A sumo match (tori-kumi) between yokozuna Asashōryū (left) and then-komusubi Kotoshōgiku in January 2008.
|Country of origin||Japan|
Sumo (相撲 sumō ) is a competitive full-contact wrestling sport where a wrestler (rikishi) attempts to force another wrestler out of a circular ring (dohyō) or to touch the ground with anything other than the soles of the feet. The sport originated in Japan, the only country where it is practiced professionally. It is generally considered to be a gendai budō (a modern Japanese martial art), though this definition is incorrect as the sport has a history spanning many centuries. Many ancient traditions have been preserved in sumo, and even today the sport includes many ritual elements, such as the use of salt purification, from the days when sumo was used in the Shinto religion. Life as a rikishi is highly regimented, with rules laid down by the Sumo Association. Most sumo wrestlers are required to live in communal "sumo training stables" known in Japanese as heya where all aspects of their daily lives—from meals to their manner of dress—are dictated by strict tradition.
In addition to its use as a trial of strength in combat, sumo has also been associated with Shinto ritual, and even certain shrines carry out forms of ritual dance where a human is said to wrestle with a kami (a Shinto divine spirit). It was an important ritual at the imperial court. Representatives of each province were ordered to attend the contest at the court and fight. They were required to pay for their travels themselves. The contest was known as sumai no sechie, or "sumai party."
Over the rest of Japanese recorded history, sumo's popularity has changed according to the whims of its rulers and the need for its use as a training tool in periods of civil strife. The form of wrestling combat probably changed gradually into one where the main aim in victory was to throw one's opponent. The concept of pushing one's opponent out of a defined area came some time later.
Also, it is believed that a ring, defined as something other than simply the area given to the wrestlers by spectators, came into being in the 16th century as a result of a tournament organized by the then principal warlord in Japan, Oda Nobunaga. At this point wrestlers would wear loose loincloths, rather than the much stiffer mawashi of today. During the Edo period, wrestlers would wear a fringed kesho-mawashi during the bout, whereas today these are worn only during pre-tournament rituals. Most of the rest of the current forms within the sport developed in the early Edo period.
Professional sumo (大相撲 ōzumō ) can trace its roots back to the Edo period in Japan as a form of sporting entertainment. The original wrestlers were probably samurai, often rōnin, who needed to find an alternative form of income. Current professional sumo tournaments began in the Tomioka Hachiman Shrine in 1684, and then were held in the Ekō-in in the Edo period. They have been held in the Ryōgoku Kokugikan since 1909, though the Kuramae Kokugikan had been used for the tournaments in the post-war years until 1984. Nations adjacent to Japan, sharing many cultural traditions, also feature styles of traditional wrestling that bear resemblance to sumo. Notable examples include Mongolian wrestling, Chinese Shuai jiao (摔角), and Korean Ssireum.
Winning a sumo bout
The winner of a sumo bout is either:
- The first wrestler to force his opponent to step out of the ring.
- The first wrestler to force his opponent to touch the ground with any part of his body other than the bottom of his feet.
On rare occasions the referee or judges may award the win to the wrestler who touched the ground first; this happens if both wrestlers touch the ground at very nearly the same time and it is decided that the wrestler who touched the ground second had no chance of winning as, due to the superior sumo of his opponent, he was already in an irrecoverable position. The losing wrestler is referred to as being shini-tai (“dead body”) in this case.
There are also a number of other rarely used rules that can be used to determine the winner. For example a wrestler using an illegal technique (or kinjite) automatically loses, as does one whose mawashi (or belt) becomes completely undone. A wrestler failing to turn up for his bout (including through a prior injury) also automatically loses (fusenpai). After the winner is declared, an off-stage gyōji (or referee) determines the kimarite (or winning technique) used in the bout, which is then announced to the audience.
Matches consist solely of a single round and often last only a few seconds, as usually one wrestler is quickly ousted from the circle or thrown to the ground. However, they can occasionally last for several minutes. Each match is preceded by an elaborate ceremonial ritual. The wrestlers themselves are renowned for their great girth as body mass is often a winning factor in sumo. However, with superior technique, smaller wrestlers can control and defeat much larger opponents.
The wrestling ring (dohyō)
Sumo matches take place in a dohyō (土俵): a ring, 4.55 metres (14.9 ft) in diameter and 16.26 square metres (175.0 sq ft) in area, of rice-straw bales on top of a platform made of clay mixed with sand. A new dohyō is built for each tournament by the yobidashi. At the center are two white lines, the shikiri-sen, behind which the wrestlers position themselves at the start of the bout. A roof resembling that of a Shinto shrine may be suspended over the dohyō.
