Mention sumo wrestling anywhere you are in the world, and people will know what you’re talking about. Or do they? Sure, people know it is Japanese. And they know it involves very large men trying to shove each other around. But there’s a lot more to this intricate sport that is steeped in tradition and rituals.
We break down everything you need to know about sumo so that you can join the select few around the globe who have the bragging rights to watching this extraordinary wrestling mania.
When to go?
The most important detail to know about going to Japan to view sumo wrestling is that you cannot just pitch up at any time of the year and watch a tournament. Sumo wrestling tournaments are held six times a year – with one tournament in every odd-numbered month in the year. The Grand Tournament Schedule is available all the way until 2023.
Ringside tickets will cost you around ¥15,000 (US$137). Box seats range between ¥9,000 and ¥12,000. Regular seating starts from ¥4,000 and goes up to ¥8,500. If you go in without pre-booking, you will have to pay around ¥2,200 for a general admission ticket.
Who to look out for?
There are a couple of high ranks that sumo wrestlers seek to achieve, with the first being ozeki and the highest level being a yokozuna. There are generally only three to seven ozeki at any given time. To become an ozeki, one has to win around 33 bouts over three consecutive tournaments. These guys can earn in excess of ¥2.5 million a month. This status can be lost and regained depending on your win and loss records. The highest honour that can be achieved in sumo is to become a yokozuna. In 400 years of sumo only around 70 wrestlers have become yokozuna. When a yokozuna starts getting a losing record, he will be forced to retire.
How does it work?
The direct translation of sumo from Japanese is “striking one another”. The aim is to push your opponent out of the circular ring with any part of your body besides the soles of your feet.
The bout consists of only one round and can be over very quickly. Another method of winning is to get the opposing wrestler to touch the ground with any part of the body besides the soles of his feet. Interestingly, you also lose a bout if your mawashi (belt) comes completely undone.
There are no weight divisions in sumo wrestling and, as a result, you might see a wrestler in a bout against a man twice his size. Wrestlers from the same stable will not face each other in a tournament unless they are tied for the lead.
The wrestlers need to live the values of sumo, which means they should be humble and embody the Japanese virtues of dignity, honour, strength and discipline. They are not meant to showboat after winning or express disappointment when losing.
The fight ritual
Each bout is preceded by quite an elaborate ritual (below). This ritual is used as a means of “psychological warfare” between the contestants.
They begin by sitting across the ring from one another in the preceding matches. Once the preceding match ends, they begin a series of purification rituals. Entering the ring, the wrestlers stare directly at each other before turning to their “corners” in the south-west and south-east of the arena. They then perform the famous shiko together which involves a clap, a squat and a raising of the right leg high into the air and stomping it down. The same is then done with the left leg.
The wrestlers step back over the boundary rope towards their corner where they receive the chikara-mizu or “strength water” and the chikara-gami, which is used to wipe their lips. The wrestlers or “rikishi” then have to enter the ring from the east and west respectively after the referee calls out their names in a high-pitched and specially trained voice. Once in the ring they squat down, clap their hands powerfully and extend their arms horizontally to the side to show that they are not hiding any weapons and intend to fight fairly.
The kensho – which represents the amount of prize money put up by the sponsors for the bout – is then presented to the crowd. While this is being done, the rikishi grab a fistful of salt and throw it into the ring. The salt is meant to purge evil spirits and purify the arena.
They again perform the high leg squat (shiko) in a position across from each other. They take two steps back and squat down with fists on the floor. After two repetitions, they return to their corners for more water, body wiping and salt throwing.
The rikishi put a lot of effort into this ritual as a means of psyching their opponent out and trying to gain the upper hand. After resetting for the third time they are ready to fight.
The ring – dohyo
The ring is made out of a special type of clay and stands around half a metre off the floor (below). It is approximately six metres long in each direction. The ring itself is a tribute to the Shinto temples of old where sumo wrestling began.
It’s a lifestyle, it’s a religion
Sumo wrestlers have one of the toughest and most regimented lives imaginable. You may only be trained by a former wrestler called an oyakata. These oyakata run wrestling stables (below) where all the wrestlers reside on a permanent basis. Referees, ushers and even hairdressers also live on these premises. Within these stables, there are different levels of wrestlers. You have to achieve a certain level in wrestling before you begin earning a salary. It is forbidden to change stables during your career. The stable you enter into as a junior will be the one you retire in.
Your day starts around 5am with training. These exercises vary from strength training to flexibility training (they are required to get their chests down on the floor whilst in a seated split – ouch). You may not talk to each other during training at all.
After three hours of training, the young wrestlers move on to making breakfast around 8am. This will be the first of only two meals in a day that sumo wrestlers eat – one at 11am and one at 6pm. You have to have your topknot (hairstyle) in place before you eat. After breakfast, there is free time which most wrestlers use for sleeping.
There will then be time with the hairdresser to ensure a beautiful topknot before the afternoon practice. The topknots hark back to the samurai. Your hair is a symbol of your strength and grows with you through your career, and is dramatically cut off when you retire.
Sumo wrestlers in public always wear kimonos and have a well-oiled topknot, and they are expected to be modest and soft-spoken.
Sumo wrestlers are not even allowed to drive. The wrestlers who make it into the top division are allowed to get married and move out of the stable dormitory, but there may only be around 100 of these in a country of over 900 sumo wrestlers. They are treated as celebrities and as they walk the streets, locals will make way for them and often ask for autographs. When a sumo wrestler retires, he works as an usher or security guard at sumo tournaments for a while as a show of humility.
– TEXT BY JESSICA FARAH
PHOTOS: INSTAGRAM, 69TH YOKOZUNA-SHO HAKUHO FACEBOOK, 123RF.COM
This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.