by Sebastian Smith
The big men of Japanese sumo met their match Sunday in the form of an even bigger star: Donald Trump.
Trump was the first US president to attend a tournament in sumo’s hallowed Ryogoku Kokugikan arena and when he entered, the crowd of more than 10,000 cheered and whistled.
The president, on a feel-good visit to Japan that peaks Monday when he becomes the first foreign leader to meet with newly enthroned Emperor Naruhito, responded the way he always does in a crowd.
He waved, he pumped his fist, he beamed.
Even more than most normal politicians, Trump loves being centre of attention and here on the other side of the world he proved his star power.
Four low seats awaited Trump, First Lady Melania Trump, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife Akie.
The furniture was a break in tradition — everyone else watching sumo ringside sits on simple mats. But Abe had pulled out all the stops to make sure Trump was happy.
For several minutes, the crowd seemed to forget the sumo ring, instead turning to Trump, who wore a light pink tie, and his ex-model wife, who wore a deep pink dress.
Thousands of mobile phones flashed and filmed.
“This is a very rare opportunity. He’s got an aura,” said spectator Masamitsu Kurokawa, 56, who works in the service industry. “He is in a different class.”
– Longing for limelight –
That said, sumo crowds are passionate about their uniquely Japanese sport and as soon as the action in the ring recommenced, even Trump appeared briefly forgotten.
Giant sumo grapplers pushed and buffeted each other. The crowd veered from nervous anticipation to delirious cheers.
Trump was maybe a little baffled by the proceedings, getting meagre help from his many years of watching and promoting the more far more garish US pastime of professional wrestling.
His initially buoyant demeanour dimmed and other than a few words with Abe and occasional chats with his wife, he sat stolidly, staring straight ahead.
But if the wrestlers were having their moment, no one was going to keep Trump, real estate showman and populist political rule-breaker, from the limelight for long.
Japanese wrestler Asanoyama lost his final bout, but was still far ahead enough of his competition overall to keep the title of champ. The crowd sang the Japanese national anthem.
Up into the ring came Asanoyama to collect his first trophy and the crowd cheered.
Now Abe arrived to present an even bigger second trophy, the Prime Minister’s Cup, which was so large that a child could have curled up inside. The crowd cheered even more loudly.
But then came the American trophy. This is officially known as the President’s Cup, but is already popularly known as the “Trump Cup”.
Unlike the previous two, the US trophy was carried into the ring under a white sheet. An official in traditional Japanese garb then pulled this off, revealing a glistening, also gigantic cup, and prompting a chorus of whistling and “oohs”.
Entering the ring, Trump read a brief presentation to Asanoyama. He got a big cheer when he mentioned that the award was being given in the new imperial era of Reiwa.
Then going back to his instincts for hamming it up in front of photographers, Trump mock grimaced as he lifted the huge cup — clearly something he would not have tried to do without the help of one of the sumo officials at his side.
Gone was the stiffness: he was in relaxed, beaming mode again.
Amid more clapping, Trump shook hands with Abe and the gaggle of VIPs turned to depart the ring, leaving the victorious Asanoyama to enjoy his moment of glory alone.
Trump was still there, the president unable to resist pausing, milking the atmosphere a few seconds longer.
Just him, the champion, the lights and the crowd.
© Agence France-Presse