The first few times I saw sumo wrestling on television was either in Takeshi’s Castle or movies. In the movies, the hero would stumble into the sumo ring while being chased or chasing someone. What followed was that the hero (who’s puny compared to the wrestler and is supposed to break like a toothpick) would deliver a couple of kicks and punches to the wrestler’s head and it would be over. What!? As for Takeshi’s Castle, anyone who has watched it knows it’s a barrel of laughs. The result was that I grew up with the distorted idea that sumo was put up solely for comical purposes. I didn’t know it was a serious, competitive sport with a history going back to centuries. And I certainly did not know that many ancient traditions of Japan are preserved in the sport. So let’s dive deep into the world of sumo wrestling and learn a few things.
Here are a few basic things first. Sumo has its roots in Japan. It’s a form of competitive, full-contact wrestling. The wrestler is called rikishi, while the circular sumo ring is called the dohyō. The rikishi will try to force his opponent out of the dohyō or any part of his body to touch the ground. This is done by shoving, throwing or pushing him down.
Sumo is the national sport of Japan and it is also the only country where it is practiced professionally. Although the history of sumo spans several centuries, it is considered a gendai budō or a modern Japanese martial art. And as in any sport, there are rules and traditions that are kept up with, which we’ll see here.
History of sumo wrestling
Wall paintings from the prehistoric era show that sumo was born out of agricultural ritual dance and prayer performed for a good harvest. Sumo was first mentioned in a Kojiki manuscript dating back to 712. The manuscript describes how the ownership or possession of Japanese islands was settled through a sumo wrestling match between the kami (Gods, spirits or holy powers) known as Takemikazuchi and Takeminakata.
In Japanese Shinto beliefs, Takemikazuchi was a god of thunder, conquest and swordsmanship. He was born out of the bloodshed when Izanagi (one of the kami who created the Japanese archipelago) killed Kagutsuchi, the fire demon. Takeminakata was a god of wind, water, agriculture and hunting and also a descendant of Susanoo, the storm god. When Takemikazuchi set out to conquer Izumo, he was challenged by Takeminakata to hand-to-hand combat. What followed was Takemikazuchi grappling and crushing Takeminakata’s arm, thus defeating him and winning the land of Izumo.
According to the Nihon Shoki, (translated as The Chronicles of Japan and is the second-oldest book of classical Japanese history) published in 720, the first sumo match to occur between mortals was in 23 BC. It was between Nomi no Sukune and Taima no Kuehaya. The match occurred at the request of Emperor Suinin. Nomi eventually kills Taima, thus making him the mythological ancestor of sumo. The Nihon Shoki claims that Nomi broke one of Taima’s ribs and then killed him by kicking him in the back. This unregulated form of sumo continued till the Japanese Middle Ages- the fighting would continue until one opponent killed the other. The first sumo fights to be historically attested were held at the court of Empress Kōgyoku in 642. The match was organized as entertainment for the Korean legation. In the coming centuries, the popularity of sumo in the court heightened the sport’s religious and ceremonial significance.
Japanese Middle Ages (1185–1603)
When the Emperor’s central authority collapsed, so did the importance of sumo in the imperial court. The Kamakura period (1192 to 1333) is known for the emergence of the warrior caste, samurai and the establishment of feudalism in the country. During the Kamakura period, sumo was repurposed- it went from being a ceremonial struggle to a kind of military combat training among the samurai.
By the dawn of the Muromachi period (1336 to 1573), sumo had extended beyond the walls of the court. It was enjoyed as a popular event by the masses. The daimyō (feudal lords) regularly sponsored wrestlers. Any wrestler or sumotori who successfully defeated his opponent was given generous support and the status of a samurai by the daimyo. Oda Nobunaga, a Japanese daimyo during the Sengoku period, was an ardent supporter of the sport. In 1578, he held a massive sumo tournament of 1500 wrestlers in his castle. Since several bouts had to be held simultaneously within the lord’s castle, circular arenas were formed to hasten the matches and keep the spectators safe. This marks the invention of the dohyō or the circular sumo ring. Oda Nobunaga’s form of dohyō was used until the 18th century. Whoever won the Nobunaga tournament was given a bow and the winner would dance to thank the feudal lord.
Edo period (1603–1867)
By the time the Edo period arrived, sumo had grown to be a nuisance due to the wild fighting in the streets. As a result, it was temporarily banned in the city. In 1684, the sport was permitted to be held as part of charity events on Shinto shrine properties. Kyoto and Osaka were the two cities where this was held. The first sanctioned sumo tournament was held at the Tomioka Hachiman Shrine. The Edo administration developed an official sumo organization with professional wrestlers. Elements such as the dohyō-iri (a ring-entering ceremony), the heya system (an organization of sumo wrestlers where they train and live), the gyōji (referee) and the mawashi (loincloth worn by the wrestler) were developed during this time. Some of the notable wrestlers during the 18th century are Raiden Tameemon, Onogawa Kisaburō and Tanikaze Kajinosuke, who is also the first historical yokozuna (highest rank in sumo).
