Clash of Giants: The Tradition and Thrill of Japanese Sumo

by Nana Young

The Grandeur of Sumo Wrestling

Sumo fighters and sumo wrestlers training in sumo stables preparing for the sumo tournament in Tokyo

Sumo wrestling stands as Japan's national sport, and is deeply ingrained in Japanese culture. Originally a form of entertainment for deities, it evolved into a display of warriors' strength, discipline, and skill. In this article, we will explore the fascinating realm of Japanese sumo wrestling—a time-honored sport that encapsulates a unique blend of tradition, athleticism, and cultural significance.

The Origins of Sumo: A Glimpse into History

Historical Japanese Sumo shrine statue located in the Yamanobe no Michi trail in the Kansai province, Japan

The origins of sumo wrestling can be traced back to ancient Shinto rituals, where it held a sacred significance beyond mere sport. In these early times, it was performed in Shinto shrines as a form of ritualistic dance to appease the gods and ensure bountiful harvests. Over time, it gradually evolved into physical competitions, shaping the sport's trajectory.

The Edo Period (1603-1867) marked a pivotal moment in sumo's history, as it was during this time that the rules and systems of sumo wrestling were formalized. This period also witnessed a surge in popularity among the samurai class, who embraced sumo as a means to showcase their martial arts skills and discipline, thereby elevating it to a competitive sport.

The modern era of sumo wrestling dawned in the late 19th century, transitioning from its roots as a symbolic display of military prowess to a fully structured professional sport. This transformation brought about structured tournaments and the establishment of training schools, ushering in a new chapter for sumo wrestling.

Today, sumo wrestling endures as a revered tradition, with professional sumo wrestlers competing in tournaments throughout the year, showcasing the sport's enduring legacy and cultural significance.

Understanding Sumo: The Rules and Rituals

sumo wrestlers throw handfuls of salt around the ring

Sumo wrestling is not merely about athletic competition; it serves as a living representation of age-old rituals infused with deep cultural meaning and profound symbolism. These rituals, performed before matches, showcase the deep-rooted traditions that have been preserved for centuries.

At its core, sumo wrestling is a sport where two wrestlers, known as rikishi, face off in a circular ring called a dohyo. Sumo wrestlers wear a traditional garment called a mawashi, crafted from thick, sturdy fabric. The objective is simple yet challenging: either force your opponent out or the ring or make them touch the ground with any part of their body other than the soles of their feet. Matches are brief yet intense, with victory determined by a variety of techniques including pushing, throwing, or tripping the opponent.

Before each sumo wrestling match, sumo wrestlers engage in purification rituals. The ritual begins with sumo wrestlers rinsing their mouths with chikara-mizu or "power water". This act symbolizes the purification of oneself upon entering the arena, mirroring the traditional practice of cleansing hands and mouth before entering Shinto shrines. It's important to note that drinking the water is not allowed during this ritual. Then, sumo wrestlers use a special paper called chikara-gami, or "power paper", to wipe their mouths, faces, and bodies, completing the purification process.

Afterward, sumo wrestlers assume their starting positions, clap their hands once, and extend their arms with palms facing upwards, indicating their commitment to a fair and clean match. This gesture of clapping echoes the traditional practice observed when visiting Shinto shrines, where it is used to catch the attention of the deities. Following this, sumo wrestlers throw handfuls of salt around the ring, serving as means to purify the dohyo and ward off evil spirits. This practice is also believed to offer protection against potential injuries to the wrestlers. Finally, sumo wresters lift their legs high and stomp them forcefully on the ground, not only as a warm-up exercise but also to symbolically expel any bad luck and evil spirits.

These rituals infuse each match with a sense of solemnity, honor, and respect, creating a profoundly impactful cultural experience for those who witness them.

