywhere to get along in the world, they were all hanging in there, so what right did this kid have to take off only three days after getting there?

Ever since Matsu had changed stables after being targeted by older trainees and made to skip meals as some sort of “punishment,” the oyakata had told him to “fatten up,” and after more and more feeding, he had gained over 30 kilograms.

Yet, what had changed Matsu more than anything wasn’t the food, but a girl.

For some reason, one of the girls who came by to watch their morning training took a liking to Matsu, and began to come hang out at the stable pretty often. She finally succeeded in going out on a date with him, and before he knew it, Matsu achieved kachi-koshi for the first time. At the outstanding ratio of six wins to one loss, Matsu’s ranking skyrocketed.

When a person changed, they really changed. Now Matsu didn’t smile to cover up his suffering, he truly enjoyed himself. It was like he had moved out of hell and into heaven.

If only Matsu’s relationship had gone on happily, it would have been enough to make anyone believe in God. But there was no way things could continue so smoothly, and it wasn’t long before Matsu had his first breakup.

Even after being punched and kicked, even after surviving eight hours standing under the blazing sun, it was now for the first time that Matsu looked like he had died. He sat stonily on his laid-out futon, an unfocused expression on his face.

That night, like tonight, they had all wanted to sleep but couldn’t, and the eighty-mat room became filled with a tense, almost palpable atmosphere. As Tachibana got further lost in thought, his arousal subsided.

In the first place, it was Tachibana who had happened to spot Matsu’s girlfriend with a wrestler from another stable and emailed Matsu a picture. Even though he felt somewhat guilty, at the time he was sure that the relationship was doomed, and he thought Matsu should know sooner rather than later.

After long consideration, Matsu had called his girlfriend. All she’d had to say was, “I found someone else, so let’s stop seeing each other.”

Two days before that, on Valentine’s Day, Matsu had thought that he would be getting chocolate from a girl for the first time; he waited out the day nervously, even after it passed he was still sort of waiting, and then he thought maybe he would get some the weekend after. The tension was felt by everyone in the stable, and everyone silently felt sorry for him.

Matsuyama. Matsuyama. Hey, shut-in! Hideo Kaneko couldn’t bear to see Matsuyama like that and tried to get his attention. Normally Matsuyama would reply reflexively to being called “shut-in” no matter how tired he was, but on that day alone, he stared off into space without so much as flinching.

Yūji Koike, makushita ranked and the oldest member of the stable, then got up and trekked over to the corner of the room just to see how the younger student was doing. Once he saw the dazed Matsuyama, he waved his hand as if to say “it’s no good,” walked back to his own spot at the center of the room, and whispered that there were fairies swimming in his eyes.

They’d all heard stories of wrestlers whose retinas had gotten detached after getting slapped around too much during training or in tournaments, so that it really did look like bugs were swimming around in their eyes; but in Matsu’s case, “I found someone else, so let’s stop seeing each other,” was enough of a smack-down.

Taking such a blow before any actual competition meant Matsu was wiped out in all of his March tournaments, and the ranking he had worked so hard to earn slid straight down.

It wasn’t long after that incident that Tachibana got a girlfriend himself, which made him realize that being love really did change people’s lives. He made more of an effort in practice than usual, and through that he dominated his March tournaments. After feeling what it was like to brim with the power of love, though, it was all the more painful to see the tragedy of Matsu, who had entered the stable at the same time as him.

Matsu’s sumo career had walked the line between heaven and hell, yet some kid whose career hadn’t even started had already run away; it’s not fair to Matsu, Tachibana thought as he let out a yawn. He re-read his girlfriend’s final text, took off his glasses, and closed his eyes.

Otar Karumidze got up one time during the night to go to the bathroom. When he did, he sensed that one of the wrestlers who slept in the back of the room was still gone.

Otar had come to Japan from a distant country. Once he got into the sumo stable and it came time to find appropriate Chinese characters for his shiko name, he realized that nobody knew a single thing about his homeland.

“Try naming some of the mountains in your country,” they suggested, or asked “Is it near the ocean?” or “What are some of the rivers you know?” It was then Otar, fielding questions in Japanese, who had no idea what was going on. Finally the oyakata said, “Well, you can always change your name once your rankings go up,” and he adopted “Otaru,” the name of a Japanese town with which Otar had no personal connection.

Because of that, wherever he went Otar was called “Otaru.” It didn’t inconvenience him in the least.

The small boy who had just entered the stable was gone from yesterday morning’s practice, and when he didn’t come back in time to eat, Otar asked Tachibana, “Why is he not here?”

“He bailed,” Tachibana replied. Otar tilted his head to one side in confusion, so Koike spoke up from behind him in simple English.

“Home-sick. Go home.”

From that, Otar understood what was going on. The little boy had gone back to the place where his parents were.

People often asked Otar if he ever got homesick, since he came from so far away.

“Not at all,” he would answer with a wave of his hand, which always seemed to please the Japanese people who asked him. But Otar would always pause to think about just where his “home” was.

What he remembered was a place from where, if you drove on bumpy roads for thirty minutes, you could see the ocean, a village with a mild climate where he had spent his early childhood. Near the village flowed a small stream, and when he was a child he and his friends often played and caught fish there. In his yard were several quince trees, and when the fruit ripened the trees gave off a pleasant smell.

His sister, six years older than him, hated coffee but loved using coffee to tell fortunes, so when the adults all finished their cups of Turkish coffee she would look at the dregs; she was skilled at finding some sort of meaning in them and interpreting it for everyone. Until the time when he and his sister had flown to a city far in the east, this small village had been their home.

