Sure, baseball is popular, but sumo remains the traditional national sport of Japan. Descended from religious rituals performed at village Shinto shrines, sumo today is a highly competitive sport practiced by skilled and very big athletes.
Watch the bouts on Japanese television. Grand sumo tournaments are held six times a year – in Tokyo in January, May and September. Tournaments last fifteen days. At 4pm, an elaborate ceremony begins to bring the upper division (makuuchi) wrestlers to the ring. They’ll be decked out in colorful, heavily embroidered aprons. If there are grand champions (yokozuna) participating, they enter the ring in individual ceremonies.
Sumo is wrestling – accompanied by strict ritual. The upper-ranked wrestlers are enormous men. They weigh from 300 to 550 pounds. Do not be fooled by the huge stomachs: These men are superb athletes, very strong and surprisingly agile. Bouts take place on the dohyo, a raised platform of stamped earth. Embedded in the dohyo are bundles of rice straw forming a circle approximately 15 feet in diameter. The wrestlers face off several times in the center of the dohyo. After a bit more ritual, the referee gives the start signal and they charge at each other. Matches last from a few seconds to almost three minutes, but the average match is over in less than 30 seconds. The loser is the first wrestler who touches the earth with anything except the soles of his feet or who touches the earth outside the circle.
While the wrestling match itself is worth watching, it is the accompanying ritual which makes sumo uniquely Japanese. The referee’s garb is based on the dress of a Shinto priest, and the dohyo is considered sacred ground. Only wrestlers and officials may step on it and no one else may even touch it during the tournament. In professional sumo, women are prohibited from having any contact with the dohyo. The wrestlers enter the ring and perform the same ceremonies as those used when entering temple grounds – purifying the mouth with a sip of water, clapping hands to alert the gods to your presence and bowing respectfully.
There are no free agents in sumo. Each wrestler belongs to a heya, or stable, and wrestlers stay with one stable their entire career. Despite high real estate prices, some stables are still located close to the arena in Tokyo, near the the Ryoguko Station on the JR Sobu Line. If you go to the area, particularly when there is no tourney in progress, you can wander the streets around the stables and peek inside to watch the daily practice sessions.
Life in sumo is ruled by a strict hierarchy. Winners move up, losers are demoted and faltering grand champions usually retire. Young men enter the stable at the lowest rank. They have to do the cooking and cleaning. They wear the simplest cotton kimonos, wait on their superiors and do not eat until everyone else is finished. They ride the train to tournaments, with the masses. Along with this near-servitude, they must endure a demanding training regimen. Many drop out, but those who stay and win are promoted and have lower-ranking wrestlers assigned to serve them.
The upper division, makuuchi, has five ranks and the next lower division, juryo, has one rank. In makuuchi, the highest rank is yokozuna, or grand champion. The next lower rank is the ozeki, then sekiwake, komusubi and mae-gashira.
Upon entering sumo, a wrestler adopts a professional name – his shikona. Wrestlers are self-supporting until they reach juryo and then the Sumo Association pays them salaries. Because they spend all their time in the stable, unsalaried wrestlers depend mainly on family support.
Before a Bout
Makuuchi division wrestlers enter the ring at 4pm each day. They face inward, raise their arms, clap hands in unison, raise their aprons a couple of inches, then leave the ring the same way they entered. These motions simulate those used upon entering a temple grounds: raising the arms shows you have no concealed weapons, clapping hands signifies spirits and bodies are purified, and hitching up the apron frightens away evil spirits as well as signifying a wrestler’s intention to win the match. Before the bout, the referee enters the ring as does a minor official who announces in falsetto the names of the two wrestlers. When the wrestlers step onto the dohyo, the face each other, stamp their feet, slap themselves on the thighs, raise their arms and clap before moving to their respective corners. Each wrestler squats and is given a dipper of water (chikara mizu: water of strength); he rinses, spits and wipes his mouth with a small napkin (chikara gami – strength paper). Each wrestler then takes a handful of salt and tosses it into the ring. The two wrestlers then enter the ring, bend down to the starting position, glare at each other, and then repeat the process of stamping feet and tossing salt. The purpose of this ritual is to purify the ring, frighten away evil spirits and purify the wrestlers.