Meiji Restoration (1868)
The Meiji Restoration in 1868 spelt the doom of the Japanese feudal system and consequently, the fall of the wealthy feudal lords as sponsors. Due to the influence of Western culture, sumo came to be viewed as a backward and embarrassing relic. Internal disputes broke out within the central association and the system split. The popularity of sumo remerged when Emperor Meiji organized a sumo tournament in 1884. His actions made the sport a national symbol in the country and a nationalist sentiment following Japan’s military successes against China and Korea.
On December 28th 1925, the Japan Sumo Association reunited. The number of annual tournaments increased from two to four, and then to six in 1958. Initially lasting for ten days, the length of the tournament was increased to fifteen days in 1949.
Life of a professional sumo wrestler
The Sumo Association prescribes a lot of rules and regulations regarding the lifestyle of a sumo wrestler. As a result, a professional sumo wrestler follows a highly regimented lifestyle. Breaking the rules can end up with both the wrestler and his stable master being fined, suspended or both.
Clothing, hairstyle and ranks
A professional sumo wrestler is prohibited from driving a car. This rule was born more out of necessity, since a wrestler is too huge to fit behind the steering wheel. Once they enter the wrestling world, they have to grow their hair long enough to be tied into a topknot or chonmage, like the samurai hairstyles during the Edo period. And this isn’t just inside the wrestling ring or tournament. They are expected to wear the traditional Japanese dress and champagne in public too so that they are easily identified as wrestlers.
Depending on the rank of the wrestler, the type and quality of the dress vary. There are six divisions for the wrestlers- makuuchi (highest), jūryō, makushita, sandanme, jonidan and jonokuchi (lowest.) Rikishi in jonidan and below are permitted to wear only a thin cotton robe known as the yukata, even during the freezing winter season. When in public, they wear wooden shoes called geta. Wrestlers having the makushita and sandanme ranks are allowed to wear a kind of short, traditional overcoat over their yukata. And instead of geta, they wear straw sandals known as zōri. A sekitori (ranked in either makuuchi or jūryō) wear silk robes according to their own choice. The quality of the robes worn improves as the wrestlers move up in the ranks. So does the elaborateness of their topknot- during formal occasions, a form of the topknot known as ōichō (big ginkgo leaf) is worn.
Hierarchy in stable life
There are similar distinctions in stable life or the heya, where the wrestlers live during their career. While the junior wrestlers must wake up at around 5 am for training, the sekitori starts around 7 am. When the sekitori are in their training sessions, the junior wrestlers deal with many chores. These include preparing the bath, assisting in cooking the lunch, cleaning, holding a skitori;s towel or wiping perspiration off him. While bathing after training and having lunch, the ranking hierarchy is preserved.
Usually, the wrestlers aren’t allowed to have breakfast. They take a siesta after a huge lunch. For lunch, the traditional sumo meal of chankonabe is commonly served. It consists of a hot stew cooked with various meats and vegetables. The stew is usually had with rice. Skipping breakfast and having an enormous lunch followed by a nap helps the wrestlers put on a huge amount of weight to compete more effectively.
In the afternoon, the junior wrestlers continue with their chores while the sekitori may either relax or deal with work issues such as their fan clubs. There are also classes for the younger wrestlers to attend. Their education is different from the mainstream curriculum. Towards the evening, the sekitori may go out along with their sponsors. The junior wrestlers stay back at the stable unless they are required to accompany the stablemaster or a sekitori as his manservant (tsukebito) when he goes out. Becoming a tsukebito for a senior in the stable is a mandatory duty. The number of tsukebito for a sekitori varies according to the size of the stable or sekitori. The junior wrestlers handle the most mundane tasks like running errands, cleaning the stable, washing or massaging extremely large sekitori. On the other hand, the sekitori is accompanied by only the senior tsukebito when going out. Sekitori have their own rooms in the stable. Married wrestlers have their own apartments. The junior wrestlers sleep in ordinary dormitories.
It is easy to see that a strict hierarchy exists within the world of sumo wrestling. The junior wrestlers basically serve, while the sekitori are served. New recruits can find it hard to adapt to the lifestyle and rules, especially since they are the ones allocated with the worst chores. The dropout rate in the initial stages are rather high.
Negative health effects
Following the sumo lifestyle can have extremely negative health effects later in life. Due to the diet and sport, a sumo wrestler’s life expectancy is between 60 and 65, which is more than ten years shorter than that of the average Japanese male. Many end up developing high blood pressure or type 2 diabetes. Wrestlers are more prone to heart attacks because of the large amount of body mass and fat accumulated. The excess weight creates stress on their joints, causing arthritis. Consuming excessive alcohol leads to liver problems. Recently, in an attempt to improve the health of the wrestlers, the rules regarding weight gain are becoming less strict.
The Japan Sumo Association organizes professional sumo tournaments. The association consists of former wrestlers and is known as oyakata. They are the only ones authorized to train new wrestlers. The professional wrestlers looking to enter the tournament must be a member of the stable, which is run by one of the oyakata. The oyakata is the stable master for those who train under him.