A little after he started elementary school, war broke out in the city nearest the village.

Bomber planes began to fly the skies above them, and soon the village had its own airfield. Looking down from the hills they could see plumes of black smoke drifting up from the nearby city, and here and there stood quivering pillars of red fire.

After deciding it was too dangerous to live there any longer, his parents contacted an uncle who lived in a large city further inland, and they sent their children ahead to live there. Otar was seven, his sister thirteen.

They never went back to that village. Now they would never be able to. Like many of his fellow countrymen during that civil war, they became refugees.

His parents fled to the city soon after, so he supposed that he could call the place he had lived between the ages of seven and twelve home. His mother and sister still lived on the first floor of that old concrete building. His father had gone to another country to earn a living, only returning on Christmas. It had been the same ever since the family moved to that city: his father sent money, which his mother put towards raising the children.

The doctor’s family next door liked throwing parties. They would always invite the entire neighborhood into a room that faced an inner courtyard, where they would all sing and dance. He wondered if, even now, they were all getting together like that.

Somewhere along the way his sister had stopped telling fortunes with coffee. Now she was out of school, working at the city post office.

Every once in a while Otar wound develop intense cravings for sour nut or fruit jams. Or goat cheese, or turkey cooked and seasoned with herbs, or snacks that involved mashing up fruits and nuts.

But thinking these thoughts, that was different. It wasn’t like he wanted to go back or anything.

The sumo world was simple, beautiful. At six a.m. they would wake up, go down to the practice ring, sprinkle sand on the arena, and begin to do shiko, which mean raising and stomping their legs. Otar loved the atmosphere of mornings. During cold winters on the practice ring their breath came out white, but for a short time, they were surrounded by warmth. The wrestlers’ body temperatures would go up, sweat would pour out; by the time the intensity of practice waned the room would be hot and humid, and their breath would no longer be white.

After doing sanban-geiko or butsukari-geiko several times, their entire bodies would be red. When they slammed together, their muscles would expand and contract. In order for their bodies to remember that sensation, they faced each other again and again.

The body was an essential part of training.

Nothing else had meaning. Push; approach; toss; hang; all were movements of the body. That’s where their power lay. If they were strong, they won; it was a simple truth.

It wasn’t much different from what Otar had learned as a wrestler in middle school or high school, what had been pounded into his consciousness day in and day out.

This body is mine, Otar thought. Nobody can take this body away from me. And this body alone will bring the future to me. It will carry me out of my past and into the future.

Think of this stable as your home, everyone had told him when he first came. Maybe they were right. He tried telling himself: I have no other home, this is it.

But, for Otar, the concept of “home” was not all that important.

What was important was “body;” an obstinate body, a body that didn’t know defeat. As long as he had his body, even if he had come to a world he could not have even imagined existed in his youth, he knew that he would take control of his future.

That little boy, who had looked so uncomfortable in his corner of the room, probably had something more important to him than his body. Otar thought that, in its own right, might be something to be jealous of.

It wouldn’t be accurate to say the wrestlers didn’t sleep that night; at some point, both they and the fledgling referee drifted into deep sleeps.

When morning came they stirred as usual, folded their futons in three, put on their mawashi, and went down to the training area.

“Hey guys,” the oyakata called them over to the viewing area.

The wrestlers, who had begun to do suriashi and shikobumi exercises, came together, stood up straight, and looked up at him.

“Apparently he was wandering around Tokyo Station.”

“When you say ‘he,’ do you mean him?” Kaneko asked after a pause.

“Yep, him. Seems he didn’t go home after all.”

“Wonder what he was doing?” Tachibana mused, pushing up his glasses.

To which Kaneko answered in the oyakata’s place, “Like he said, he was wandering.”

“I mean, wandering at a time like this, that’s just weird,” Tachibana retorted.

“Since he was roaming around looking so out of it, one of the station employees flagged him down and took him to the nearest police station. From what they told me, he said ‘I’ll go home in the morning, so just let me be for tonight.’”

“Weirdo,” Tachibana muttered.

“When he said ‘go home,’ I wonder if he meant here?” Yūji Koike thought aloud.

“I think he did. Even though we all assumed he’d run away to his own home. They contacted me this morning, so I’ll be going. Kane, you’re in charge.” As the oyakata left Kaneko, or “Kane,” yelled “Yessir!” and the wrestlers went back to their usual exercises.

“What a strange guy, I wonder why he didn’t go home,” Kaneko mumbled.

Otar, who until then had kept quiet, said in fluent Japanese as he faced a wooden pillar, “Maybe he doesn’t have a home to go back to.” The other four stared at him thinking that maybe, all this time, they had been lied to.

“Hey, Otaru, your hair has really grown! Better dye it black before your first tournament. Soon you’ll even be able to pull it back!” Koike exclaimed. Otar turned and gave him a wide grin.

“Matsuyama, you had a pretty rough time in your last stable, didn’t you? Why didn’t you run away?” The manager plus coach Kaneko asked. Matsuyama, a surprised look on his face, replied:

“I used to be a shut-in, I don’t know my way back home.”

The ring exploded with laughter, then fell back into silence as the wrestlers resumed practice. After that, nobody mentioned the boy who had run away.

He probably wanted to be stronger too, Matsuyama said to himself, and continued to push at the wooden pillar.

(Translated from Japanese by Maya Katzir)

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