Wrestling is a popular sport that dates back many thousands of years.
Sumo wrestling is not only the oldest of Japan’s various martial arts, it
also evolved into the most distinct and ritualistic. It is still heavily
centered around the Shinto religion. When the sport was first introduced 1500
years ago it was performed mostly to ensure good harvests.
Sumo wrestling's popularity
quickly spread, becoming a more public and widespread event. Matches were
usually brutal, the loser often expected to forfeit his life. By the 7th century
Sumo had fallen under the protection of the warring Shogunite regime and was
largely banned as a public spectacle. Only the samurai, or warrior class, were
allowed to practice it as part of their military training.
finally restored Sumo once again fell under the backing of the Japanese
courts and was dubbed the Imperial sport. By the 15th century Sumo
adopted a set of strict rules and the most talented champions were
offered aid by powerful feudal lords. In the early 1700’s “banzuke” or
ranking lists, were established, a system which is still strictly
today. The objective of the “sumotori”, or competitors, many of whom
250 and 500 pounds, is to either knock his opponent from a
or maneuver him so that any part of his body touches the ground. This
by using one or a series of 70 accepted Sumo moves, some of which are
slapping, hoisting, tripping, pinning or throwing. Six 15 day
held each year in Japan in the cities of Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and
Sumo matches are fought in a “dohyo”, a raised and sanctified platform
constructed with clay and sand and onto which a 14 foot 10 inch circle is marked
out using half buried straw bales. Suspended above the ring is a wooden
structure that resembles the roof of Shinto shrine. Each Sumo tournament begins
with much pageantry and ceremony. The wrestlers, the referees, and the various
attendants and helpers wear colourful attire, the design of which remains
steeped in ancient traditions and meanings dating back to Japan’s Edo period.
The grand champions, all wearing intricately embroidered silk aprons some of
which are worth in excess of 500,000 yen, enter the ring first and begin their
own elaborate rituals called “doyho-iri”. After gathering in a circle,
clapping hands and performing lengthy and ritualistic postulating, they leave
the ring, making way for the other lower-ranked sumatori who then carry out the
There is no weight class in
Sumo wrestling so very often the “Rikishi”,
or competitors, find themselves squaring off against a much heftier opponent.
The match begins when two Rikishi enter the ring, now stripped to nothing but
their traditional loin cloth, or “Mawashi”, a belt that when unwrapped can
stretch to 30 feet. Next the “chiri-chozu” ceremony is performed. Both men
squat at opposite ends of the ring, extend their arms, then clap their hands
once. The wrestlers move on to perform the “Shiko,” an exaggerated foot
stamping ritual after which each man reaches into a basket of unrefined salt and
tosses it to purify the ring.
Now the match is almost ready to
start; each man strides to a marked white
line, crouches down, clenches his fists, then proceeds to glare in the hopes of
breaking the other’s focus. These glare-offs are timed and may not extend past
4 minutes. At any time during the 4 minute countdown, the Rikishi may lunge at
each other and begin grabbing each other. Hair pulling, punching with the fists, gouging
around the eyes and kicking vital areas are strictly prohibited. Often a match
lasts mere seconds before the more powerful or agile opponent executes a deft
move and tosses, pushes, slaps or in some other way disqualifies his rival.
A Sumo wrestler’s ranking depends solely on the number of matches he wins
during official tournaments. Even a grand champion may fall from the top ranks
if, during the course of these tournaments, his losses outnumber his wins.
Twenty awards are divided amongst the competitors of the six different Sumo
divisions, the most prestigious being the Emperor’s Cup. The goal of every
Sumo wrestler is to have his name engraved on the cup and his life-sized
portrait displayed for the masses. One of Japan’s most popular Sumo wrestlers,
Chiyonofuji, has won the Emperor’s Cup no less than 27 times.
The training regimen for Sumo wrestlers is strict and rigorous and is
generally supervised by retired Rikishi. There are numerous Sumo schools in
Japan and young recruits usually enter as teenagers. Each youth must pass a
weight class before acceptance. The schools teach rules, etiquette, basic
techniques and the history of Sumo. Scouts from various “stables” , or Sumo
training centers, visit schools to recruit promising students who they hope
might become the next stars of the Sumo ring. Once a young man enters a stable
he must be totally committed to the years of training required to become an
Even within a Sumo stable there is a specific and strictly enforced ranking.
The youngest recruits are often required to rise as early as 4 AM to train and
are expected to act as assistants or to wait on the older rikishi during
mealtimes. All meals are prepared using high protein foods for optimum weight
gain. For centuries it was believed that the larger the wrestler’s girth, the
greater his chance of becoming a grand champion. However, health problems have
plagued Sumo wrestlers for decades. Many ailments are a direct result of rapid and
excessive weight gain. In an effort to produce healthier fighters various
stables no longer practice force feeding. Others have also adopted weight
training and other forms of exercise to create slimmer, yet equally powerful
The Sumo Association of Japan is the foremost governing body of Sumo
wrestling and consists of retired or “elder” rikishi. Besides overseeing
tournaments and other events, the Association also divides allowances amongst
the 40 established Sumo stables across Japan. Additional sponsorship from
wealthy businessmen and the general public is also encouraged.
Despite Sumo wrestling archaic ritual and tradition, the sport continues to
draw new fans and growing international interest. Hundreds of Sumo wrestlers of
various nationalities earn comfortable livelihoods, participating in matches not
only in Japan, but in Europe, North America and Britain. Grand champions attain
celebrity status and garner much adulation from dedicated fans. Women are even
stepping into the squared Sumo circle. In 1997 Japan held its first ever Sumo
championship for women. How far these grappling ladies will progress in what has
for centuries been a male-dominated contact sport remains to be seen.