Sumo wrestlers must complete a minimum of nine years of mandatory training and meet the required height and weight to be deemed professional. These strict rules aren’t without adverse consequences either. In 1994, the association announced that the wrestlers had to be at least 5.7 feet tall. This prompted Takeji Harada, a 16-year-old who had failed the eligibility tests six times, to have four cosmetic surgeries in one year to add an extra 6 inches of silicone to his scalp. This resulted in a large, protruding bulge on his head. The association reacted by announcing that the tournament was debarred for anyone who undergoes surgery to enhance their height.
All wrestlers change their name when they enter sumo wrestling. The wrestlers themselves have little choice regarding their names since it is either their stable master, or a supporter or family member (who encouraged them into the sport) who gives them their names.
The professional sumo ranking system was created during the Edo period. Promotion or demotion occurs depending on their performance in the six official tournaments held in one year. Two weeks before each tournament, the hierarchy is published.
Rules and customs
The basic principle of sumo is that a wrestler has to force his opponent into touching the ground outside the ring or the ground inside the ring with any part of his body, except the soles of his feet. This is achieved by tossing, pushing, striking and outwitting his opponent. The association lists 82 winning techniques or kimarite, some of which have roots in judo. The most common techniques include gripping the opponent’s mawashi or belt and then forcing him out of the ring (this style is called yotsu-zumō) or simply pushing the opponent without a firm grip (this is called oshi-zumō). Illegal moves, called kinjite, include hair-pulling, strangling, gripping the crotch area, bending fingers, poking eyes, kicking, simultaneously punching and striking the opponent’s ears.
The dohyō or ring is constructed and maintained by the yobidashi, who is the announcer who calls the wrestler to the ring prior to his bout. The dohyō consists of a raised pedestal upon which a circle of 4.55 m in diameter is fixed by a series of rice-straw bales. The hanging canopy above the ring is modelled after the roof of a Shinto shrine. This indicates that a ring is a holy place. The middle of the circle has two starting lines known as the shikiri-sen. The wrestlers line up behind the shikiri-sen for the tachi-ai, which is the synchronized charge initiating the match. The match is directed by the gyōji or referee. The gyōji himself is supported by five judges, known as shimpan. Some situations call for a review of the gyōji’s decision.
The length of the match depends on the division of the wrestlers. The match is limited to four minutes in the top divisions, although it usually lasts just for a few seconds. If the match hasn’t ended within the time limit, a Mizu-iri (water break) is taken. After the break, the wrestlers continue the match from their previous positions. If the winner is still not determined after the second round, the fight restarts, but this time from the starting lines. If the result still isn’t determined, this leads to a draw, an extremely rare occasion in sumo wrestling. The last draw was in 1974.
What makes sumo all the more significant is the variety of rituals, ceremonies and traditions embodied in the sport. Some of these traditions are centuries old and remain unchanged. These include ring-entering ceremonies called the dohyō-iri at the beginning of each tournament. The wrestlers appear in the ring in their elaborate mawashi. They toss salt into the ring to cleanse the space by expelling any evil spirits. The wrestlers also cleanse their mouth with ‘power water’ or chikara-mizu prior to a fight. This is similar to a ritual performed before entering a Shinto shrine. Before a match begins, the wrestlers also perform a warm-up routine called the shikiri. While the top division is granted four minutes for shikiri, the second one gets one minute less.
Are women allowed in sumo wrestling?
Women aren’t allowed to compete in profession sumo. They are prohibited from touching or entering the ring, a rule that is rooted in Shinto and Buddhist beliefs. According to these beliefs, women are ‘impure’ due to menstrual blood.
Fusae Ohta, the female Governor of Osaka from 2000 to 2008, was required to present the Governor’s Prize to the champion of the annual Osaka tournament. But since she was a woman, she was required to either send a male representative in her place or present the championship on the walkway outside the ring. Her request to present the championship inside the ring was repeatedly rejected until the end of her term. In 2018, the mayor of Maizuru collapsed in the middle of the ring during a non-tournament sumo event in Kyoto Prefecture. It was two women who first rushed to provide emergency treatment. While the women attempted to revive the mayor, they were repeatedly asked by the referee to leave the ring. Later, the chairman of the association apologized for the referee’s behaviour and applauded the women for their efforts.
Those who criticize the ‘men-only policy’ of the ring state that it is oppressive and discriminatory. In general, women are expected to be mere supportive wives to their husbands if he’s a wrestler. If the man becomes a stable master, then his wife is expected to be a surrogate mother for all the training wrestlers. The association claims that since this tradition was established and maintained for many centuries, changing it would mean dishonouring their ancestors.
In Japan, sumo wrestling is more than just a sport. It began as a religious ritual for a great harvest and to honour the gods or spirits. Now, it embodies many ancient traditions, like topknots, traditional dress, salt-tossing and the rules put forward during ancient periods. Hence, sumo is a living example of Japanese culture.