Professional sumo is organized by the Japan Sumo Association. The members of the association, called oyakata, are all former wrestlers, and are the only people entitled to train new wrestlers. All practicing wrestlers are members of a training stable (heya) run by one of the oyakata, who is the stablemaster for the wrestlers under him. Currently there are 47 training stables for about 660 wrestlers.
All sumo wrestlers take wrestling names called shikona (しこ名), which may or may not be related to their real names. Often wrestlers have little choice in their name, which is given to them by their trainer (or stablemaster), or by a supporter or family member who encouraged them into the sport. This is particularly true of foreign-born wrestlers. A wrestler may change his wrestling name several times during his sumo career.
Sumo wrestling is a strict hierarchy based on sporting merit. The wrestlers are ranked according to a system that dates back to the Edo period. Wrestlers are promoted or demoted according to their performance in six official tournaments held throughout the year. A carefully prepared banzuke listing the full hierarchy is published two weeks prior to each sumo tournament.
There are six divisions in sumo: makuuchi (maximum 42 wrestlers), jūryō (fixed at 28 wrestlers), makushita (fixed at 120 wrestlers), sandanme (fixed at 200 wrestlers), jonidan (approximately 185 wrestlers), and jonokuchi (approximately 40 wrestlers). Wrestlers enter sumo in the lowest jonokuchi division and, ability permitting, work their way up to the top division. Wrestlers in the top two divisions are known as sekitori, while lower division wrestlers are generally referred to by the generic term for wrestlers, rikishi.
The topmost makuuchi division receives the most attention from fans and has the most complex hierarchy. The majority of wrestlers are maegashira and are numbered from one (at the top) down to about sixteen or seventeen. In each rank there are two wrestlers, the higher ranked is designated as "east" and the lower as "west", so the list goes #1 east, #1 west, #2 east, #2 west, etc. Above the maegashira are the three champion or titleholder ranks, called the sanyaku, which are not numbered. These are, in ascending order, komusubi, sekiwake, and ōzeki. At the pinnacle of the ranking system is the rank of yokozuna.
Yokozuna, or grand champions, are generally expected to compete for and to win the top division tournament title on a regular basis. Hence the promotion criteria for yokozuna are very strict. In general, an ōzeki must win the championship for two consecutive tournaments or an "equivalent performance" to be considered for promotion to yokozuna. More than one wrestler can hold the rank of yokozuna at the same time.
Exhibition competitions are held at regular intervals every year in Japan, and approximately once every two years the top ranked wrestlers visit a foreign country for such exhibitions. None of these displays is taken into account in determining a wrestler's future rank. Rank is determined only by performance in Grand Sumo Tournaments (or honbasho), which are described in more detail below.
Professional sumo is practiced exclusively in Japan, but wrestlers of other nationalities participate. There are currently 55 wrestlers officially listed as foreigners. In July 2007, there were 19 foreigners in the top two divisions, which was an all-time record, and for the first time, a majority of wrestlers in the top san'yaku ranks were from overseas. More recently, the ratio of foreigners has stabilized and as of November 2011 there were 18 foreigners in the two top divisions.
A Japanese-American, Toyonishiki, and the Korean-born Rikidōzan achieved sekitori status prior to World War II, but neither were officially listed as foreigners. The first non-Asian to achieve fame and fortune in sumo was Hawaii-born Takamiyama. He reached the top division in 1968 and in 1972 became the first foreigner to win the top division championship. He was followed by a fellow Hawaii-born mega-weight, Konishiki of ethnic Samoan descent, the first foreigner to reach the rank of ōzeki in 1987; and the native Hawaiian Akebono, who became the first foreign-born yokozuna in 1993. Musashimaru, born in Samoa but from Hawaii, became the second foreigner to reach sumo's top rank in 1999. The three most recent yokozuna, retired Asashōryū, and still active Hakuhō and Harumafuji Kōhei are all Mongolian. In 2012, the Mongolian Kyokutenhō became the oldest wrestler in modern history to win a top division championship. Wrestlers from Eastern European countries such as Georgia and Russia have also found success in the upper levels of sumo. In 2005 Kotoōshū from Bulgaria became the first wrestler of European birth to attain the ōzeki ranking and the first to win a top division championship.
