Most traditional pursuits in the Land of the Rising Sun tend to be fairly sedate affairs – from tea ceremonies to stylised Noh theatre to flower arranging. But its unique form of traditional wrestling – dating back more than 1,500 years – is a standout for its physicality and (literally, very) heavyweight practitioners; here’s a quick primer:
Evolving out of ancient Mongolian, Korean, and Chinese wrestling, sumo (meaning “striking one another”) is thought to have originated as part of the rituals of Japan’s indigenous Shinto religion, whether to entertain the gods or embody the concept of a human wrestling with a kami (Shinto spirit). Over the centuries its rules and staging evolved, with the classic sumo ring coming about in the 16th century, as well as the rise of a professional class of rikishi (wrestlers), organised into heya (stables) and living highly regulated and regimented lives.
First a look at the bouts themselves. They take place in a 16.26-square-metre (175 sq.-foot) dohyō ring 4.55 m (15 ft.), covered in sand mixed with clay. Wearing only stiff belts around their waists and looping down over their groins, the rikishi perform rituals such as throwing salt to purify the ring; taking sips from a ladle to cleanse their mouths; and stamping out evil spirits, before lapsing into a squat. When the bout begins, they thump the ground with their fists, then leap up and grapple each other in an attempt to push each other out of the ring or any body part to the ground (except for the feet, of course), whilst a traditionally clad referee observes from close at hand and five judges observe from outside the ring. And these single-round bouts are extremely short – usually under a minute and sometimes under ten seconds.
As for the jumbo-size sumo wrestlers, to begin with, why are they so fat? Well, the heavier the contender, the more effort his opponent must expend to move him, throw him, and push him out of the ring. And despite their obese appearance, as much of that weight as possible must be muscle rather than fat, to provide the force necessary to be a contender. The average weight of a wrestler is around 147 kilos (325 pounds), with the highest recorded at a whopping 267 kg (589 lbs.).
The diet to bring this about delivers up to 7,000 calories a day, and at its centre is vast quantities of a high-protein stew called chankonabe (above), made of chicken, fish, and tofu (with horsemeat sometimes added) and accompanied by rice – and that’s just one small aspect of the regimented life of rikishi. Among other restrictions, they live communally; get up for training and workouts (below) between 5 and 7 am (depending on seniority); must wear their hair long and in a topknot; have to wear traditional Japanese clothing in public; and are prohibited from driving cars.
Also, pros don’t get exceedingly rich at this game, that’s for sure – annual salaries for yokozuna, the highest ranking, are generally around only 3 million yen (currently 25,380 euros/28,164 USD/23,184 GBP) – though this can be supplemented by bonuses, competition prizes, and corporate sponsorships. In part because because of this, as well as the unwillingness of the younger generations to submit to such a regimented life, along with the health issues relating to obesity – including diabetes, hyptertension and arthritis (though this is ameliorated by the intense exercise they get) – that generally lead to a life expectancy of at least a decade less than the average male in Japan.
Yet interestingly, even as fewer young Japanese men are attracted to sumo, as of the late 20th century, more foreigners have moved into the sport and started in some cases to predominate in the sport, even becoming stars (perhaps most famously the Hawaiian Akebono – born Chad Rowan – in the 1990s).
And while sumo’s popularity had been declining in Japan in the past decade or so – because of factors including too many foreigners, scandals over hazing, match-fixing, and drug use – these days it’s been rebounding, especially because more Japanese yokozuna and other high-level wrestlers have come on the scene of late to recapture the public’s imagination. That, and given sumo’s longevity and firm place in Japanese culture, it’s clear that the big boys and their unique sport aren’t going anywhere soon.
More info: Sumo.org.