Attention to Akeni
by Carolyn Todd
Photos by Carolyn Todd
|cabinet to breathe but the frame
made it sturdy. Only two of these cabinets are still in existence. They
were popular in Tokyo but during WWII they were mostly destroyed.
Peeling BambooMr. W’s father used to work as a craftsman for a company, but he was frustrated as an employee and started his own workshop in 1932. At that time, boxes, and most other craft items, were made through the division of labour. Each craftsman had a different role: one would make the frame; Mr. W’s father wove the bamboo, then passed the box along to the next craftsman who applied the washi paper, and so on until the boxes were finished.
In most sports, competitors tote their equipment, boots, racquets, or
whatever, in technology-riddled bags produced by sports company
sponsors. In sumo, however, they have to make do with bamboo and paper
boxes designed in the Edo period (1603-1867). Unless you’ve got
Japanese TV or you’ve seen a bunch of dressing room photos, you might
never have seen these bright red and green boxes, known as akeni, which
hold the kesho mawashi (the long, elaborate “apron” worn during the
dohyo-iri), mawashi, and anything else a sekitori needs during a basho,
but they’re yet another example of the history and tradition
surrounding sumo. And, instead of multinational companies using
multitudes of employees to churn out bags by the gazillion, sumo relies
on the craftsmanship of only two men, Takekazu Watanabe and his son,
All sumo wrestlers strive to obtain their first akeni and kesho mawashi as a rite of passage and
their success, as only juryo and makunouchi wrestlers and gyoji are
permitted to use them. Gyoji order their own akeni through their heya
when they are promoted, but sekitori akeni are ordered by sponsors.
Akeni cost 100,000 yen per box from Mr. Watanabe (hereafter, “Mr. W”) but kesho mawashi makers sell akeni and kesho mawashi as a set, bumping up the price considerably. And what do you get for your yen? Akeni weigh about 15kg (33 pounds) empty and measure approximately 80 x 45 x 30 cm (31.5 x 18 x 12 inches), the perfect size to hold a kesho mawashi.
This type of bamboo and paper box arrived from China around the 15th century. The oldest type of this box is called a tsuzura, and they were originally used to store clothes, traditionally kimono, because there were no closets. Then a cabinet was developed with a wooden frame covered with the same woven bamboo as the boxes. This allowed the