Until relatively recently, the Japan Sumo Association had no restrictions at all on the number of foreigners allowed in professional sumo. In May 1992, shortly after the Ōshima stable had recruited six Mongolians at the same time, the Sumo Association's new director Dewanoumi, the former yokozuna Sadanoyama, announced that he was considering limiting the number of overseas recruits per stable and in sumo overall. There was no official ruling, but no stable recruited any foreigners for the next six years. This unofficial ban was then relaxed, but only two new foreigners per stable were allowed, until the total number reached 40. Then in 2002, a one foreigner per stable policy was officially adopted. (The ban was not retroactive, so foreigners recruited before the changes were unaffected). Though the move has been met with criticism, there are no plans to relax the restrictions at this time. Originally, it was possible for a place in a stable to open up if a foreign born wrestler acquired Japanese citizenship. This occurred when Hisanoumi changed his nationality from Tongan at the end of 2006, allowing another Tongan to enter his stable, and Kyokutenhō's change of citizenship allowed Ōshima stable to recruit Mongolian Kyokushūhō in May 2007. However, on February 23, 2010 the Sumo Association announced that it had changed its definition of "foreign" to "foreign-born" (gaikoku shusshin), meaning that even naturalized Japanese citizens will be considered as foreigners if they were born outside Japan. The restriction on one foreign wrestler per stable was also reconfirmed. As Japanese law does not recognize subcategories of Japanese citizen, this unique treatment of naturalized citizens may well be illegal under Japanese law, although the restriction has never been challenged in court.
Professional sumo tournaments
There are six Grand Sumo tournaments (or honbasho) each year: three at The Sumo Hall (or Ryōgoku Kokugikan) in Ryōgoku, Tokyo (January, May, and September), and one each in Osaka (March), Nagoya (July) and Fukuoka (November). Each tournament begins on a Sunday and runs for 15 days, ending also on a Sunday. Each wrestler in the top two divisions (sekitori) has one match per day, while the lower ranked rikishi compete in seven bouts, approximately one every two days.
Each day is structured so the highest-ranked contestants compete at the end of the day. Thus, wrestling will start in the morning with the jonokuchi wrestlers and end at around six o'clock in the evening with bouts involving the yokozuna, or the ōzeki in the case of the yokozuna's absence. The wrestler who wins the most matches over the fifteen days wins the tournament championship (yūshō) for his division. If two wrestlers are tied for the top, they wrestle each other and the winner takes the title. Three-way ties for a championship are rare, at least in the top division. In these cases the three wrestle each other in pairs with the first to win two in a row taking the tournament. More complex systems for championship playoffs involving four or more wrestlers also exist, but these are usually only seen in determining the winner of one of the lower divisions.
The matchups for each day of the tournament are announced a day in advance. They are determined by oyakata (or sumo elders) who are members of the judging division of the Sumo Association. As there are many more wrestlers in each division than matchups during the tournament each wrestler will only compete against a selection of opponents, mostly from the same division. With the exception of the sanyaku ranked wrestlers the first bouts tend to be between wrestlers who are within a couple of ranks of each other. Afterwards the selection of opponents takes into account a wrestler's prior performance. For example in the lower divisions wrestlers with the same record in a tournament are generally matched up with each other, and the last matchups often involve undefeated wrestlers competing against each other, even if they are from opposite ends of the division. In the top division in the last few days wrestlers with exceptional records will often have matches against much more highly ranked opponents, including sanyaku wrestlers, especially if they are still in the running for the top division championship. Similarly more highly ranked wrestlers with very poor records may find themselves fighting wrestlers much further down the division. For the yokozuna and ōzeki the first week and a half of the tournament tends to be taken up with bouts against the top maegashira, the komusubi and sekiwake, with the bouts within these ranks being concentrated into the last five days or so of the tournament (depending on the number of top ranked wrestlers competing). It is traditional that on the final day the last three bouts of the tournament are between the top six ranked wrestlers, with the top two competing in the very final matchup, unless injuries during the tournament prevent this.
There are certain match-ups that are prohibited in regular tournament play. Wrestlers who are from the same training stable cannot compete against each other, nor can wrestlers who are brothers, even if they join different stables. The one exception to this rule is that training stable partners and brothers can face each other in a championship-deciding playoff match.
A top division wrestler will arrive at the stadium in the afternoon and enter the changing room. There are 'East' and 'West' rooms so competing wrestlers do not meet their opponents of the day before the match. The wrestler will change first into his keshō-mawashi, an ornate, embroidered silk 'apron', which he will wear during the ring entering ceremony, or dohyō-iri. There are four dohyō-iri on each day, two for jūryō and two for makuuchi division wrestlers. In each case there is a procession of those in the east changing room and one for those in the west. During the ceremony the wrestlers are introduced to the crowd one-by-one in ascending rank order and form a circle around the ring facing outwards. Once the highest ranked wrestler is introduced they turn inwards and perform a brief ritual before filing off and returning to their changing rooms. Yokozuna have a separate, more elaborate dohyō-iri; see yokozuna.
