A window to a different era
In the modern-day world, sports are becoming increasingly more global and more competitive; with that comes the need to be bigger and better. Bigger venues: more fans, bigger screens, better showmanship. Better equipment: springier shoes, lightweight instruments, streamlined clothing etc. Step into a Japanese Sumo wrestling stadium however, and the year is still 1684.
There have been many ancient sports in the world some dating back thousands of years, but over time those that have remained have adapted to the modern era. Sumo wrestling is one of the very few that has remained almost entirely unchanged throughout it’s earliest known origins roughly 2000 years ago. lets discover the world-renowned spectacle of Sumo Wrestling.
There is a lot to cover, so let’s get started.
Core concepts of Sumo wrestling
Before we begin, to those who haven’t experienced Sumo wrestling before; lets address the somewhat elephant in the room.
Yes, Sumo involves two large, almost naked men, grappling with each other within a circle on a mound of clay.
The sight may be a bit weird at first. Any awkwardness however is quicky forgotten as the sport becomes more familiar, along with an understanding that the rikishi (wrestlers) are actually highly skilled athletes.
The aim of a Sumo match is incredibly simple; win by either forcing your opponent out of the dohyo (circle) or by making them touch the floor with any part of the body other than the soles of the feet.
Simple in practice — incredibly difficult in reality.
This is due to the average weight of a Rikishi being 147kg or 23 stone, which is equivalent to the average weight of a male Gorilla in the wild. Of course, this can be much higher with the heaviest ever recorded being Orora Satoshi coming in at 292kg (45 stone) which is equivalent to a male grizzly bear. If that wasn’t enough, there are no weight brackets or restrictions to be met with each bout, meaning the heaviest Rikishi can be put against the lightest.
Matches usually only last under one minute and can be as fast as a few seconds, despite pre-match build-ups lasting about five minutes. Each Rikishi aim to climb the extensive rankings ladder by performing well in each of six tournaments held throughout the year. As they progress higher the victor of each bout often receives envelopes filled with money.
The ranking system has a massive impact on the rikishi both inside and outside the ring so let’s start to get a bit more involved.
The life and rank of a sumo wrestler
Embarking upon the life of a sumo wrestler — also known as rikishi — is not a decision to be taken lightly. It is in fact a life choice that can be highly regimented. Almost all rikishi live in what is called a ‘stable’; community-based housing where they eat, sleep, and practice. Ring names are also given to rikishi upon starting their career, and are more often than not related to the stable in which they are housed; although the names of overseas participants reflect their origins.
The sumo ranking system that the sport implements doesn’t just confer prize money and reputation, but also privileges and responsibilities outside the ring and the type of life that is led in the stable. Things such as:
- What clothing can be worn.
- What you can eat and when.
- Living accommodation.
- Chores to be performed.
- Responsibilities to higher ranked rikishi.
- Bathing times.
Yes, you read that right! If you are a lower ranking rikishi then you are not allowed to eat or take a bath before the higher rankers, plus you are more or less at their beck and call.
There are primarily six divisions in sumo wrestling. These are:
The rank of Makuuchi however is then split into an additional five ranks:
Makushita and below
The first four ranks are really just stepping-stones to the upper divisions, although a lot of work is required to progress to such a position. All will receive a small allowance each month and are subject to strict conditions and lifestyles within the stables. Rikishi in the Jonidan rank may only wear the traditional yukata and geta — no matter the weather or conditions — while Sandanme and Makushita may also wear an overcoat.
The rank of Juryo is when a rikishi officially becomes a professional and with this rank comes a salary and many other perks. (Ranks below this only get an allowance.) They may begin earning more prize money from tournaments and bouts, may choose to live in private accommodation, get precedence over all lower ranks and even gain a tsukebito which is a personal assistant chosen from the lower ranked rikishi. This is when they must also fight in all 15 rounds of a tournament rather than just 7.
The Makuuchi is the highest rank and — as seen above — are then split into additional ranks. This is where a rikishi’s career truly begins as they are now seen by much bigger audiences and have the chance to face off against the titleholders and champions. They are more likely to spend time outside the stable engaging with fans and sponsors, whilst also living a life that is less restrictive. Although they will now be expected to uphold a favourable public image at all times.
Most Makuuchi will be a Maegashira along with a number from 1 to 17 depending on the number of fighters; one being the best and 17 being the worst. Higher ranked maegashira has more chance of being promoted to the higher ranks. Komusubi — the next one up — is considered a bridging rank but is a very difficult position; they are often pitted against the top of the league Yokozuna and Ozeki meaning many will soon get demoted again.
Achieving a Sekiwake can be achieved if a Komusubi can maintain a convincing record, despite facing overwhelming opponents. An 11-4 outcome (11 wins 4 loses) in a tournament is such a record. Promotion to an Ozeki from a Sekiwake on the other hand is no laughing matter. The rules here are no set in stone but 33 wins across the three most recent tournaments is a good bar to aim for, but also quality of sumo and character are taken in account when bestowing the first of the two champions titles.
Yokozuna, this is the highest sumo rank that someone can achieve. This rank is incredibly hard to obtain and Interestingly is not just determined by winning; there is also no absolute definitive criteria to achieve it. An Ozeki is judged by his power, skill and dignity or grace. As an example, an Ozeki must normally win two straight tournaments to be considered, although doing so in poor manner or ‘just about’ will not be acceptable.
Throughout the time of regulatory Sumo, there have only been 72 Yokozuna. Its a rank that comes with expectations outside the ring. A Yokozuna is seen as representing the sport itself and must conduct themselves appropriately at all times.
Another important distinction between Yokozuna and all other ranks is that, once it is obtained you cannot be demoted. If your performance falls below what is considered acceptable, you are expected to retire.
