Popular in the Land of the Rising Sun, sumo is a ritualistic Japanese wrestling sport. Here is the essential to remember so as not to seem overwhelmed by the subject.
Sumos have been around for several centuries but the first writings mentioning their exploits do not appear until 712 in the Kojiki (which literally means “Chronicle of ancient facts”). This is in fact a work relating to myths concerning gods and the formation of the islands forming Japan, the oldest work written in Chinese characters. A priori, sumo fights would probably have appeared nearly 1,500 years ago. They were accompanied by dances, drama and prayers for the harvest to be good. They were therefore entirely part of a religious ritual. In the 8th century, these fights were integrated into the ceremonies of the Imperial Court. At the time, almost anything was allowed. It is the influence of this nominal government that will allow rules to be set over time and the development of fighting techniques so that this sport closely resembles that which is practiced today. Since then, sumo combat has seen several waves of success, successively shifting from a military technique effective in immobilizing the adversary to entertainment for the upper class. It was in the 18th century that it took its current place as a national sport.
Profile of a rikishi
Wrestlers are called rikishi but each have a fighting name, usually their first name. Contrary to what one might think, there is no weight category. Each rikishi can therefore weigh between 70 and 280 kg, without any guarantee of having in front of him an opponent of equivalent size. However, the average weight noted for the wrestlers of the best divisions is around 150 kg, a weight allowing a priori a good compromise between stability and flexibility. Becoming a sumo is a special job and involves a strict lifestyle. The rikishi gets up every morning at 5 a.m. and eats chankonabe for lunch and dinner, a typically Japanese fondue with high calories whose recipe is not perfectly established. We put what there is in the kitchen. After each of the two daily meals (the one at noon, and the one served around 8 p.m.), the rikishi sleeps. This thus promotes weight gain and fat. Traditionally, during a fight, the rikishi wears only one tight garment around the waist and the crotch: the mawashi. Moreover, it is styled following the chonmage style which consists of straightening the hair with oil and keeping it in a bun. Another notable fact: a sumo man keeps his hair long until he retires. This is celebrated with a ceremony called danpatsu-shikhi during which the rikishi’s hair is cut, thus symbolically ending his career.
Principle of sport
Once a wrestler is in the arena (the “dohyō”), he must send his opponent out of the fighting circle materialized by straw bales firmly fixed to the ground. He can also win the duel by having his competitor touch the ground with a different part of the soles of the feet. You should also know that a sumo fight does not start without a little ritual. First, the two wrestlers raise their feet very high before hitting the ground with them. It is the “shiko” which theoretically makes it possible to drive out spirits. Then the two opponents throw a handful of salt on the combat zone, a gesture that would purify it. It is called “kiyome no shio”. Finally, they both drink “water by force” and then spit it out. The duel therefore does not begin until these gestures have been completed. It takes several minutes. It also happens that the ritual lasts longer than the fight itself. In total, 82 holds are allowed to win the duel. The public has only to admire because if the sport can seem only violent, it is also a spectacle which appeals to more than one. From murderous looks to thigh slapping, everything is staged to impress the other fighter. And it also works on the public side …
And you, can you now say “watashi wa supotsuga suki desu” (I love sports)?
Photo 1: David Gsteadman
Photo 2: psl_mon