Once in the changing room the wrestlers change into their fighting mawashi and await their bouts. The wrestlers reenter the arena two bouts before their own and sit down at the side of the ring. There are no weight divisions in professional sumo, and considering the range of body weights in sumo, an individual wrestler can sometimes face an opponent twice his own weight. When it is their turn they will be called into the ring by a yobidashi (announcer) and they will mount the dohyō.
On mounting the dohyō the wrestler performs a number of rituals derived from Shinto practice. Facing the audience, he claps his hands and then performs the leg-stomping shiko exercise to drive evil spirits from the dohyō as the gyōji, or referee, who will coordinate the bout announces the wrestlers' names once more.
In addition, the top two divisions add even more rituals. Stepping out of the ring into their corners, each wrestler is given a ladleful of water, the chikara-mizu ("power water"), with which he rinses out his mouth; and a paper tissue, the chikara-gami ("power paper"), to dry his lips. Then both step back into the ring, squat facing each other, clap their hands, then spread them wide (traditionally to show they have no weapons). Returning to their corners they each pick up a handful of salt which they toss onto the ring to purify it.
Finally the wrestlers crouch down at the shikiri-sen, or starting lines, each trying to stare the other down. When both wrestlers place both fists on the ground on or behind the shikiri-sen, they spring from their crouch for the tachi-ai (the initial charge). In the upper divisions they almost never charge on the first occasion. Instead, after staring at one another, they return to their corners for more mental preparation. More salt is thrown whenever they step back into the ring. This can happen a number of times (about three, or even more in the case of the highest ranks) until on the last occasion the referee informs them they must start the bout. The total length of time for this preparation is around four minutes for the top division wrestlers, but in the lower divisions they are expected to start more or less immediately.
A professional sumo bout
At the tachi-ai both wrestlers must jump up from the crouch simultaneously after touching the surface of the ring with two fists at the start of the bout, and the referee can restart the bout if this simultaneous touch does not occur. Upon completion of the bout, the referee must immediately designate his decision by pointing his gunbai or war-fan towards the winning side. The referee's decision is not final and may be disputed by the five shimpan (judges) seated around the ring. If this happens they will meet in the center of the ring to hold a mono-ii (lit: a talk about things). After reaching a consensus they can uphold or reverse the referee's decision or order a rematch, known as a torinaoshi. The wrestlers will then return to their starting positions and bow to each other before retiring. A winning wrestler may receive additional prize money in envelopes from the referee if the matchup has been sponsored. If a yokozuna is defeated by a lower ranked wrestler, it is common and expected for audience members to throw their seat cushions into the ring (and onto the wrestlers), though this practice is technically prohibited.
In contrast to the time in bout preparation, bouts are typically very short, usually less than a minute, and often only a few seconds. Extremely rarely a bout can go on for many minutes (up to four minutes), in which case the referee or one of the judges sitting around the ring may call a mizu-iri or "water break". The wrestlers are carefully separated, have a brief break and then return to the exact position they left off in. It is the referee's responsibility to reposition the wrestlers. If after four more minutes they are still deadlocked they may have a second break, after which they start from the very beginning. Further deadlock with no end of the bout in sight can lead to a draw (hikiwake), an extremely rare result in modern sumo. The last draw in the top division was in September 1974.
The last day of the tournament is called senshuraku, which literally means the pleasure of a thousand autumns. This colorful name for the culmination of the tournament echoes the words of the playwright Zeami to represent the excitement of the decisive bouts and the celebration of the victor. The Emperor's Cup is presented to the wrestler who wins the top division (makuuchi) championship. Numerous other (mostly sponsored) prizes are also awarded to him. These prizes are often rather elaborate, ornate gifts, such as giant cups, decorative plates, and statuettes. Others are obviously commercial, such as one trophy shaped like a giant Coca-Cola bottle.
Promotion and relegation are determined by a wrestler's score over the 15 days. In the top division, the term kachikoshi means a score of 8–7 or better, as opposed to makekoshi which indicates a score of 7–8 or worse. A wrestler who achieves kachikoshi will almost always be promoted further up the ladder, the level of promotion being higher for better scores. See the makuuchi article for more details on promotion and relegation.
A top division wrestler who is not an ōzeki or yokozuna and who finishes the tournament with kachikoshi is also eligible to be considered for one of the three sanshō prizes awarded for "technique" (ginōshō), "fighting spirit" (kantōshō), and for defeating the most yokozuna and ōzeki (shukunshō), sometimes referred to as "outstanding performance".
