The Appreciation of the Traditional Art of Sumo Wrestling

Sports have been around for centuries, originating from different countries all over the world. Nations proudly claim specific sports as theirs (like how the national sport of the USA is baseball) and rightfully so! This chosen performance of ruled, friendly competition or simple showmanship also works as a representation of their history and culture. Other examples of this are Canada and Ice Hockey. You’d think that because it’s such a cold country, they’d figure out something fun to do with the ice! As for a more symbolically rich and traditional example, there’s Spain, which is known for Bullfighting. Though some sports have deeper roots than others, nations are proud to showcase that sport they feel represents them. For Japan, that sport is sumo wrestling.

What Is Sumo Wrestling?

The word “sumo” means “to strike”. Sumo wrestling originated from Japan, and Japan is still the only country where it is practiced professionally. Then again, although it isn’t played in the Olympics, the International Olympic Committee still recognizes it.  It’s a full-contact martial art, which means players directly and purposely come in physical contact with each other. To win, players must successfully push their opponent out of the ring or have them touch the floor with any other part of their body except the soles of their feet. This ring is considered sacred, and is called a “dohyo”. There are other factors that could contribute to automatically losing a match, such as illegal moves known as “kinjite” (poking the eyes, punching, etc.) the loincloth (mawashi) being undone, or failure to appear at the competition.

The History of Sumo Wrestling in Japan

Sumo wrestling has been around for a long time. Look back nearly 2000 years ago, and you’ll still find remnants of it! Although it’s been around for so long, it is often categorized under “Gendai Budo” which means modern Japanese Martial Arts, because of its popularity. Some Japanese sports analysts argue that this is wrong and that it should be placed under “Koryu”, a category for ancient martial arts. Whether the sport was fully established before (ancient) or after (modern) the Meiji Restoration is what dictates whether it’s Koryu or Gendai Budo. Sumo wrestling had already been around long before that period. Perhaps what makes people consider it as still a part of Gendai Budo is because of its popularity with the modern media.

It all began with the hopes of a better harvest. The ancient Japanese thought that entertaining Shinto spirits (“Kami”) with a show held in the temple would give them bountiful crops. In fact, if you witness a sumo event today, you’ll be able to spot how tradition still has its mark on the sport. The officiator of the tournament wears clothes much like that of a Shinto priest, the Shinto Shrine is a metaphor of the canopy hung above the stadium, and salt is scattered around as a symbolism of purification. Traditional preparations are a must and are conducted a day before the match. A ceremony to bless the ring (dohyo-matsuri) is performed by the “gyoji”, otherwise known as sumo officials. Many traditional garments and solemn procedures are used and re-enacted as a tribute to sumo’s origin, also as a form of respect to tradition - in the middle of the dohyo, sumo officials bury a mixture of chestnuts, kelp, squid, and dried salt. They then drink sake and offer the remaining amount of the alcoholic drink to the gods by pouring it before the edge/”kyokai” of the ring.

It does not end there. During the match, more customs are overseen in the arena. As a greeting ceremony, opponents first face the audience, and then squat, turn to each other, and look each other in the eye. Each sumo wrestler rubs his hands and follows it up with a clap. This clap is done to supposedly catch the attention of Shinto deities, for them to watch over and guide the players. Next, they swing their arms upwards (palm facing up) then downwards (palm facing down), and place their hands back on their knees. The famous sumo stamping is done to make sure all evil spirits are crushed. Once that’s done comes the “Tachiai”, where they prepare to go in for battle. They lay their fists on the ground and wait for the referee to yell “Hakkeyoi!”, signaling the beginning of the round – and then the wrestling begins.

A Day In The Life Of Sumo Wrestlers

The Japanese word for sumo wrestler is “rikishi”. Being a rikishi is not as easy as it may seem – they follow rigorous procedures, as it takes a lot of work to be a professional sumo wrestler. They usually live in a stable while they are trained as youngsters, learning the art of sumo. An ex-sumo wrestler heads each stable, also known as a stable master, or “oyakata”, along with his wife, referred to as “okamisan”

They all abide by a certain lifestyle to maintain a grand weight, as well as a top-knot hairstyle. They are given ring names, which they let go of after retirement. Unlike other sports players, sumo wrestlers need to be ready to compete all year round. How they act, dress, and look in society is also dictated. They must always wear their hair in a slick topknot, even outside the stadium. Then again, they also get perks, like eating and drinking as much as they want, of whatever they want. They get to rest well mid-day, and when not on tour, even get passes at special events, game shows, and concerts. Their title as rikishi also draws a lot of fame, as well as women at their service. They are trained to be stoic when it comes to winning or losing, and carry this stoicism throughout their careers, and even in interviews.

While rikishi are perceived to be powerful and strong, it is part of their code to act soft-spoken, and with humility. It is completely against protocol for a sumo wrestler to exploit his career with a public, proud attitude or intimidating aggression. Rikishi need to be the type to represent the best of Japanese values, such as strength, discipline, and dignity.

