An ancient sport as unique as Japan itself, sumo wrestling has a rich history. It is Japan’s national sport, it is deeply rooted in Japanese culture, and it shows amazing display of strength. There are precise rituals and rules to be respected in sumo, not only about the match itself but also regarding the ring, ceremony, behavior, and life of sumo wrestlers.
How did it all begin?
Sumo is believed to have started during the Heian period (over 2000 years ago), and originated for religious reasons; one of which to honor the local spirits. Because of its Shinto background, many rituals still remain in place today such as purifying the elevated wrestling ring, known as dohyō, with salt. Other parts of the sport, however, have changed throughout time. For example, sumo wrestlers were not always so large and interestingly, there were even female sumo wrestlers during the 19th Century.
The rules of the game
While most of the rituals in the opening ceremony are complicated and detailed, the rules of an actual match are quite simple even for those who have never seen the sport before.
The match starts when both wrestlers place their hands on the ground. This time can also be used to ‘psych out’ opponents if one wrestler stands up straight; this is often accompanied with lots of yelling and noise from the spectators. Although Japanese people have a reputation for being polite and quiet, that is not true when it comes to watching a sumo wrestling match!
Once the match begins, the loser is whoever exits the ring first or whoever that touches the ground with a body part other than the feet. Matches are usually very fast and only lasts a few seconds, but sometimes they can go for a few minutes. There is also the possibility that a wrestler is disqualified if he loses his loincloth. This was the case during a match in 2000 when for the first time in 83 years, a sumo wrestler lost his mawashi (loincloth).
There are no weight categories in sumo, so the sumo wrestlers may find themselves up against someone much larger than they are. Therefore, weight gain is a big part of their training as it could be essential for them to win a match. The weight gain aspect has developed over time; old photos show that wrestlers in the past were generally much more muscular and thin.
Life of Rikishi
Wrestlers, also called rikishi, are ranked according to their wins and losses and divided into three main divisions. The top rank is Yokozuna grand champions which along with four other ranks, compete in highest division called Makunouchi. Below that division, there are five other ones. Only the rikishi who compete in the Makunouchi or Juryo divisions are called sekitori and considered full-fledged rikishi. They’re also the only ones who receive monthly salaries. Those in the other four divisions are apprentices.
A career as a rikishi is far from glamorous – it involves heavy training and strict rules. During their career, wrestlers live in a stable, sumo beya, where they sleep, eat, and train everyday with other wrestlers. The lower-ranked wrestlers have to do all the extra work such as cook, clean and help the higher-ranked wrestlers. They are also the last to eat and bathe and they have to wake up the earliest. A big part of a sumo wrestlers’ training involves their diet; they eat plenty of chanko nabe, a Japanese hotpot packed full of different kinds of protein.
Wrestlers are also required to grow their hair in a traditional way and wear traditional clothes. This makes them extremely easy to spot in public and it is not uncommon to see them in the street or catching the train.