Life as a professional sumo wrestler
A sumo wrestler leads a highly regimented way of life. The Sumo Association prescribes the behavior of its wrestlers in some detail. For example, in the wake of a serious car accident involving a wrestler the Association banned wrestlers from driving their own cars. Breaking the rules can result in fines and/or suspension, not only for the offending wrestler, but also for his stablemaster.
On entering sumo, they are expected to grow their hair long to form a topknot, or chonmage, similar to the samurai hairstyles of the Edo Period. Furthermore they are expected to wear the chonmage and traditional Japanese dress when in public. Consequently, sumo wrestlers can be identified immediately when in public.
The type and quality of the dress depends on the wrestler's rank. Rikishi in jonidan and below are allowed to wear only a thin cotton robe called a yukata, even in winter. Furthermore, when outside they must wear a form of wooden sandals called geta that make a distinctive clip-clop sound as one walks in them. Wrestlers in the makushita and sandanme divisions can wear a form of traditional short overcoat over their yukata and are allowed to wear straw sandals, called zōri. The higher ranked sekitori can wear silk robes of their own choice and the quality of the garb is significantly improved. They also are expected to wear a more elaborate form of topknot called an ōichō (lit. big ginkgo leaf) on formal occasions.
Similar distinctions are made in stable life. The junior rikishi must get up earliest, around 5 am, for training whereas the sekitori may start around 7 am. When the sekitori are training the junior rikishi may have chores to do, such as assisting in cooking the lunch, cleaning and preparing the bath, or holding a sekitori's towel. The ranking hierarchy is preserved for the order of precedence in bathing after training, and in eating lunch.
Rikishi are not normally allowed to eat breakfast and are expected to have a form of siesta after a large lunch. The most common type of lunch served is the traditional "sumo meal" of chankonabe which consists of a simmering stew cooked at table which contains various fish, meat, and vegetables. It is usually eaten with rice and washed down with beer. This regimen of no breakfast and a large lunch followed by a sleep is intended to help rikishi put on weight so as to compete more effectively.
In the afternoon the junior rikishi will again usually have cleaning or other chores to do, while their sekitori counterparts may relax, or deal with work issues related to their fan clubs. Younger rikishi will also attend classes, although their education differs from the typical curriculum of their non-sumo peers. In the evening sekitori may go out with their sponsors while juniors stay at home in the stable, unless they are to accompany the stablemaster or a sekitori as his tsukebito (manservant) when he is out (this is normally a more privileged role given to a rikishi who may be nearing sekitori status himself). Becoming a tsukebito for a senior member of the stable is a typical chore. A sekitori will have many tsukebito, with the most junior responsible for cleaning and other mundane tasks. Only the most senior tsukebito will accompany the sekitori when he goes out.
The sekitori also are given their own room in the stable or, may live in their own apartments, as do married wrestlers. In contrast, the junior rikishi sleep in communal dormitories. Thus the world of the sumo wrestler is split broadly between the junior rikishi, who serve, and the sekitori, who are served. Life is especially harsh for new recruits, to whom the worst jobs tend to be allocated, and there is a high dropout rate at this stage.
The negative effects of the sumo lifestyle become dangerously apparent later in life. Sumo wrestlers have a life expectancy of between 60 and 65, more than 10 years shorter than the average Japanese male. They often develop diabetes, high blood pressure, and are prone to heart attacks. The excessive intake of alcohol can lead to liver problems and the stress on their joints can cause arthritis. Recently, the standards of weight gain are becoming less strict, in an effort to improve the overall health of the wrestlers. The average height of sumo wrestlers is around 180 cm (5' 11").
Salary and payment
- yokozuna: 2,820,000, about US$30,500
- ōzeki: 2,347,000, about US$25,000
- sanyaku: 1,693,000, about US$18,000
- maegashira: 1,309,000 or about US$14,000
- jūryō: 1,036,000, about US$11,000
Wrestlers lower than the second division, who are considered to be trainees, receive only a fairly small allowance instead of a salary.
In addition to the basic salary, sekitori wrestlers also receive additional bonus income, called mochikyukin, six times a year (once every tournament, or basho) based on the cumulative performance in their career to date. This bonus increases every time that the rikishi scores a kachikoshi (with larger kachikoshi giving larger raises). Special increases in this bonus are also awarded for winning the top division championship (with an extra large increase for a "perfect" championship victory with no losses), and also for scoring a kinboshi (an upset of a yokozuna by a maegashira).
Sanyaku wrestlers also receive a relatively small additional tournament allowance, depending on their rank, and yokozuna receive an additional allowance every second tournament, associated with the making of a new tsuna.
There is also prize money for the winner of each divisional championship, which increases from 100,000 yen for a jonokuchi victory up to 10,000,000 yen for winning the top division. For wrestlers in the top division giving an exceptional performance in the eyes of a judging panel there are also three special prizes (the sansho) which are worth 2,000,000 yen each.