After several more face-offs, the referee signals that the bout is to begin. A wrestler must touch the ground with both hands before charging, and the touch can be lightening fast. The wrestlers charge and grapple. Of the 48 sumo techniques to throw an opponent, many involve getting a grip on the opponent’s mawashi (the diaper-like sash which is the only garment worn while wrestling) and throwing him. Occasionally you will see one wrestler slap another and stun him – the slappee drops to the dohhyo, dazed for an instant. That slap would probably break the neck of a normal person.
Kicking, pulling hair and hitting with a closed fist are prohibited. When one wrestler touches the ground or is forced out of the ring, the bout is over. The wrestlers bow to each other, the loser departs and the referee announces the winner’s name. Sometimes sponsors award gifts of money or merchandise to the winner, so you may see the referee present the winner with a stack of envelopes containing cash and prizes.
Seeing Sumo in Person
Watch carefully during the preliminary rituals and you will see the personalities of the wrestlers. Some shake a little salt around their feet, others toss a handful into the ring. Some wrestlers taste the salt from their fingers. Some wrestlers glare and instigate a staring match, to which the crowd responds with cheers. From time to time, both wrestlers hit the ground and a decision is too close to call. At this point, you will see the five judges – each former wrestlers, dressed in formal black and gray kimonos, seated stoically around the edge of the ring – rise from their seats, enter the dohyo, and talk it over. Actually, the chief judge is wired for communication with a booth where other officials study a videotaped replay to determine the winner. If the outcome is too close to call, it all begins again, starting with the salt-tossing, stamping, clapping and glaring.
You can get a taste for sumo on TV, but only in person can you appreciate the size and speed of the wrestlers and the richness of the pageantry.
Tickets to the 15-day sumo tournaments are difficult to obtain. General Admission tickets, the cheapest category, go on sale at 8am at the arena for that day’s matches. It’s one ticket per person, so if four of you want to watch, all four must stand in line and each person must buy his or her own ticket. Tickets run about ¥2,100 (2011 tournament). For a bit more money you can buy an arena ticket in advance. One way is through the Pia ticket service. The help desk at the Yujo Center can start the process for you.
Your ticket is for a numbered seat which is yours all day. Once inside the entrance gate, do not leave the arena grounds because you can’t come back in. Tickets are easier to get early in the tourney. I recommend arriving at the arena around 8am, Monday through Friday of the first week of the tournament. The Tokyo tournaments are the second and third full weeks in January, May and September at the Kuramae Kokugikan Hall. The Kokugikan arena is immediately beside the Ryogoku Station on the JR Sobu Line. Wear comfortable clothes and shoes. You’ll be in an upper row, so bring your binoculars. Food and drink are permitted in the arena. You can buy food there but if bentos are not your fare, bring lunch and snacks.
On the Web: www.sumo.or.jp/eng
DIRECTIONS: Take the Ome Line from Fussa Station to Tachikawa. Transfer to the Chuo Line. Ride it to Ochanomizu. This should take about an hour. At Ochanomizu, change to the Sobu Chuo Line headed for Akihabara. At Ryogoku Station, when you get off the train, look straight ahead and you will see the sumo arena. Turn left (the direction from which the train came), walk to the end of the platform and take the steps down. As you near the arena, you will see tall colorful banners on bamboo poles. Just beyond them, on the right, is the front entrance. The ticket booths are to the right and left of the entrance gates.
For a thorough study, I recommend Sumo From Rite to Sport by P. L. Cuyler. This book also has a map showing the locations of stables near the arena where you can watch practice sessions. To prepare yourself, buy a copy of “Sumo World.” Published in English by foreign sumo enthusiasts, this magazine comes out 10 days before each tourney. It usually shows up on Yokota three to five days before a tourney. Each issue features results, predictions and features on wrestlers, techniques and sumo history. The program for the upcoming tourney is also printed, with names, ranks, photos, height, weight, age, and records of makuuchi and juryo division wrestlers. Joe Schlatter. Liz Ruskin updated, 2010