Life as a Sumo Wrestler: Training and Tradition

Japanese sumo wrestler training in their stall in Tokyo

Beyond the grand tournaments and ceremonial rituals, sumo wrestlers lead a structured and demanding lifestyle focused on physical conditioning, technique refinement, and adherence to time-honored customs. Sumo wrestlers live and train in communal facilities called stables. At the helm of each sumo stable is the oyakata, or stable master, who is typically a retired professional sumo wrestler who has achieved a high rank during their active career. They oversee all aspects of the stable, including training, discipline, and wrestler management. Each sumo stable operates like a close-knit family, with sumo wrestlers of varying ranks living, eating, and training together under a strict regimen.

Within the sumo stable, the ranking system plays a crucial role in defining leadership and hierarchy. Senior wrestlers, known as sekitori, hold respected positions and serve as mentors to junior wrestlers. On the other hand, junior wrestlers, often referred to as deshi, are at the beginning of their sumo careers. They are responsible for various tasks within the sumo stable, such as cleaning, cooking, and assisting senior wrestlers on top of their rigorous training sessions.

Discipline is at the core of a sumo wrestler's daily life. Wrestlers adhere to a strict code of conduct, including dietary restrictions, adherence to traditional customs, and respectful behavior towards seniors and fellow wrestlers. The disciplined lifestyle extends to every aspect of their lives, from training and diet to personal conduct and public appearances.

A typical day of a sumo wrestler's training regimen begins with intense physical conditioning exercises, including weightlifting and endurance training. This is followed by hours of practicing sumo bouts and winning techniques, during which sumo wrestlers hone their skills in pushing, throwing, and grappling techniques essential for achieving success in the ring. Their commitment to physical excellence, mental fortitude, and cultural heritage makes them true ambassadors of the revered sport of sumo wrestling in Japan.

Sumo and Japanese Cuisine: The Wrestler’s Diet

Japanese cuisine,Chanko-nabe,hot pot dish

Sumo wrestling, beyond its fierce battles in the ring, is also renowned for its distinctive dietary practices, centered around a hearty and nutritious dish called Chanko Nabe (Sumo Wrestler's Hot Pot).

Chanko Nabe is a hearty one-pot meal typically prepared with a variety of ingredients. Common components include protein-rich foods like meat and seafood, along with an assortment of vegetables. The Chanko Nabe diet is renowned for its nutritional benefits, providing a balanced combination of proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals essential for muscle growth, recovery, and sustained energy levels. It is consumed in generous portions as part of sumo wrestlers' weight gain diet.

For sumo wrestlers, Chanko Nabe is not just a meal but a cornerstone of their nutrition and lifestyle. It is often consumed in communal settings with fellow wrestlers and trainers, fostering camaraderie, unity, and a sense of tradition within the sumo stable.

Iconic Sumo Arenas: The Heart of Sumo Culture

Ryogoku Kokugikan in Tokyo

Sumo wrestling finds its epicenter in iconic arenas that serve as battlegrounds for fierce competition, historic moments, and the embodiment of sumo's spirit. These arenas are where the ancient rituals and customs of sumo wrestling come to life, from the symbolic throwing of salt to the rhythmic drumbeats that echo through the halls.

Among these legendary venues, the Ryogoku Kokugikan in Tokyo stands out as a symbol of sumo's grandeur and significance to both the sport and its devoted fans. Located in the heart of Tokyo's sumo district, the Ryogoku Kokugikan features a distinctive roof resembling a traditional Shinto shrine, creating an atmosphere of reverence and tradition. Throughout its history, the arena has hosted countless tournaments, including the prestigious Grand Sumo Tournaments that draw thousands of spectators and global attention.

For fans of sumo wrestling, the arenas hold a special significance as gathering places of camaraderie, excitement, and shared passion. Attending a sumo tournament at these arenas is not just about witnessing the matches; it's about immersing oneself in the vibrant atmosphere, from the chants of supporters to the anticipation before each sumo bout. The arenas become vibrant hubs where fans come together to celebrate their love for the sport.

The Sumo Tournament: A Test of Strength and Spirit

Sumo wrestlers ready to engage in the arena

Sumo tournaments, known as basho, stand as the pinnacle of Japan's ancient and revered sport. These grand events showcase the skill, strength, and tradition of sumo wrestling, drawing crowds of spectators from around the world.