Individual top division matches can also be sponsored by companies. In such cases the winner of the bout typically receives around 30,000 yen net per sponsor (out of the sponsors contribution of 60,000 yen—much of the remainder goes in paying the wrestler's tax on the prize). These bout prizes are called kenshōkin. For bouts involving yokozuna and ōzeki the number of sponsors of the matchup can be quite large, whereas for lower ranked matchups there may be no bout sponsors at all unless one of the wrestlers is particularly popular, or unless a company has a policy of sponsoring all his matchups. No bout prize money is awarded for a bout decided by a fusenshō (forfeit victory).
Sumo and Shinto
Shinto has historically been used as a means to express Japanese nationalism and ethnic identity, especially prior to the end of World War II. It has served to symbolize and provide a sense of belonging, to identify and unify the Japanese people culturally, and to serve as a barrier demarcating the Japanese from other peoples, providing them with a sense of cultural uniqueness. In its association with Shinto, sumo has also been seen as a bulwark of Japanese tradition.
Shinto pervades Japanese life in many ways. For example, Origin of Sumo, Japanese national sport can be traced back to the ancient Shinto ritual to pray for a bountiful harvest and honor the Kami. The canopy over the ring is reminiscent of a Shinto shrine, the referee is dressed in garb very similar to that of a Shinto priest, and the throwing of salt before a bout is believed to purify the ring.
Shinto ritual pervades every aspect of sumo. Before a tournament, two of the gyōji functioning as Shinto priests enact a ritual to consecrate the newly constructed dohyō, and various Shinto rituals are associated even with the practice dohyō at heya. Both the dohyō-iri, or ring-entering ceremonies performed by the top two divisions before the start of their wrestling day, and in the rituals performed by both combatants immediately before a bout, are derived from Shinto. It retains other Shinto associations as well. The yokozuna's ring-entering ceremony is regarded as a purification ritual in its own right, and is occasionally performed at Shinto shrines for this purpose. Every newly-promoted yokozuna performs his first ring-entering ceremony at the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo.
Evidence of sumo’s association with Shinto goes beyond the real world, as stories of kami fighting for the lands of Japan feature in the world of myth. Prior to becoming a professional sport in the Tokugawa period, sumo was originally performed on the grounds of a shrine or temple. The present dohyō, which is still considered sacred, is in honor of the days when matches were held on the sacred grounds of shrines and temples. The roof over the dohyō called yakata originally represented the sky for the purpose of emphasizing the sacred nature of dohyō, which symbolizes the earth. On the day before the beginning of each tournament, the dohyō-matsuri, a ring-blessing ceremony, is performed by sumo officials called gyoji. Gyoji are the referees on the dohyō, who judge each sumo match. Their elaborate, colorful costumes are based on ceremonial court robes of the Heian period (AD 794 – 1185). Also their black hats are exact copies of the hats worn by Shinto priests depicted in various Heian art. Dressed in the white robes of a Shinto priest gyoji purify and bless the dohyou in a solemn ceremony during which salt, konbu(kelp), surume(dried squid) and chestnuts are buried in the center of the dohyō. Observing officials and invited guests drink sake, Japanese traditional alcoholic drink as it is offered to each one in turn. The remaining sake is poured over the straw boundary of the dohyō, like an offering to the gods. The whole purpose of the dohyō-matsuri is to appease the kami and ask for their protection of the rikishi, sumo wrestlers participating in the upcoming match.The dohyō-iri is a brief ceremony in which rikishi are introduced to the audience just before the start of the each tournament. When their names are called, the match participants ascend on the dohyō, walk around the edge and face the audience. After last name is announced, they turn and face inwards, clap their hands, raise one hand, slightly lift the ceremonial aprons called kesho-mawashi, and raise both hands, then continue walking around the as they leave the same way they came in. This clapping ritual is an important Shinto element and symbolizes the clapping in Shinto shrines designed to attract the attention of the gods.
As with many sports, there are a wide variety of souvenirs and memorabilia that fans may acquire. Fans purchasing box seats or front row seats usually purchase the tickets through so-called tea houses, which provide sumo related items in a package that includes the purchase of the ticket. This sort of memorabilia can also be purchased separately. Plates, and cups with sumo related themes are a common item. One of the more unusual items that can be purchased is the tegata (lit. hand shape) of the wrestlers of whom one is a fan—the sumo version of an autograph. Tegata consist of a hand print of the wrestler using black or red ink accompanied by his fighting name written in calligraphic style by the wrestler himself. Original tegata can be quite expensive, but printed copies of the most popular wrestlers can be obtained very inexpensively. Only wrestlers in the top two jūryō and makuuchi divisions are permitted to make them. Another popular collectible is a copy of the banzuke for a tournament. A banzuke is a document that has been meticulously handwritten in calligraphic script and lists every wrestler who participates in a tournament in order of rank.
