Everyone thinks they know what sumo wrestling is. It’s about big fat guys slamming into each other, right?
Well, yes and no. Sumo may seem comical to you and me, but it is actually a very serious business – there is an awful lot more to sumo wrestling than most outsiders ever realise.
It wasn’t until I attended a sumo tournament in Osaka earlier this year that I began to realise just how fascinating Japan’s national sport really is. Here are a few of the amazing things I learnt about sumo – I hope they will encourage you to go to go and see a tournament for yourself!
1. Sumo is a religious ritual
Compared with most sports in the world today, sumo originated a heck of a long time ago. About 1,500 years, in fact. From the very beginning it was entwined with Shinto ritual, when it was performed at shrines to ensure a bountiful harvest and to honour the spirits – known as kami.
Sumo wrestlers throw salt before a match to purify the ring
Sumo is still very closely associated with its religious origins, and Shinto principles continue to govern the everyday life of today’s sumo wrestlers. Each of the ring-entering ceremonies is a Shinto purification ritual, and every newly promoted yokozuna (the highest rank in sumo) performs his first ring-entering ceremony at the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo. The canopy that hangs over the ring is modelled after the roof of a Shinto shrine, indicating that the ring itself is a holy place.
Ring-entering ceremony at Meiji Shrine in Tokyo
2. The rules of the match
A sumo match doesn’t start until both wrestlers have placed both hands on the ground at the same time. This leads to quite a lot of fannying about whilst each wrestler tries to psyche the other out, pretending to put his hand down and then getting back up again.
Once they finally do begin, it is very rare for sumo bouts to last longer than a few seconds – although occasionally they can up to four minutes. This means that the action is very fast-paced and exciting. A match ends when one of the wrestlers is either thrown out of the ring, or if any part of his body apart from the soles of his feet touches the ground.
The following video of a sumo match (plus superb commentary, it has to be said) is a great example of just how long it takes for a bout to begin:
Interestingly, the match can also end if one of the wrestlers loses his mawashi, or loincloth – in which case the de-loinclothed wrestler is disqualified. More interestingly still, this rule was only adopted after Japan began adopting European (read: prudish) attitudes toward nudity.
This outcome is very rare in sumo, but a wardrobe malfunction did occur during a match in May 2000, when the unfortunate wrestler Asanokiri exposed himself and was disqualified immediately.
3. Sumo life is really, really hard.
I once met a retired sumo wrestler who ran a chanko nabe restaurant in Hakuba. He was very keen to talk about his life as a rikishi (wrestler), but when I asked him if he enjoyed it – if being a sumo wrestler was fun – he looked at me as though I’d just spat in his food. Now I understand why.
It would be easy to assume from their famously substantial girth that wrestlers live a life of excess outside their training schedule. In reality, sumo wrestlers’ lives are possibly the most rigidly regimented and disciplined of any athletes in the world, and life in a sumo stable is incredibly hard.
The sumobeya, or ‘stable’, is where the wrestlers live, eat, train and sleep throughout their career – unless they get married, in which case they are allowed to live in an independent dwelling. An average stable will contain around 15 wrestlers, and is arranged according to a strict hierarchy.
Morning practice at a sumobeya
Life is hardest for the lower ranked wrestlers, who are expected to get up earliest and cook, clean, serve food and generally wait on the higher ranked wrestlers. They even have to bathe last after training, and get last pick at dinner time – after their more senior peers have gobbled all the choice morsels!
If this sounds hard, it gets even harder. It is a fact of sumo life that the younger, inexperienced wrestlers endure systematic hazing and physical punishment in order to toughen them up. This is part and parcel of sumo culture and something that young wrestlers know to expect, but it can sometimes go too far – resulting in injury and very rare cases even in death.
Hakuho, a very popular Mongolian-born sumo champion, has spoken out before about the brutality of life as a young wrestler in training – you can read some of his comments here.
4. Sumo wrestlers haven’t always been fat
In fact, it was only very recently in the history of sumo that the wrestlers developed the chubbiness they are now famous for. Since there are no weight divisions in professional sumo, every wrestler basically just wants to get as big as humanly possible so that he can use his weight in the ring. It wasn’t until well into the twentieth century that the modern image of the whale-like sumo wrestler really emerged – with earlier wrestlers typically much more wiry and muscular.
A famous exception to the general fatness is Takanoyama Shuntaro, known as the “Skinny Sumo”, a Czech wrestler distinctive for his diminutive size. Despite being comparatively minuscule, Takanoyama has had impressive success in the rankings, reaching the makuuchi division in 2011. Read more about him here.
Takanoyama Shuntaro: “The Skinny Sumo”
If you’ve ever wondered just how modern sumo get so fat, it’s all thanks to something called chanko nabe. This is a special kind of (delicious) hotpot packed with meat, veggies and noodles that is specifically associated with sumo wrestlers in Japan. This alone doesn’t do the trick – wrestlers have a special routine of exercising on an empty stomach and sleeping after eating to help turn the calories they consume (purportedly up to 10,000 per day) into bulk.
Unfortunately this increase in weight, combined with a high consumption of alcohol, means that modern sumo wrestlers’ life expectancy is more than ten years shorter than that of the average Japanese male.