Sumo tournaments are structured events hosted by the Japan Sumo Association that take place six times a year in Japan. Each basho lasts for 15 days, during which sumo wrestlers compete in a series of matches to determine their rankings and overall performance. Each year, Tokyo hosts three of these tournaments, scheduled in January, May, and September, while the remaining three are held in Osaka (March), Nagoya (July), and Fukuoka (November).

The most prestigious prize in grand sumo tournaments is the Emperor's Cup, awarded to the wrestler with the best overall performance in a basho. Wrestlers compete in a round-robin format within their respective divisions, accumulating wins and losses throughout the tournament. The wrestler with the highest number of wins in their division is awarded the Emperor's Cup, symbolizing excellence and achievement in sumo wrestling.

Sumo Tournament 2024: What to Expect

high ranking sumo wrestlers Yokozuna performing an opening ceremony in the arena

The 2024 Grand Sumo Tournament is poised to be an electrifying event, with anticipation running high for remarkable performances, potential upsets, and historic moments in the world of sumo wrestling. This year, one of the three annual tournaments in Tokyo is scheduled to take place from May 12 to May 26 at the Ryogoku Kokugikan Hall in Tokyo, Japan. It's important to note that the dates may vary slightly each year.

One of the thrilling elements of tournaments is the confrontation between emerging talents and seasoned champions. The Yokozuna clashes are always the most eagerly awaited moments in any sumo tournament. There is great anticipation about who will emerge as the the new grand champion. Will we witness a new Yokozuna rise to prominence, or will a reigning champion defend their title with unwavering tenacity?

As the May Grand Sumo Tournament 2024 approaches, the spotlight shines on several notable professional sumo wrestlers like Takerufuji Mikiya and Onosato Daiki. Takerufuji, at 24, made history by becoming the first sumo wrestler in 110 years to win the top-division tournament on debut during the Spring Grand Tournament in Osaka last March, despite an ankle injury. He also earned special prizes for his Technique, Fighting Spirit, and Outstanding Performance. Onosato, known for his physique and sumo intelligence, showed promise with double-digit wins in his first three tournaments in the paid ranks in 2023. These rising stars add excitement to the tournament, highlighting the evolving talent in the sumo world.

Watching Sumo Wrestling in Japan: A Spectator’s Guide

Two sumo wrestlers engaging while photographers take pictures and the audience cheers in the Tokyo Grand Sumo Tournament

For those planning to experience the excitement of a sumo match firsthand, here are essential tips to make the most of this unique sporting event.

Sumo tournaments are held at specific times throughout the year, so check the schedule and book tickets in advance. Only buy tickets from authorized sellers to ensure authenticity. Tickets are available for different seating areas, from ringside seats to balcony seats. Prices vary based on the view and proximity to the ring.

Sumo events attract large crowds, so arrive early to secure a good seat where you can get a good view of the ring entering ceremonies. Familiarize yourself with sumo rules and customs beforehand to better understand and appreciate the matches and ceremonies.

For tourists and fans alike, understanding match etiquette enhances the experience and shows respect for this revered sport. Here are some key points to remember:

  • Maintain a respectful silence during sumo bouts. Avoid loud conversations that may disrupt other spectators or the wrestlers.

  • Flash photography is prohibited during matches. Instead, take photos discreetly without flash.

  • Refrain from eating or drinking while watching the matches, as it is considered inappropriate.

The Role of Women in Sumo Wrestling

2022: The World Games - Sumo Wrestling, Women's lightweight match

Historically, sumo has been a male-dominated sport, with women traditionally excluded from participating in professional matches or training as professional wrestlers. While women have not been allowed to compete professionally in sumo, there have been opportunities for female involvement in related roles such as managers, referees, and in supporting roles within sumo stables and associations.

The exclusion of women from professional sumo has faced criticism and controversy, both within Japan and internationally, as it has been seen as discriminatory and outdated. Advocates for gender equality have called for greater inclusivity and opportunities for women to participate in all aspects of the sport.

