Few people play it, but sumo is Japan’s most famous sport. Its symbolism and tradition have made it a foundation of traditional Japanese culture, and sumo wrestlers have also become icons of popular culture.
Professional sumo started in the Edo period (1603 -1867), when struggling samurai would tussle for public entertainment in order to raise money. In the Meiji Restoration (1868), it was officially chosen as one of the gendai budo (modern martial arts).
The rules of sumo are simple, and matches rarely last more than a few seconds. There are two main ways to win a sumo bout: push your opponent out of the clay ring (dohyo), or knock him to the floor. Rikishi (wrestlers) will also lose if they use an illegal technique, or if their mawashi (sumo nappy) becomes undone.
Although the fights themselves are short, they are preceded by elaborate rituals. Following a minute or so of ritual stomping and fat-slapping, rikishi cleanse their mouths with special chikara-mizu (“power water”), before purifying the ring with handfuls of salt.
Sumo wrestlers lead a highly controlled life. Every rikishi must be trained by an experienced wrestler in a “stable”, a kind of sumo training commune. In Japan, there are about 50 training stables for over 700 wrestlers. They follow a strict hierarchy: junior wrestlers do all the stable’s menial jobs, and attend to the every need of senior wrestlers. Already conspicuous in public, all wrestlers are expected to wear traditional clothes outside the stable.
Rikishi are not usually allowed breakfast, but eat massive lunches, followed by a nap. Combined with intensive training, this builds the formidable bulk that they need in the ring. Of course, many people aren’t physically capable of this, or the stable’s arduous lifestyle, and junior wrestlers often drop out.
Rankings are decided by 6 annual grand sumo tournaments: 3 in Tokyo and 1 each in Osaka, Fukuoka and Nagoya. Each competition lasts 15 days, and the top wrestlers fight every day. Whoever wins the most matches, wins the tournament.
The sumo establishment has had to cope with its share of scandal. In 1997, a former wrestler claimed that many rikishi smoke marijuana, cheat on their taxes, associated with yakuza, arranged orgies, and lost matches for money. The practice of intentionally losing matches goes right back into the history of the sport, when it was done to help other wrestlers.
Sumo’s current yokozuna (grand champion), the Mongolian Asashoryu, is no stranger to controversy. In 2003, he earned Mike Tyson comparisons for grabbing his opponent’s topknot (samurai-style haircut) in the ring, and slamming him to the floor. It was an act of supreme disrespect, for which he lost the match.
His popularity is not helped by his nationality. There is growing resentment about the number of recent non-Japanese yokozuna. The first was Akebono, who was born in Hawaii. He was followed by Musashimaru, a Samoan, and Asashoryu.