Originally published 10 April 2009
With a history spanning many centuries, sumo is Japan’s most popular traditional sport.
Highly ritualised, it’s a truly fascinating experience and watching a titanic clash between two enormous, near naked wrestlers is one you are not likely to forget!
There are six tournaments a year each lasting around 15 days but the fights themselves are much briefer affairs with bouts lasting a matter of seconds. The competition begins in January and then makes its way around the country before finishing in Fukuoka in November.
Steeped in Shinto rituals, the early years of sumo saw matches taking place in temples and shrines, during the Nara and Heian period it became a spectator sport for the imperial court, whilst the militaristic Kamakura period saw sumo become part of a warrior's training. Professional sumo as we know it began around the 1700s and was quite similar to the sumo practiced in today’s matches.
Rules and tradition of sumo wrestling
The idea of sumo is to force your opponent out of the ring or to throw him to the floor using one or more of the 82 legitimate techniques.
The first to step out of the dohyo (the ring where bouts take place) or to touch the ground with any part of his body loses.
However sumo is much more than a battle of strength and the pomp and ceremony which surrounds it gives the sport a gravitas completely absent in western wrestling. Just some of the rituals involved include the referee pouring an offering of sake onto the ring as part of a dedication ceremony, the ritual stomping before a match (shiko) drives away evil spirits and salt is tossed into the ring by the wrestlers for further purification, indeed nearly 40kg is thrown in one day!
A sumo match is presided over by a referee whose ranking can be recognised by how elaborate his kimono is, much like in football there is a hierarchy of referees and it is the highest ranking ones who get to officiate the top matches.
Sumo wrestling culture
Leading highly regimented lives, only when a rikishi (wrestler) makes it into the top ranks of ozeki or yokozuna does life become a little easier.
Those in the lower ranks have to content themselves with being servants to the higher ranking wrestlers and this means doing everything from running errands to scrubbing backs.
Rather surprisingly, a typical day in a beya (sumo stable) begins with practice not food. Starting at around 06:00am the wrestlers are put through their paces with a series of tedious exercises designed to build strength and flexibility. This is then followed by repetitive practices matches where the wrestlers spar against each other in a “winner stays on” style tournament.
Whilst practice is taking place, the wrestlers are forbidden to speak and so the most common sounds that can be heard are those of these large wrestlers throwing their bodies into each and taking heavy breaths. The closer they get to a tournament the more intense and severe the training regime becomes.
Practice ends around 11:00 when the wrestlers take in the first of two gargantuan meals. The meal is prepared by the lower ranking rishiki but it is the higher ranking fighters who get to eat first. Having eaten, the lower ranked wrestlers set about cleaning the beya whilst their superiors bathe, before having the rest of the day free to do as they please, many simply choose to sleep so as to further improve their bulk.
In the weeks before a tournament it is possible to visit a sumo stable to see the wrestlers being put through their paces. Please contact one of our specialists who can give you more information on this.
Sumo wrestlers are much revered in Japan and are the equivalent of our footballer stars, albeit with slightly bigger waistlines! Weighing in at an average of 150kg and with an average height of 185cm, sumo wrestlers can earn between £7,000 and £20,000 a month whilst winning one of the six grand sumo tournaments can net them a further £70,000.
The sport is currently dominated by two Mongolian wrestlers with the emerging Hakuho Sho currently edging out his fellow country man Asashoryu. Both Yokozuna’s, the latter is somewhat of an enigma. With undoubted skill it is his temperament which has been called into question with reported brawls and bust ups with fellow competitors, indeed he was the first Yokuzuna to ever be suspended from competition after he feigned injury and was then filmed taking part in a charity football match in his own country.
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