Ranks In Sumo Wrestling

There are six divisions in sumo wrestling. Here is the order; the highest is Makuuchi, followed by Juryo, next is Makushita, Sandanme, Jonidan, and lowest, Jonokuchi. Makuuchi is where the top-notch wrestlers or “yokozuna” belong, and members of this group are fixed at a “banzuke” or list of 42; titleholders or “san’yaku” (around 8-12), while the rest are called “maegashira”. Juryo is then fixed at 28 members. A sumo wrestler can be raised and lowered in rank depending on how many games he’s won and lost, out of fifteen. If you’ve won the bigger ratio of fifteen, then you attain “kachi-koshi”. You are then eligible for promotion to the next division. If you win only seven out of the fifteen, then you attain “make-koshi”, thus making you eligible to be demoted. The more promotions you get, the harder your opponents supposedly get.

If you want to be a professional sumo wrestler in Japan, you have to be male, and at least 15 years old. There are, however, other non-professional sumo wrestling groups around the world who allow women to join. There is no specific weight you have to be to be a sumo wrestler, thought being heavier makes it easier to topple your opponent, thus raising your chances of winning a bout.

The Most Famous Sumo Wrestler Ever

Asashōryū Akinori is arguably a very famous Mongolian sumo wrestler, sitting at fourth place as one of the best sumo wrestlers of all time. He is well-known for having won the “honbasho”, or all six tournaments consecutively over the span of a year. He’s also famous for stirring up controversy. Akinori is infamous for not upholding the values a sumo wrestler must have outside the stadium. He was found to be supposedly feigning injury and withdrawing from a sumo match while all the long participating in a football game at the time he was supposed to be injured. Akinori also was said to have gotten into a fight with a man in a club at night, and such violence is frowned upon, especially when it comes to sumo wrestlers who hold such respect and prestige on their job title. Akinori retired after the report of this fight in early 2010, ending his career.

Sumo Wrestling In Tokyo

Sumo wrestling is a sport that can be practiced all over Japan, but Tokyo is where many of the matches are usually held. In case you find yourself in Tokyo and can’t get tickets to watch a tournament, your next best bet is to visit an active stable, and while the sun is still out, watch them go through their morning routines! Greater Tokyo is where all forty stables are located, particularly around Ryogoku (such as the Ryogoku Kokugikan). If that’s not your cup of tea, you can always opt to visit a sumo museum, which, in its own way, can be informative and exciting as well!

The Best Sumo Museum In Tokyo

There’s a sumo museum in Kanto, Tokyo, simply called “Sumo Museum”. This attraction boasts of arrays of different sumo-themed artifacts and collections. From upper-ranked wrestler’s shiny silk belts called Kesho-mawashi, all the way to different kinds of sumo dolls and artfully done pieces of sumo-themed woodblocks (otherwise known as Nishiki-e), this museum has it. “Sumo Museum”, is open from 10 AM to 4:30 PM on the hour, and doesn’t cost a single yen to enter. The items on display are sometimes updated as well, so it’s best to call them up before dropping by for a visit – just to make sure!

Sumo Affairs In Tokyo Last 2016

Last 2016, there was a great reason to celebrate for everyone interested in the sumo wrestling world. After having most of their champions coming from other countries – mostly Mongolia, - Japan finally heralded its first Japanese-born sumo champion in 10 years. 31-year-old Kotoshogiku claimed the Emperor’s Cup after winning 14 out of the 15 bouts. He currently holds the title of “Ozeki”; champion. Sumo wrestling is still very much alive, as you may question the point of practicing the sport today. It is still practiced because it’s an important association and aspect of Japanese culture. It celebrates their beliefs that have stemmed back for centuries, and it preserves the beauty of diversity that Asia has to offer.

Where To Watch A Good Sumo Tournament

Watching a sumo tournament is a great experience to add to (or check off of) your bucket list. It transcends the language barrier, so you’re somewhat fine with just knowing English. The tournaments of the basho happen every other month and alternate in terms of place. So, in January, you have the “Hatsu Basho”, and this begins in Tokyo. The “Haru Basho” happens next, on March in Osaka. Then back to Tokyo again for the “Natsu Basho” on May, followed by July with “Nagoya Basho” in Nagoya. Tokyo takes it one last time for the year in September for “Aki Basho”, ending the entire year’s bout in Fukuoka, for the “Kyushu Basho” on December. Be sure to be there in the right month, because not much happens in the other months for sumo wrestlers, such as November. For more information regarding the specifics such as date and time, you may visit their online schedule, updated yearly.

Get Your Tickets To Watch Sumo Wrestling

You can acquire tickets to watch a “basho” or official sumo tournament either from a certified vendor, in certain Japanese convenience stores, right by the stadiums themselves, or through an online store. The seats nearest the ring are the best – but they come at quite a price. They aren’t seats; they have cushions where you sit barefoot. Next are the box seats, which seat four people per box. Note that even if you are only 2 people buying a ticket for a box seat, you will have to pay for the entire box seat, or agree with 2 other people to split the cost with you. Balcony seats are the cheapest and easiest to acquire. Tickets are still segregated depending on the distance from the stage; A being nearest, B in the middle, C being the farthest. Lastly, there is a section in the balcony area that is open only to those who bought tickets last minute, on-site. Prices can range from up to 13,400 – 5,300 yen, depending on which section seating you purchase.