In recent years, there have been notable developments regarding the role of women in sumo. One significant milestone was the establishment of women's sumo competitions at the amateur level, allowing female sumo wrestlers to compete and showcase their skills. Additionally, there have been discussions within the sumo community about the possibility of allowing women to participate in professional sumo matches. As discussions and developments progress, the future of women's participation in sumo holds potential for greater inclusivity and diversity within this iconic Japanese sport.

Famous Sumo Wrestlers: Legends of the Ring

Pictures of Sumo champions in Tokyo subway

Sumo wrestling has seen the rise of legendary wrestlers who left an indelible mark on the sport. These iconic figures not only achieved remarkable success but also contributed significantly to the evolution and popularity of sumo wrestling.

  1. Taiho Koki (1940-2013)
    Taiho is a towering figure in sumo history, having won a record-breaking 32 tournament championships during his illustrious career. He won six tournaments in a row on two occasions

  2. Chiyonofuji Mitsugu (1955-2016)
    Known as "The Wolf", Chiyonofuji secured 31 tournament championships and earned a reputation for his ferocity and determination. He was the first sumo wrestler to receive the People's Honor Award in 1989.

  3. Akebono Taro (1969-)
    One of the tallest and heaviest wrestlers ever, Akebono made history as the first non-Japanese wrestler to attain the Yokozuna rank, paving the way for international recognition of sumo and inspiring foreign wrestlers.

  4. Asashoryu Akinori (1980-)
    A former professional sumo wrestler, Akinori achieved the distinction of being the first Mongolian to attain the highest rank in sumo. Additionally, he holds the unique honor of being the only wrestler in the modern era to win all six official tournaments in a single year.

Sumo Beyond the Ring: Cultural Impact and Popularity

Sumo tournament

Sumo wrestling holds a significant place in the country's cultural identity and has garnered international acclaim for its unique traditions and competitive spirit. As Japan's national sport, sumo holds a special place in the hearts of its people. Grand sumo tournaments attract massive crowds and fervent support from fans across the country. Sumo wrestlers, with their distinctive appearance and larger-than-life personas, have become cultural symbols representing strength, honor, and perseverance.

Beyond Japan, sumo wrestling has gained global recognition and popularity. International tournaments and exhibitions have introduced sumo to audiences worldwide, sparking interest in its unique blend of athleticism, tradition, and spectacle. Foreign wrestlers competing at the highest levels have also contributed to the sport's globalization and diverse fan clubs.

As a cherished national treasure and a global phenomenon, sumo's enduring legacy continues to captivate hearts and minds, bridging cultures and embodying the spirit of sportsmanship and camaraderie on a global scale.

The Future of Sumo Wrestling: Challenges and Prospects

sumo wrestlers in a tournament, many foreigner athletes

Sumo wrestling stands at a crossroads as it navigates the challenges and opportunities of the modern era. Sumo's traditional rituals and ranking hierarchy, while integral to its identity, can be seen as barriers to modernization. Furthermore, sumo's fanbase in Japan skews towards older demographics, raising concerns about attracting and retaining younger fans.

As sumo gains traction on a global scale, it encounters challenges in adjusting to varied cultural practices, recruiting foreign wrestlers, and expanding its presence outside Japan. Despite the initiatives undertaken by the Japanese Sumo Association with tours conducted both domestically and internationally, factors like cultural nuances, language barriers, and differences in training methods pose hurdles to its international expansion.

The future of sumo wrestling hinges on its ability to evolve while staying true to its roots. By embracing modernization, promoting inclusivity, utilizing technological advancements to connect with diverse fans, and safeguarding its cultural legacy, sumo wrestling can maintain its status as a cherished tradition and a worldwide spectacle for generations to come.

The Enduring Legacy of Sumo Wrestling in Japan

Student sumo wrestler

In essence, sumo wrestling is more than just a sport—it is a living tradition that embodies the spirit of Japan. Its enduring appeal lies in its ability to transcend time, captivating audiences with its blend of athleticism, tradition, and cultural resonance. As sumo continues to thrive and inspire, it remains a testament to the enduring legacy of Japan's rich cultural heritage.

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