Friday, May 18, 2012

Day 18: Sumo Wrestling Explained

Embarrassingly, all I knew about sumo wrestling is that it is this national sport of Japan, my parents watch it on TV, and I remember my dad listening to it on the radio when he drives...which doesn't exactly sustain your interest if you don't know what's going on.  Just imagine listening to NASCAR on the radio.  It's not the same as being there, that's for sure.  So, to better understand and appreciate this ancient sport of sumo, we weren't going to miss this opportunity to go see it for ourselves.  There's only six 15-day tournaments per year, and 3 of them are held outside of Tokyo so it's sheer luck that the Grand Sumo Tournament was going on during our visit.  

Much of the following information can be found through the literature handed out at the tournament, and also through the Japan Sumo Association website: The Beginner's Guide to Sumo.

According to Japanese legend, the very origin of the Japanese race depended on the outcome of a sumo match between the gods.   Apart from the legend, sumo is an ancient sport dating back at least 1500 years where it was a religious ritual dedicated to the gods with prayers for a bountiful harvest.  In the 8th century, sumo wrestling festivals became part of the Imperial Court in Nara, but when a military dictatorship was established in Kamakura, sumo was used militarily.  After peace was restored under the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1603, sumo groups were organized as entertainment and became the national sport of Japan.

The sumo wrestlers belong to a sumo stable, or sumo-beya, where they train and live under the oyakata or stable master (coach).  Currently there are approximately 49 stables.  The wrestler is expected to remain in the same heya until the end of their career.  According to my dad, there are quite a few heyas in the Suginami Ward of Tokyo where we live.

At the Kokugikan, Tokyo. Lower ranked sumo wrestlers stand around the arena.

View of arena, Kokugikan.

The sumo 'stage' is an elevated square made from a special kind of clay and the 15-foot diameter sumo ring, or dohyo, is marked by straw rice bags.  The hard clay surface is covered by a thin later of sand.  A Shinto shrine roof is suspended over the top of the dohyo by cables.

There is a lot of ceremony surrounding a sumo event, but the rules are quite simple.  The wrestler, or rikishi, who touches the ground with any part of his body (e.g. knee, tip of his finger, hair), or puts his toes or heel over the straw circle, loses.  There are no weight classes or limits.  Matches are arranged solely based on prior record and ability so it is possible for a smaller, short guy to be matched with a much larger, tall wrestler.  

According to the Japan Sumo Association (Nikon Sumo Kyokai), there are 800 rikishis of various ranks.  After each tournament, the rankings are revised based upon their performance over the past 15-days.  There are six group rankings.  Maku-uchi group being the  upper division, containing the top 42 rishikis (wrestlers).  The remainder are ranked in the other 5 groups: juryo, makushita, san-dan-me, jo-ni-dan, and jo-no-kuchi.  We noticed quite a few foreign wrestlers from eastern Europe in this upper division.  

One of the maku-uchi division matches.

The top 5 positions within the maku-uchi division are: Yokozuna, Ozeki, Sekiware, Komusubi, and Maegashira.  The Yokozuna top-dog position is earned by winning 2 consecutive tournaments in the Ozeki position, but also proving oneself capable of consistent wins, as well as a person of character worthy of the position, as determined by the Association.  This position is unique in that once a rikishi receives this title, he can never be demoted, even if he cannot defend his record.  Instead, if he continues with a losing streak, he is expected to retire. There have only been 69 Yokozunas in the past 300 years, so they hold on to their title for quite some time.

Photo with a life-size cut out of the current Yokozuna, Hakuho. Also, notice the massive ceremonial braided hemp rope weighing 25 to 35 pounds.

The rikishi's loincloth is called a mawashi. It is made of heavy silk 10 yards long by 2 feet wide.  There are multiple maneuvers and winning strategies by the way a rikishi grips the opponent's mawashi.  One of my dad's favorite sumo wrestler is small-framed but has won many matches with his superior strategy of throwing opponents out of the ring using the mawashi.  During the ceremonies, the rikishis wear kesho-mawashi, or ceremonial aprons made of silk and embroidered with various designs - usually logos of sponsoring organizations.  One wrestler had a kesho-mawashi with Hello Kitty on it! The aprons cost around $5000 each. 

A Hello Kitty kesho-mawashi.

During the 15-day tournament that occurs 6 times a year, each of the rishiki in the top 3 divisions (maku-uchi, juryo, makushita) wrestle once each day. These are the salaried, professional wrestlers.  Matches are determined by their previous day's record, saving the best for last.  

Advertisement of the sponsors that donate prize money for some of the more important bouts. Winner of that particular match wins the prize money.

For each of the division matches, it begins with a ceremonial entrance where the rikishis stand on stage in a circle, facing the crowd in their ceremonial aprons.  Then, for the maku-uchi division matches, the Yokozuna enters the ring to perform a cleansing ritual.  After all the matches are completed for the day, a bow dance ceremony closes the day's events.  

Ceremonial entrance of the maku-uchi division rikishi.

Overall, this was an amazing experience! We recommend attending an event. We saw quite a few foreigners in the audience as well. Our seats in the upper tier were approximately $100/seat. The lower tiers, closer to the dohyo are not seats but sections of tatami mats and the audience sits on traditional zabuton cushions, which can get rather uncomfortable for most westerners not used to sitting on the floor for an extended time. Tickets can be purchased in English at