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Since 1958, six Grand Sumo tournaments (honbasho) have been held 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 wrestlers compete in seven bouts, about one every two days.
Each day is structured so that the highest-ranked wrestlers (rikishi) compete at the end of the day. Thus, wrestling starts in the morning with the rikishi in the lowest division and ends at around six o’clock in the evening with bouts involving the yokozuna. The wrestler who wins the most matches over the 15 days wins the tournament championship for his division. If two wrestlers are tied for the top, they wrestle each other, and the winner takes the title.
The routine the rikishi go through before they get down to business illustrates sumo’s strong religious roots. First, they clap their hands together to attract the attention of the gods, just as the devout do when they visit a Shinto shrine. Next, they turn their hands to the skies, palms up, to prove that they are carrying no weapons. The final step is the ritual that most people visualize when they think of sumo – the impressive leg lifts and stamping. This is meant to squash any evil spirits that might be lurking in the ring.
Before each bout the rikishi sprinkles salt around to purify the ring (dohyo) and protect the fighters against injury.
A sumo match doesn’t start until both wrestlers have placed both hands on the ground at the same time. This leads to quite a lot of carrying on while each wrestler tries to psyche the other out, pretending to put his hand down and then getting back up again. Once they finally do begin, it is very rare for sumo bouts to last longer than a few seconds – although occasionally they can up to four minutes. This means that the action is very fast-paced and exciting. A match ends when one of the wrestlers is either thrown out of the ring, or if any part of his body apart from the soles of his feet touches the ground.
Interestingly, the match can also end if one of the wrestlers loses his mawashi, or loincloth. It’s made of a huge piece of silk around 10 yards long and two feet wide and folding it is quite a skill. The mawashi is a vital piece of equipment since many of sumo’s maneuvers involve grabbing hold of the silk band. If one of the wrestlers loses his mawashi the de-loinclothed wrestler is disqualified. More interestingly still, this rule was only adopted after Japan began adopting European (read: prudish) attitudes toward nudity. This outcome is very rare in sumo, but a wardrobe malfunction did occur during a match in May 2000, when the unfortunate wrestler Asanokiri exposed himself and was disqualified immediately.
To a novice sumo spectator, the bouts can sometimes look like a playground scuffle, but in fact, there are more than 80 winning tricks that a wrestler can perform during a bout. And there are plenty of things you can’t do – striking with fists, choking, kicking in the stomach or chest and hair pulling are all no-nos. Oh, and you can’t grab on to the band covering the, um, sensitive region.
As for the hairstyle, like most aspects of sumo, it has historical origins and comes from styles fashionable in Japan’s Edo period (1600-1868). As well as being traditional, the topknot is supposed to offer some protection to the wrestlers’ heads should they suffer a bad fall
There are a couple of ways to win a bout. Most people think you have to push your opponent out of the dohyo or make him fall on the floor in order to win, but that’s not quite true. You would win either of those ways, but the rules are strict – if one toe goes out of the ring you will be declared the loser. Likewise, if you touch the floor with any part of the body other than the soles of the feet your opponent will emerge victorious.
At the end of the tournament, the rikishi with the best win-loss record takes home the trophy.
Sumo Fun Facts
Sumo goes back about 1,500 years. From the very beginning it was entwined with Shinto ritual, when it was performed at shrines to ensure a bountiful harvest and to honour the spirits – known as kami.
Sumo is still very closely associated with its religious origins, and Shinto principles continue to govern the everyday life of today’s sumo wrestlers. Each of the ring-entering ceremonies is a Shinto purification ritual, and every newly promoted yokozuna (the highest rank in sumo) performs his first ring-entering ceremony at the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo. The canopy that hangs over the ring is modelled after the roof of a Shinto shrine, indicating that the ring itself is a holy place.
It sounds absurd, but this is actually true. After a serious car accident involving a sumo wrestler, the Sumo Association banned wrestlers from driving their own cars.
In accordance with the strict rules governing their lives, sumo wrestlers aren’t even allowed to choose their own clothes. As soon as they join a stable they are expected to grow their hair in order to form a topknot, or chonmage, similar to the samurai hairstyles of the Edo Period. They are expected to wear this hairstyle and traditional dress at all times when out in public – which means that sumo wrestlers are pretty easy to spot on the subway! (That and the fact that they’re easily ten times the size of anyone else).
Not only must they wear traditional dress, but the specifics of that dress is also closely controlled. The less experienced wrestlers must wear lower-quality, thin yukata (a cotton robe) and geta (wooden sandals) even in winter. Higher ranked wrestlers can wear increasingly swanky robes and even get to choose their own!
Sumo stables were once allowed to recruit as many foreign wrestlers as they like. Then, after one stable recruited six Mongolians at once, there was a mass gaijin-induced panic, and today stables are only allowed to have one foreign wrestler (defined as somebody born outside Japan) at any one time.
These foreign wrestlers are expected to speak Japanese and must be well-versed in Japanese culture – meaning that foreign sumo face all the same challenges that Japanese sumo do, but with the added anxiety of having to learn to live and breathe like a Japanese.