Sumo in contrast to other Eastern martial arts
Sumo, while considered a martial art, diverges from the typical Eastern style both at the surface and at its heart. Whereas most martial arts award promotions through time and practice, sumo ranks can be gained and lost every two months in the official tournaments. Conversely, in more common Japanese martial arts (such as karate), ranks are gained after passing a single test, and practitioners of karate are not normally demoted, even after repeated poor performances at tournaments. This divergence from other martial arts creates a high-pressure, high-intensity environment for sumo wrestlers. All the benefits that sekitori wrestlers receive can be taken from them if they fail to maintain a high level of achievement in each official tournament.
Furthermore, sumo does not provide any means of achievement besides the official tournaments. Rank is determined solely by winning records during an official tournament. On the other hand, in many other Eastern martial arts, competitors can display their skill by performing standard routines, called kata or forms, to receive recognition. Thus, sumo wrestlers are very specialized fighters who train to win their bouts using good technique, as this is their only means of gaining better privileges in their stables and higher salaries.
Women and sumo
Through the centuries sumo has had limited female participation. So, starting as early as the 18th century a form of female sumo or onnazumo was performed in some areas of Japan. In the cities it was more of a spectacle often associated with brothels. However, in some areas of Japan female sumo had a serious role in certain Shinto rituals. In later years, there were limited tours of female sumo that lasted for a time. However, female sumo is not considered to be authentic by most Japanese and is now prohibited from taking place in anything but amateur settings.
Professional sumo is notable for its exclusion of women from competition and ceremonies. Women are not allowed to enter or touch the sumo wrestling ring (dohyō), as this is traditionally seen to be a violation of the purity of the dohyō. The female Governor of Osaka from 2000–2008, Fusae Ohta, when called upon to present the Governor's Prize to the champion of the annual Osaka tournament, was required to do so on the walkway beside the ring or send a male representative in her place. She repeatedly challenged the Sumo Association's policy by requesting to be allowed to fulfill her traditional role as Governor. Her requests were repeatedly rejected until she stepped down from office.
The view of those who criticize this continuing "men-only" policy is that it is discriminatory and oppressive. In general, women in the sumo world are only expected to be supportive wives of rikishi, and, in the case that their husband has become a stable master, a surrogate mother for all of his disciples. The view of the Sumo Association is that this is a tradition that has been firmly maintained through the centuries, so it would be a dishonor to all of their ancestors to change it.
Sumo is also an amateur sport, with participants in college, high school and grade school in Japan. In addition to college and school tournaments, there are also open amateur tournaments. The sport at this level is stripped of most of the ceremony. The most successful amateur wrestlers in Japan (usually cge champions) can be allowed to enter professional sumo at makushita (third division) rather than from the very bottom of the ladder. This rank is called makushita tsukedashi, and is currently makushita 10 or 15 depending on the level of amateur success achieved. Many of the current top division wrestlers entered professional sumo by this route. All entry by amateur athletes into the professional ranks is subject to them being young enough (under 23) to satisfy the entry requirements, barring qualification as a makushita tsukedashi (under 25).
There is also an International Sumo Federation, which encourages the sport's development worldwide, including holding international championships. A key aim of the federation is to have Sumo recognized as an Olympic sport. Accordingly, amateur tournaments are divided into weight classes (men: Lightweight up to 187 lb (85 kg) [85 kg], Middleweight up to 253 lb (115 kg) [115 kg], Heavyweight 253+ lb [115+ kg] and Open Weight [unrestricted entry]), and include competitions for female wrestlers (Lightweight up to 143 lb (65 kg) [65 kg], Middleweight up to 176 lb (80 kg) [80 kg], Heavyweight 176+ lb [80+ kg] and Open Weight).
Amateur sumo clubs are gaining in popularity in the United States, with competitions regularly being held in major cities across the country. The US Sumo Open, for example, was held in the Los Angeles Convention Centre in front of 3000. The sport has long been popular on the West Coast and in Hawai'i, where it has played a part in the festivals of the Japanese ethnic communities. Now, however, the sport has grown beyond the sphere of Japanese diaspora and athletes come from a variety of ethnic, cultural and sporting backgrounds.
