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Greg Girard /Contact Press Images for TIME.
RING OF TRUTH: One of nine sumo students in Moriyama limbers up for practice.

Wrestle Mania
A small town in western Japan keeps hope alive for the nation's ancient sport

Masato sukeda is an unlikely poster boy for sumo. For one thing, he doesn't have an ounce of fat on him, unlike the lumbering giants who rule the Japanese wrestling ring. For another, Masato is only seven years old and doesn't know how to tie his own loincloth. In fact, when he tried once, the silken fabric slipped off, causing the kind of embarrassment that only a second-grader could really appreciate.

But Masato and the eight other boys who crowd onto the swept-earth ring at Moriyama elementary school in central Japan may be sumo's best hope. Despite its proud, 1,500-year history, the sport no longer attracts the audiences and the athletes it once did. Lured by flashier sports and uncomfortable with sumo's religious ties, Japan has turned its back on a pastime once as cherished by its citizens as baseball is by Americans. In 1995, baseball actually surpassed sumo as Japan's most popular sport.

But if modern Japan has abandoned its national recreation, Moriyama, a conservative enclave in Kanazawa city, has not. Winters are long in Moriyama; the school's athletic fields are blanketed with snow for a third of the year, leaving youngsters little time for baseball and soccer. Instead, they while away wintry days with impromptu wrestling matches and cheer on Dejima, a Moriyama alumnus who has reached sumo's second-highest rank, ozeki. "Sumo teaches discipline and history and is good for the soul," says school principal Eishin Kosaka, harkening to the sport's past as an athletic embodiment of Japan's Shinto religion. Even today, wrestlers scatter a handful of salt to purify the ring and clap their hands to call the gods before every match.

But after World War II, the last thing Japanese leaders wanted was a reminder of the Shintoism that had stoked the country's militarism. The emperor was demoted from divinity to mortal, students were banned from celebrating the ancient Tanabata summer festival in school and sumo was booted from the national curriculum. For Moriyama's citizens, the Education Ministry's rejection of sumo was tantamount to cultural treason. So the community fought back: a disciple of a local Shinto priest was called in to train a crack team of wrestling coaches, and Kosaka organized a sumo club that wouldn't contravene the Education Ministry rulebook. His efforts have paid off: a wrestling ring lies next to the soccer field, since officials wouldn't allow it inside the school building. Practices are held on Saturday afternoons, so they won't cut into official school hours.

Of the boys called for sumo duty, Yosuke Uozumi is the brightest hope. The 11-year-old came in third in the junior nationals last year. With his 169-cm height and solid 77-kg physique, he already looks like a linebacker. "When I get in the sumo ring I feel like a man," he says, slapping his shoulders to psyche himself up for practice. "I feel as if I am representing one of Japan's best traditions." His coach, Hisayuki Ishizuka, a salaryman by day, believes Yosuke embodies a fading Japanese ideal. "Sumo makes kids polite and builds character," he says. "Japan should be promoting the sport, not discouraging it."

For its part, the Education Ministry claims it's not against sumo, even though it doesn't provide public funding. "Nowadays it's difficult to promote a sport where the participants are basically naked," says a ministry spokesman. "But if kids want to wrestle, that's fine with us." Kosaka remains unconvinced. In May, the school raised money for a roof over its sumo ring, enabling kids to practice during the summer rains. Local hero Dejima came for the dedication ceremony, but Kosaka was feeling skittish. "I had to make sure we didn't start the ceremony before 4:35 p.m.," he recalls. "Otherwise, the ministry could accuse us of practicing religion during school hours." As soon as school closed, Dejima sprinkled salt on the hallowed circle of earth. Then Masato Sukeda and the other boys clambered into the ring. Together, the future of sumo clapped their hands, not to honor the Shinto gods, but simply to signal the start of some good, dust-kicking fun.

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