Ok, lets move on to how it all goes down (so to speak).
Sumo wrestling tournaments and bouts
Six times a year all the rikishi gather and wrestle for their chance to prove they are worthy of going to the next stage of their career. Hosted every other month starting with the first in January, each tournament lasts for fifteen days and each rikishi gets to fight once a day.
Despite only one fight a day and bouts normally over within 30 seconds, tournaments are all day affairs. Starting around 8:30am and finishing around 6:00pm the lowest ranked bouts take place first with the higher ranked facing off towards the end. I suppose it’s a case of saving the best until last!
There is one very important distinguishing aspect of sumo that I have until now yet to mention; this sport is very ceremonial.
I would like to give a visual example right now before we dig any deeper, plus it may help to see what is going on before it is explained.
Step by step Commentary
What we see at the start is the entrance ceremony marking a new round of bouts. Each rikishi is introduced into the ring starting from the lowest rank up the highest, and each are wearing their Kesho-Mawashi or ceremonial loincloth as opposed to a regular Mawashi that is worn when wrestling. Each Kesho-Mawashi traditionally showed a family crest but some now show national flags and even sponsors as well. The movements at the end are to show that each rikishi is not holding or concealing any weapons.
After this we get to see our first pre-match procedure and the ensuing bout!
- First off, the rikishi enter the Dohyo with a quick bow to one another and immediately get to work. They start by performing the iconic sumo leg raise, stamp and squat; claps will precede most actions like these to gain the attention of the gods.
- Next, we see the rikishi leave the ring and take a sip of water from a hishaku to purify themselves. Interestingly this is delivered by the rikishi that they last defeated in a bout.
- Now they will re-enter the ring where they will once again raise their hands to show they have no weapons. Before entering the ring, salt is thrown to purify it; and in fact, is done every time they wish to leave and re-enter the ring for any reason.
Everything is kept as traditional as possible within a stadium, to the point that there are no screens or advert breaks throughout the tournament. However, sponsors want to get coverage to the audience which also helps the sport prosper. Well then, how do they do this?
- Bring on the banners!
Isn’t this brilliant! companies will pay to around 60,000 yen (currently £396) to get their logo or message printed onto a Kensho banner that is paraded around the ring before a match. The number of these can vary from 3 or 4 for low ranks to up to 50 for top-tier bouts. The winner of the bouts will receive around half the total amount on display with the rest going into their retirement fund.
Now I can’t say for sure whether this was a practice back in the Edo period with local merchants advertising their wares, but the way it is done certainly makes it feel like a possibility. As this is on-going, we have another round of spirit banishing and some posturing and sizing up of the competition.
- With that over we start to get ever closer to the start of the bout. The following stage is intended as a form of psyching up, more posturing, unnerving tactics etc and varies between bouts. The next time they enter the ring the match starts.
- Now the match will get under way when both rikishi have their hands placed upon their corresponding line in the ring. Ultimately in this case its all over very quickly and the Gyoji (referee) presents the winner with envelopes that are filled with the money paid by the sponsors.
The origins of sumo wrestling
You may be wondering after watching this; why does it all take so long to begin a bout?
A lot of it comes down to the Shinto roots in the sport. Shinto is classed as a religion but could also be seen as a way of life; it’s an incredible old practice that is still followed. Even in modern sumo, bouts take place under a tsuriyane, a roof resembling a Shinto shrine.
With regards to sumo, it originated as a ritual to appease the gods in return for a good harvest. Iconic motions such as stamping and squatting were performed to drive away evil spirits with all their strength, it is for this reason that only the strongest people were chosen to perform the rituals and how size has come to play a big part. Along the same lines the salt throwing is an action used to purify the ring, or in antiquity to purify the land.
The first time sumo was presented as a form of fighting was during the reign of Emperor Suinin. (29 BCE – 70 BC.) He ordered a man named Nomi no Sukune to deal with Taima no Kehaya who was claiming to be the strongest man alive. Taima no Kehaya was killed in the following fight.
It wasn’t until the Nara period (712 -794) that sumo wrestling became a common form of competition, however deaths were still common during this time and this state of sumo continued for about 800 years. Rules didn’t come into place until the Edo period, more specifically 1684 when the first government sanction event took place to raise funds for charity. This first official sumo contest took place at Tomioka Hachimangu Shrine; the same year an official sumo organisation was created.
Where to watch Sumo wrestling
I feel we’ve covered a lot of ground with understanding sumo a bit better than we did before. So rather than watching just old clips, where can we watch it?
The easiest way to watch (including the tournament starting March 14th) is through Japan’s NHK world website. Here they will do highlights of each Makuuchi bout for every day of the tournament; this is just the bout itself and not any of the build-up, plus it includes English commentary. This is how I personally started to get into sumo wrestling and is great for getting just the action.
There is another way of watching the entire coverage, but it could prove a lot more difficult and more expensive; suffice to say this is not a method I have tried myself. It involves signing up to a service known as JSTV through satellite or cable which is £30 a month, and looks quite involved to get working properly. This option is for those who want to fully explore not just Sumo but a whole host of Japanese TV.
Initial access is through NHK World Premium and has a good FAQ section.
Alternatively, here is a direct link to JSTV site.
Shall we take a breath?
There’s a lot of information to take here that will give a good start when discovering the world of Sumo. I have also tried to include many terms and scenarios that confused me when I began watching that weren’t often explained, and hopefully may prove to be a useful resource to refer back to from time to time. There is no substitute though to watching sumo yourself, it’s surprisingly captivating and involved once you get started.
If you found this guide helpful, let me know. What are your opinions on sumo wrestling?