5. Sumo wrestlers aren’t allowed to drive cars
It sounds absurd, but this is actually true. After a serious car accident involving a sumo wrestler, the Sumo Association banned wrestlers from driving their own cars. Just ‘cus they can, I guess.
Perhaps that’s why this guy looks so fed up.
6. The last night of a sumo tournament is called the ‘pleasure of a thousand autumns’
This rather poetic epithet echoes the words of 14th-15th century playwright Zeami Motokiyo, and is meant to convey the excitement of the decisive bouts and the celebration of the victor – who receives all kinds of elaborate prizes for his success. And a fat wad of cash, of course.
7. Sumo referees live on borrowed time
Sumo referees, or gyoji, are as interesting as the wrestlers. Like the wrestlers, they enter the world of sumo at a young age (about sixteen) and remain in their profession until they retire. The traditional clothing they wear in the ring is strictly graded according to rank, and as they progress up the ranks they earn honorific names by which they become known. The top ranked gyoji (the equivalent of yokozuna for wrestlers) takes the name Kimura Shonosuke but, unlike the rank of yokozuna, it can only be held by one person at any one time.
Perhaps most interestingly, the gyoji also carries a sword, or tanto, of about six to twelve inches in length. The significance of the sword is to show that the gyoji understands the seriousness of the decisions he has to make – and is prepared to commit seppuku (ritual suicide by disembowelment) if he makes a bad decision!
Talk about pressure. Thankfully, in these cases today the gyoji usually just submits his resignation papers instead as a gesture of contrition. In most cases the gesture is just that, and the erring gyoji’s resignation is very rarely accepted.
Try as I might, I can’t find out when (or if) a gyoji has ever actually committed seppuku as the result of a mistake – if anyone can tell me, please do!
8. Sumo wrestlers have to wear traditional clothes
In accordance with the strict rules governing their lives, sumo wrestlers aren’t even allowed to choose their own clothes. As soon as they join a stable they are expected to grow their hair in order to form a topknot, or chonmage, similar to the samurai hairstyles of the Edo Period. They are expected to wear this hairstyle and traditional dress at all times when out in public – which means that sumo wrestlers are pretty easy to spot on the subway! (That and the fact that they’re easily ten times the size of anyone else).
Not only must they wear traditional dress, but the specifics of that dress is also closely controlled. The less experienced wrestlers must wear lower-quality, thin yukata (a cotton robe) and geta (wooden sandals) even in winter, whilst higher ranked wrestlers can wear increasingly swanky robes and even – shock! horror! – get to choose their own!
9. They’re not even allowed to behave how they like
In addition to the strict routine governing their training schedule, sumo wrestlers are even expected to control their demeanour and personality in public. Rules delineate that when out and about, wrestlers must be self-effacing and softly spoken, and during tournaments they should refrain from showing joy at winning or disappointment at losing. No amateur dramatics or self-congratulatory gloating here, and quite right too.
10. Only one foreigner at a time, please!
Sumo stables were once allowed to recruited as many foreign wrestlers as they like. Then, after one stable recruited six Mongolians at once, there was a mass gaijin-induced panic, and today stables are only allowed to have one foreign wrestler (defined as somebody born outside Japan) at any one time.
These foreign wrestlers are expected to speak Japanese, and must be well-versed in Japanese culture – meaning that foreign sumo face all the same challenges that Japanese sumo do, but with the added anxiety of having to learn to live and breathe like a Japanese. And that, my friends, is no mean feat – as you can read a little more about here.
Akebono Taro, born Chad Haaheo Rowan, became the first ever foreign-born sumo grand champion in 1993. He is a native of Hawaii.
11. Women can’t be sumo wrestlers
It is a sad fact that men’s sports are almost always more popular than women’s (except perhaps beach volleyball) – but there aren’t many sports from which women are actually forbidden from participating. Sumo, however, is one of them – the Sumo Association doesn’t even allow women to enter the sumo ring, as it is considered a violation of the purity of the ring.
This caused a bit of an issue when there was a female Governor of Osaka – Fusae Ohta, governor from 2000 – 2008. The Governor traditionally presents the Governor’s Prize in the ring at the end of the tournament, but obviously this is a bit tricky when the Governor is banned from the ring. Ohta wasn’t all too impressed by this ruling, and she repeatedly challenged the Sumo Association to allow her to fulfil her traditional role as Governor. She was repeatedly turned down until she eventually stepped down from office.
It wasn’t always the case that sumo was so hostile to women, however, and as early as the 18th century there was a form of female sumo commonly performed in some areas of Japan. Most of the time this was just a form of entertainment, but in some areas of Japan female sumo did have a serious role in Shinto rituals. Today it is prohibited from taking place in anything but an amateur setting.
Female sumo wrestlers
So there you have it. The next time you’re tempted to laugh a sumo wrestler’s man boobs, just remember that those wobbly abs and thunder thighs conceal an incredible discipline the likes of which you or I can hardly imagine.
Sumo is a fascinating sport with an uncertain future, as the harsh lifestyle makes it more and more difficult to attract new recruits. I would urge anyone visiting Japan to go to see some if they can – we can arrange tickets to sumo tournaments and visits to watch morning training at a sumo stable in Tokyo.
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