Sumo is a form of wrestling which goes back to the earliest historical records in Japanese history. In modern times, sumo has become a professional sport and is extremely popular, arenas for sumo are plentiful throughout Japan. Since it is native to Japan, it can perhaps better be described as the national sport rather than baseball, the only competitor for the title. Sumo combines some of the most public forms of Shinto ritual with the stupendous sight of wrestlers weighing up to 265 kilograms (around 580 pounds) apiece slamming into each other. At first glance, foreigners are frequently repulsed, but continued exposure converts many into fanatics.
The rules of sumo are majestically simple: one of the two wrestlers loses when he is forced out of the wrestling ring which measures about 15 feet in diameter or if anything other than his feet touch the playing surface. There are 70 ways of beating an opponent listed by the Sumo Association, including such common ones as uwatenage (overarm throw) and shitatenage (underarm throw), but few methods of attack are banned. Wrestlers may trip or slap with an open hand, but eye-gouging, hair-pulling, and hitting with a closed fist are not permitted and will result in forfeiting the bout. The wrestling ring is a raised clay platform with bales of straw half buried in the clay to outline the circular ring. Wrestlers wear only a thick belt which can be grasped by the opponent and used to lever the wearer out of the ring.
Sumo is a very hierarchical sport. The upper division wrestlers fight fifteen bouts in each of the six tournaments in a year. The lower divisions fight seven matches. Promotions result from winning records and demotions from the opposite. Each win beyond a barely winning record of 8 wins and 7 losses (or 4-3 for lower ranking wrestlers) propels a wrestler up the rankings more quickly. At the top of the ranks are the Grand Champions (Yokozuna) and there may be one to four or more of them depending on the ability of the current wrestlers. These wrestlers are usually expected to attain records of 13-2 or better, but they are never demoted. If they continually have poor records, they are expected to retire to maintain the reputation of the sport as well as their own fame. Below the Grand Champions come Junior Champions (Ozeki), Champions (Sekiwake), and Champions Second Class (Komusubi). Then come 26 wrestlers of Senior Wrestler (Maegashira) rank, arranged in order from one down to thirteen: fine rankings are made by dividing all wrestlers into East and West stables so that there is an East Number One Maegashira paired with a West Number One Maegashira and so on. These wrestlers make up the top division, the Makunouchi or Makuuchi. Below this group of about 36 wrestlers, are other divisions totaling somewhere around seven hundred wrestlers. Only wrestlers in the top two divisions (Makuuchi and Juryo) are paid a monthly salary, so the income of a wrestler is not assured until a consistent winning record propels him up the ranks.
Potential wrestlers come to the world of sumo as young as 13 and their training includes compulsory school education. Many recruits are from rural areas where people are said to be better accustomed to the physical hardships which sumo demands. Training is rough and included beating with sticks to drive home the fine points of wrestling (this is quickly becoming a thing of the past). In recent years, the level of physical abuse has eased, which, together with the popularity of the sport, has attracted larger numbers of youngsters to try out. Those who are successful enter a stable of wrestlers which is owned and trained by a retired successful wrestler called an Oyakata; there are around 30 stables. Junior wrestlers not only have to train and attend school, they must do the dirty work of the stable, including attending to the whims of the senior wrestlers who are constantly requiring massages, snacks or drinks. The organization and values of this sport are fundamentally feudal (and are often criticized for bringing forward into the modern age patterns of behavior which are outdated and undemocratic).
Tournaments are staged in all the odd months of the year with the January, May, and September tournaments in Tokyo, and the others distributed among Nagoya (July), Osaka (March) and Fukuoka (November). Aside from these major tournaments, special tours are organized in other parts of Japan and overseas in order to popularize the sport. It may take more than one visit to establish sumo’s popularity, but repeated visits to Hawaii have brought a string of successful and very heavy wrestlers to Japan. In January 1993, a Hawaiian fighting under the name Akebono was promoted to Yokozuna, the first time a non-Japanese achieved the top rank.
Matches of the upper divisions are televised daily on the nationally-owned Japan Broadcasting Corporation (or NHK as it is known in Japanese) so it can be very difficult to make an appointment between 4 and 6:30pm during a tournament. Given the simplicity of defeat and the small size of the wrestling ring, it is no surprise that matches are short. A long match is 1 or 2 minutes and the average duration is under thirty seconds. The sport has benefited greatly from slow-motion television which can repeat the furious action slow enough for the viewer to comprehend the result.
Sumo appears in the earliest histories of Japan, the Nihon Shoki and the Kojiki, and in early Shinto. By the end of the Heian period (794-1185), it was established as a court ritual for some three hundred years. In the later feudal periods, it was occasionally used as a method of resolving political disputes by sending forth sumo wrestlers to decide the issue; rather similar to the feudalistic European practice of using champions to decide the right of an issue by might. In the Edo period, sumo became a popular feature of urban culture among the merchant class and it emerged as a professional sport with rules and ceremonies which are closely related to today’s. By the early 20th century the various governing bodies of sumo finally joined to create a single professional organization for the sport.
Like any good spectator sport, sumo attracts much commentary and a lot of the commentary is based on coincidence and trivia. Who won the most tournaments (Taiho won 32)? Did you know that Chiyonofuji who has won the second most tournaments (31) defeated Takanohana and forced him to resign and that Chiyonofuji himself decided to resign immediately after being defeated by Takahanada who is Takanohana’s second son (the first fought under the name Wakahanada)? Did you know that Takahanada was promoted to Ozeki in January 1993 and took his father’s name, Takanohana, to celebrate? And that his brother was also promoted to Ozeki shortly thereafter, taking the name Wakanohana after his uncle, a famous Yokuzuna? Who was the first foreigner to win a tournament (Takamiyama or Jesse Kuaulua from Hawaii in July 1972) and who was the first to become a Yokozuna or grand champion (Akebono or Chad Rowan also from Hawaii in January 1993)? Who won the most victories in a row (Futabayama with 69 wins)?
The Sumo Association which governs sumo now has its own Web site in English. Many personal ones also exist.