Sumo (相撲) is one of the national sports of Japan and is steeped in history and tradition. What are the rules, and how do the wrestlers get so big? Here is everything you need to know about sumo wrestling!
The wrestlers (Rikishi or Sekitori) live a stringent lifestyle and participate in the sport all year long with no off-season.
The sport has a long history dating back 1,500 years. Ancient wall paintings have depicted sumo as part of agricultural rituals for the gods to bring them bountiful crops. There were even stories of sumo being held in Imperial court ceremonies during the 7th and 8th centuries. It wasn’t until 1909 that sumo was recognized as a national sport and today enjoys enormous popularity as professional entertainment.
Each sumo wrestler must join a stable (heya, 部屋) where they will live, eat, and train throughout their professional career. Each heya has around 15 rikishi and there is a hierarchy where the lowest ranked wrestlers perform the tasks of cooking and chores for the higher-ranked wrestlers.
The rikishi start every day with practice without having breakfast and will not eat until lunchtime. They will have a meal of chanko-nabe, a rich and nutritious high-calorie stew composed of tofu, cabbage, and bean sprouts mixed with seafood, chicken, pork, or beef accompanied with large portions of rice and many side dishes. They consume a large quantity of food before taking a nap immediately in order to achieve weight gain.
The wrestlers wear a thick belt of about 30 feet in length wrapped around their body called a mawashi when they are either practicing or competing. During practices, the mawashi the wrestlers use is made of canvas but higher ranked wrestlers use a silk mawashi for competition. They can wear these belts either tight or loose depending on their level of comfort and how much of an advantage it may give them when wrestling. Any time the rikishi leaves the stable, they must wear a kimono or yukata which is a light cotton dressing gown. They must also wear their hair in a particular arrangement called a chommage which is a topknot but higher ranked rikishi wear a more elaborate hairstyle called a oichomage which resembles a ginkgo leaf.
Lower ranked wrestlers must get up at 4 or 5 a.m. every morning to practice, which consists mainly of flexibility and strength exercises.
•Shiko – stomping in large, sweeping motions for training the lower half of the body
•Suriashi – leg strengthening exercise in a crouched position to keep the center of gravity low while moving
•Matawari – thigh splits; the rikishi must sit in a split position and lean forward until his stomach touches the ground
•Sonkyo – squatting down with a straight back and hands placed on the knees while breathing deeply to put the wrestler in a meditative state
There is a pyramidal hierarchy followed in sumo. Wins will allow the wrestler to go up the ranks and losses moves him down. These rankings determine the role the rikishi will have in their respective heya. The top 5 ranked wrestlers are part of what is termed the makuuchi division. The highest ranked among these elite rikishi is known as the yokuzuna or sumo grand champion. Only a handful have ever achieved this status.
Below the makuuchi division is the juryo where only one in ten wrestlers get to this point. Only when you reach juryo are you considered a professional which come with benefits such as a monthly salary and other bonuses and perks like permission to marry and having attendants for his personal needs as well as the privilege of wearing a kimono and mawashi made of silk.
Six major sumo tournaments (basho) are held each year occurring every other month and lasting for two weeks each. In each sumo arena there is a dohyo or the wrestling ring which is an 18-square foot area made of clay. There is an inner ring which is 15 feet in diameter marked by straw bales.
A Shinto priest blesses the dohyo prior to the tournament and is refereed by a gyoji. There are rituals performed by the wrestlers before the match such as shiko leg stomps and throwing salts to drive away evil spirits and purify the ring.
Each bout begins with the rikishi facing each other, knuckles on the ground, staring at each other in fierce psychological intimidation called niramiai. The match begins when the wrestlers clash against each other with great speed and force at a moment called tachiai which often determines the eventual outcome. A rikishi loses if he steps out or is forced out of the ring or touches the ground with anything but the soles of his feet. No punching, eye-poking, or kicking above the knees is allowed. Once the match ends the wrestlers face each other on opposite sides of the ring and bow.
Over the decade, a steady stream of foreign-born sumo wrestlers, mostly from Mongolia or Hawaii, have dominated Sumo wrestling. In January 2017, the Japanese people celebrated 30-year-old Kisenosato’s achievement in attaining yokozuna status. This was the first for a native wrestler since the success of fellow Japanese Wakanohana in 1998.