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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Sumo Japan's National Sport

Sumo is Japan’s national sport and is one of the most popular spectator sports in Japan. Sumo originated from ancient Shinto religious rites to ensure good harvests. It is believed to be at least 1500 years old. Sumo wrestlers are known as rikishi and compete in a 4.55 diameter ring called a dohyou (土俵). The ring is made of rice straw bales topped by a platform made with clay mixed with sand. A new dohyou is built for each tournament.

The rules to sumo are quite simple but it’s the rituals surrounding the sport that most find complicated. In many ways the rituals are just as important as the match itself. The rules are the wrestler tries to either push his opponent out of the ring, or unbalance him so that some part of his body other than the soles of his feet touch the ground. Rikishi make distance attacks by using open handed blows, slaps, leg sweeps as well as wrestling with a grip on each other’s belts.

A key concept in sumo is kokyu or coordination of breath and movement. The sumo match begins when both rikishi believe they have synchronized their breathing. The concept of kokyu is considered to be uniquely Japanese.

Professional sumo is run by the Japan Sumo Association and there are no weight classes in sumo. Sumo wrestlers start young and at the age of around 15 years old traditionally join one of the training stables (heya) of wrestlers. The stables are usually run by retired wrestlers (oyakata) and the young wrestlers work their way up through the ranks. The wrestlers are required to live in a communal setting where all aspects of their daily lives are dictated by strict tradition.

The sumo rankings are based on a strict hierarchy that dates back to the Edo period. The wrestlers are promoted or demoted according to their performance through-out the six official tournaments held during the year. There are six divisions in sumo with the top division (makuuchi) receiving the most attention. The majority of wrestlers are maegashira and are numbered from one (top) down to about sixteen or seventeen. In each rank there are two wrestlers with the east designated a higher rank over the west. For Example, #1 east, #1 west, #2 east, #2 west, etc. Above maegashira are three champion or titleholder ranks komusubi, sekiwake, and ozeki. These are not numbered and are in ascending order. At the top is the pinnacle of yokozuna or Grand Champion. It is very difficult to become a yokozuna and the criteria is very strict. An ozeki must win consecutive tournaments or have many strong performances to even be considered for promotion to yokozuna. It is possible for more than one wrestler to hold the rank of yokozuna at the same time.

Sumo today still retains traces of its Shinto past with many ancient traditions still followed. This includes the shrine like roof that hangs over the ring and the gyoji (referee) who still wears a dagger. It is said that the dagger was to allow him to commit ritual suicide (seppuku) if he made a bad referring decision. Some of the pre-game rituals include the wrestlers throwing salt into the dohyou to purify the ring, and stomping his legs and clapping his hands to drive away evil spirits from the dohyou.

Sumo wrestlers are huge in size and achieve this bulk by eating large quantities of a fattening stew called chanko-nabe.

There are six grand sumo tournaments annually in Japan with each lasting 15 days. The tournaments are held in January, May and September in Tokyo, in March in Osaka, in July in Nagoya and in November in Fukuoka.

Each tournament starts on the Sunday closest to the 10th of the month. The top ranking wrestlers appear in the late afternoon, so this is usually the most crowded time. If you want to beat the crowds arrive early and watch the lower ranking wrestlers in the morning.

If you are in Japan when there are no tournaments on, but still want to see a sumo bout, visit one of the sumo stables to watch training.

The Grand Sumo Tournament Schedule for 2013


12 comments:

  1. So interesting! Always wanted to go there but I heard tickets are so expensive.

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    1. Thanks Daphne, It is very interesting and I have been enjoying the current Tokyo tournament on TV. The tickets can be expensive, especially for the seats close to the action. A good tip is to try and organize a trip to see the wrestlers train, which is free.

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  2. I love sumo! I've been hooked ever since I went to watch my first live basho in July 2011. At one point I even had the privilege of meeting Kissenosato, Takanoyama and Takayasu in person. Yeey, lucky me! If you like, you can see pics on my blog: http://thejapans.wordpress.com/2012/07/08/its-sumo-time/

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    1. Thanks TheJapans, I'm also a huge fan, excuse the pun. I saw my first tournament way back in the 90s in Melbourne of all places with legends like Akebono, Musashimaru and Konishiki. I will check out your pictures :)

      John

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  3. Wonderful to read they still hold the Shinto past in favor and carry on with ancient traditions.

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    1. Thanks AS, That's one of the many things I love about Japan, they still hold the customs of the past even in today's modern society :)

      John

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  4. Sumo is always interesting to watch even small Sumo can be more powerful than a bigger one.Nowadays all strong one are foreigner.It is sad that sumo's popularity has changed among young Japanese and most of them turn to baseball.

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    1. Thanks Dar, There has been many a time I've watched a match with a bigger sumo against the smaller one and speed rather than strength wins out in the end. Sumo still has many fans but not too sure about the younger generation in Japan.

      John

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  5. Quite the detailed post! We do a version of sumo in Okinawa but with a lot less of the rituals (though still more than other sports). On my previous island though, we had both types of sumo since it was originally settled by people from Hachijo instead of Okinawa. I can tell you that not all sumo practitioners are fat (though professionals are - they have a lot of strenght underneath). Our local yokuzuna often beat out much larger guys! It's definitely a tough sport. I injured my knee during my first practice (blew up to twice its normal size!)

    Thanks for sharing this great look at the more formal side of things!

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    1. Thanks Benjamin, I enjoy my sumo and although no expert in the finer details enjoy what I know about the sport. I have never tried it myself, but would imagine that it is quite challenging and hard on the body.

      John

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  6. Hey, could you also share some tips, where in Tokyo to book tickets for training? I will travel to japan in September and would like to see that!

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    1. Thanks Anon, Try and contact one of the beya (sumo stables) the day before you want to go. It's best to see an early morning training session. Sessions start as early as 6 am and usually finish by 8 or 9 am. Here is a list of the beya (sumo stables) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_sumo_beya#Active_stables

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