Amateur sumo is particularly strong in Europe. Many athletes come to the sport from a background in judo, freestyle wrestling, or other grappling sports such as Sambo. Some Eastern European athletes have been successful enough to be scouted into professional sumo in Japan, much like their Japanese amateur counterparts. The most notable of these to date is the Bulgarian Kotoōshū, who is the highest ranking foreign wrestler who was formerly an amateur sumo athlete.
Due to the hierarchical structure of the sport, where top ranked wrestlers have great advantages in salary and status over lower ranked wrestlers, speculation about the existence of match-fixing and isolated reports of match fixing have surfaced over the years. The Japan Sumo Association repeatedly denied any wrestlers were involved in match-fixing, known as yaocho, and even took publishers to court over such allegations.
However, in 2011, it was announced that an investigation by police had discovered cell phone text messages indicating that a number of matches had been fixed. Allegedly, 14 wrestlers and a few stablemasters were involved. In the course of the investigation, several wrestlers eventually admitted to match-fixing for money. As a consequence, the board of directors of the Japan Sumo Association decided in an extraordinary meeting to cancel the March 2011 tournament in Osaka, the first time this had happened since 1946. In all, 14 wrestlers were judged guilty of match-fixing, to which most of them admitted involvement. All of the wrestlers judged to be involved were forced to retire.
The Japan Sumo Association's investigative panel stated in May 2011 that match-fixing appears to have been widespread. The panel stated that it would be difficult to discover, however, the full extent of the problem.
One wrestler charged with match-fixing, Sōkokurai, strenuously denied any involvement and successfully won a court case in early 2013 deeming his dimissal groundless. He was subsequently reinstated by the JSA, and is expected to appear in the July 2013 tournament in the top division.
It has been well-known and accepted for many years that sumo stables engage in the systematic hazing and physical punishment of young disciples in order to "toughen them up". Stable masters have often been proud to show to the media how they frequently use a shinai to beat those who make mistakes, and elder rikishi are often put in charge of bullying younger ones to keep them in line, for instance, by making them hold heavy objects for long periods of time. However, this system of hazing was widely criticized in late 2007 when it came to light that a 17 year-old-sumo trainee named Takashi Saito from the Tokitsukaze stable had died after a serious bullying incident involving his stablemaster Junichi Yamamoto hitting him in the head with a large beer bottle and fellow rikishi being subsequently ordered to physically abuse him further. The (now ex-) stablemaster and three other wrestlers who were involved were arrested in February 2008, after which Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda demanded the Sumo Association take steps to ensure such an incident never happens again. In May 2009, Yamamoto was sentenced to six years in jail.
Gambling and yakuza ties
On Sunday July 4, 2010, the Japan Sumo Association announced its decision to dismiss the ōzeki Kotomitsuki and the stable master Ōtake for betting on baseball games in a gambling ring run by the Yakuza. At the same time, two stable masters were demoted and an unprecedented 18 wrestlers banned from the July 2010 tournament.
Two months before the announcement, Japan's largest yakuza group, Yamaguchi-gumi, bought 50 prized seats during a tournament so that gangsters were prominently visible during the national broadcast of the match. According to experts, this was an endeavor to cheer up an incarcerated boss. Although there have always been alleged ties between sumo and the yakuza, the sport has suffered from waning public interest and sponsorship during the economic recession, which may have contributed to closer ties to the underworld for financial support.
Sumo in mixed martial arts
A number of former sumo wrestlers have competed in mixed martial arts, with limited achievement; perhaps the most successful sumo wrestler to have competed in MMA is Tadao Yasuda who holds a record of two wins and four losses. Sumo wrestlers are ineffective in MMA because the sports are vastly different from one another in achieving victory; striking techniques and submissions are required for MMA and neither are taught in sumo wrestling. A Sumo wrestler would need to train in MMA techniques which has not been the case in the past, as the few sumo wrestlers of distinction to compete in MMA did so for financial reasons and not a career change. A few key sumo techniques which require grabbing the belt or pants of the opponent also become ineffective, as this is illegal in MMA.
Other sumo wrestlers to have fought in mixed martial arts include Alan Karaev, Kōji Kitao, Henry Armstrong Miller, Akebono Tarō, Teila Tuli and Wakashoyo. Former UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Lyoto Machida also has a sumo background but his main style is Shotokan Karate.
- Glossary of sumo terms
- List of active sumo wrestlers
- List of past sumo wrestlers
- List of sumo beya
- List of sumo record holders
- List of sumo tournament top division champions
- List of sumo video games
- List of years in sumo
- List of yokozuna
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- Nihon Sumo Kyokai Official Grand Sumo Home Page
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- Sumo News and Analysis
- A Matter of Size, an Israeli fictional film on Amateur Sumo (2009)