Watch the National Geographic Sumo Video
Sumo life is really hard
The sumobeya, or ‘stable’, is where the wrestlers live, eat, train and sleep throughout their career – unless they get married, in which case they are allowed to live in an independent dwelling. An average stable will contain around 15 wrestlers and is arranged according to a strict hierarchy.
Life is hardest for the lower ranked wrestlers, who are expected to get up earliest and cook, clean, serve food and generally wait on the higher ranked wrestlers. They even have to bathe last after training and get last pick at dinner time – after their more senior peers have eaten the best food.
If this sounds hard, it gets even harder. It is a fact of sumo life that the younger, inexperienced wrestlers endure systematic hazing and physical punishment in order to toughen them up. This is part and parcel of sumo culture and something that young wrestlers know to expect, but it can sometimes go too far – resulting in injury and very rare cases even in death.
The last night of a sumo tournament is called the ‘pleasure of a thousand autumns’
This rather poetic epithet echoes the words of 14th-15th century playwright Zeami Motokiyo, and is meant to convey the excitement of the decisive bouts and the celebration of the victor – who receives all kinds of elaborate prizes for his success. And a fat wad of cash, of course.
Sumo wrestlers are not allowed to behave how they like
In addition to the strict routine governing their training schedule, sumo wrestlers are even expected to control their demeanor and personality in public. Rules delineate that when out and about, wrestlers must be self-effacing and softly spoken, and during tournaments they should refrain from showing joy at winning or disappointment at losing.
Women can’t be sumo wrestlers
It is a sad fact that men’s sports are almost always more popular than women’s (except perhaps beach volleyball) – but there aren’t many sports from which women are actually forbidden from participating. Sumo, however, is one of them – the Sumo Association doesn’t even allow women to enter the sumo ring, as it is considered a violation of the purity of the ring.
This caused a bit of an issue when there was a female Governor of Osaka – Fusae Ohta, governor from 2000 – 2008. The Governor traditionally presents the Governor’s Prize in the ring at the end of the tournament, but obviously this is a bit tricky when the Governor is banned from the ring. Ohta wasn’t all too impressed by this ruling, and she repeatedly challenged the Sumo Association to allow her to fulfil her traditional role as Governor. She was repeatedly turned down until she eventually stepped down from office.
It wasn’t always the case that sumo was so hostile to women, however, and as early as the 18th century there was a form of female sumo commonly performed in some areas of Japan. Most of the time this was just a form of entertainment, but in some areas of Japan female sumo did have a serious role in Shinto rituals. Today it is prohibited from taking place in anything but an amateur setting.
In fact, it was only very recently in the history of sumo that the wrestlers became as fat they are now famous for. Since there are no weight divisions in professional sumo, every wrestler basically just wants to get as big as humanly possible so that he can use his weight in the ring. It wasn’t until well into the twentieth century that the modern image of the whale-like sumo wrestler really emerged – with earlier wrestlers typically much more wiry and muscular.
If you’ve ever wondered just how modern sumo get so fat, it’s all thanks to something called chanko nabe. This is a special kind of (delicious) hotpot packed with meat, veggies and noodles that is specifically associated with sumo wrestlers in Japan. This alone doesn’t do the trick – wrestlers have a special routine of exercising on an empty stomach and sleeping after eating to help turn the calories they consume (purportedly up to 10,000 per day) into bulk.
Unfortunately, this increase in weight, combined with a high consumption of alcohol, means that modern sumo wrestlers’ life expectancy is more than ten years shorter than that of the average Japanese male.
Sumo referees, or gyoji, are as interesting as the wrestlers. Like the wrestlers, they enter the world of sumo at a young age (about sixteen) and remain in their profession until they retire. The traditional clothing they wear in the ring is strictly graded according to rank, and as they progress up the ranks they earn honorific names by which they become known. A gyōji’s ranking can be determined by the color of the tassel on his wooden war fan, known as gunbai. The top ranking tate-gyōji have a purple or purple and white tassel. They are the only referees who can officiate a bout involving a yokozuna. Higher ranking gyōji also wear Japanese split toe socks (tabi) and straw sandals (zōri), while lower ranked gyōji are barefoot. The top ranked gyoji (the equivalent of yokozuna for wrestlers) takes the name Kimura Shonosuke but, unlike the rank of yokozuna, it can only be held by one person at any one time.
Perhaps most interestingly, the gyoji also carries a sword, or tanto, of about six to twelve inches in length. The significance of the sword is to show that the gyoji understands the seriousness of the decisions he has to make – and is prepared to commit seppuku (ritual suicide by disembowelment) if he makes a bad decision!
In 1994, the Japanese Sumo Association required that all sumo wrestlers be a minimum 173 cm (5 feet 8 inches) in height. This prompted 16-year-old Takeji Harada of Japan (who had failed six previous eligibility tests) to have four separate cosmetic surgeries over a period of 12 months to add an extra 15 cm (6 inches) of silicone to his scalp, which created a large, protruding bulge on his head. In response to this, the Japanese Sumo Association stated that they would no longer accept aspiring wrestlers who surgically enhanced their height, citing health concerns.