The art of sumo wrestling: From religious ritual to elite sport

Like many ancient sports, there’s a lot more to sumo wrestling than initially meets the eye. Ben Swindlehurst enters the ring

Friday 05 October 2018 18:57 BST
The dohyo is newly constructed before the start of each tournament. The roof of the ring is made to resemble a Shinto shrine showing the clear connection between ancient ritual and the sport of today
The dohyo is newly constructed before the start of each tournament. The roof of the ring is made to resemble a Shinto shrine showing the clear connection between ancient ritual and the sport of today

To many the sport of sumo looks like nothing more than two heavy men attempting to shove their opponent from the ring with nothing more than brute force and a big belly, but as with many ancient sports there is a lot more than initially meets the eye.

It is believed that sumo first originated as part of a Shinto religious ceremony to welcome in the new year. Professional sumo developed during the Muromachi period (1336-1573); as prosperity of the common people began to improve so did the popularity of sumo. By the Edo period (1603-1868), sumo would become what we know today and by 1789 the first yokozuna, the sports’ highest rank, was awarded – to Tanikaze Kajinosuke and Onogawa Kisaburo.

Sumo matches are fought in the “dohyo”, a wrestling ring built from clay and rice straw bales. Two white lines are placed in the centre of the ring to signify the wrestlers’ starting position and a roof similar to a Shinto shrine is raised. Before each bout wrestlers throw salt into the ring to purify it, linking the sports’ spiritual roots to the modern.

The objective of a bout is to force your opponent to touch the floor with any part of the body apart from the soles of their feet or to step out of the ring. Closed fists and pulling of hair are not allowed and each match is supervised by a referee known as a “gyoji” and five “shimpan”, or ringside judges, who can review decisions made by the referee.

The road for any potential new “rikishi”, or wrestler, is a long and gruelling one. To start, the new wrestler will need to join a stable – this is where wrestlers will live, eat, drink and train throughout their career. Life within a stable follows a very strict hierarchy where rank is everything. Wrestlers of a lower rank will cook and clean for those of higher rank and will eat only after the higher ranks have eaten.

Rikishi will train daily with the highest ranks, regularly putting their lower level counterparts through their paces. In some cases younger wrestlers may be beaten with sticks and even metal bats. This lead to the death of a teenage novice in 2007, the sentencing of his stable master to six years in prison and a review of the practices within the sumo stables.

A sumo wrestler is arguably one of the most instantly recognisable sportsman of any discipline. Once a wrestler joins a stable they are expected to follow a very strict regime that includes wearing traditional Japanese clothing at all times and wearing the traditional topknot hairstyle. Of course the other most visible aspect is the bulk that many wrestlers possess. The current heaviest rikishi in the top or “makuuchi” division is Mongolian-born Ichinojo Takashi, at 6ft 3in and 227kg (35st). It’s easy to see how the imposing figures of the heaviest wrestlers draw attention.

Sumo wrestlers gain this bulk as part of their training schedule. Training will start on empty stomachs followed by a huge midday meal consisting up to 10 bowls of rice, beer and a vegetable and fish stew known as “chankonabe”. After lunch wrestlers will sleep to encourage the development of their trademark bulk. A second big meal will be had at night before going to bed.

However, historically big and bulky wrestlers were not considered the norm. Rikishi would have much leaner build.

Sumo is a sport deeply rooted within traditional Japanese culture but this is not to say the sport is exclusively Japanese. Professional sumo in Japan has seen many foreign-born wrestlers take to the ring from around the world. However, a foreign rikishi will be expected to join a stable and abide by the same rules as Japanese-born wrestlers.

In recent years non-Japanese-born wrestlers have dominated the higher ranks of the makuuchi division, leading the Sumo Association to limit the amount of foreign-born wrestlers a stable can recruit. In a sport filled with tradition and ritual it is no surprise that the end of a wrestler’s career is marked by a special retirement ceremony.

When a wrestler leaves the professional world of sumo a ceremony is held during which the wrestler’s topknot is cut to signify the end of their career as a rikishi. These are often very emotional for the wrestlers and all who attend, including members of the public, other wresters and officials from the sumo association.

The official professional sumo tournament takes place every year. Otherwise known as “honbasho”, six completions are held through the year to determine promotions and relegations for wrestlers. There are other tournaments that take place during the year but only the honbasho results are taken into account.

Sumo is a very unique sport packed with history, tradition and controversy, but in spite of this, or perhaps because of it, the sport continues to grow in popularity among Japanese and foreigners alike. For those interested in watching sumo but cannot get tickets to a tournament, many stables will secure tickets for you to watch morning training or you can even visit one of Japan’s universities for a chance to see the next generation take part in this sporting ritual.

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