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Sumo: A foreign sport, or a sport for foreigners?

By: Helen Betts

Date Posted: 2002-01-17

Everybody’s heard of sumo, right? Japan’s national sport, full of ceremony and ritual, played by enormous guys in things that look like loincloths and sporting feudal hairstyles, short on action but long on waiting – an altogether Japanese thing. Or is it? There’s Sumo World, a bi-monthly, English-language magazine dedicated to the sport; numerous sumo Web sites based in the States; broadcasting in English of daily sumo tournaments on Japanese television; addicted “gaijin” who monopolize conversations by excitedly talking about their particular favorites and the results of the last day’s bouts; and quite a few wrestlers who look anything but Japanese. So, what is it about sumo that seems to captivate foreigners?

For history buffs, perhaps it’s sumo’s illustrious past that stretches back at least 2,500 years, when legend has it that two gods grappled on the shores of the Japan Sea. While a lack of written records makes it impossible to ascertain exactly when sumo began in Japan, ancient rock paintings indicate that its origins extend to prehistoric times, when it was performed to pray for a bountiful harvest at agricultural festivals.

Maybe it’s the old customs synonymous with sumo but incongruous with modern-day life that attract foreigners. Sumo rikishi (wrestlers) forgo modern clothes in favor of the traditional kimono or yukata worn during Japan's feudal period. The wrestlers never sport contemporary hairstyles: Their locks are allowed to grow well past their shoulders and are put into a mage, or topknot, harking back to the 18th century and held in place by an aromatic wax called binsuke, which leaves an unmistakable and exotic fragrance in the wake of every passing rikishi. Boys normally opt for sumo at an early age and leave home to move into a sumo-beya, a dormitory-like “stable” where the trainees and veterans literally eat, breathe and sleep sumo, under the care of an oyakata, or master, himself retired from the upper ranks of the sport.

Within this sumo-beya, a strong hierarchy is firmly entrenched, and the younger, lower-ranked boys serve as tsukebito, or attendants, for their top-division elders. Following a strenuous morning practice, the wrestlers bathe and sit down for their daily meal of chanko-nabe, a protein-rich stew that is the mainstay of the sumo diet, after which they nap for several hours, enabling them to more easily put on weight and add bulk to their already substantial frames. Younger rikishi receive no salary -- it's only when they reach higher divisions that they become paid wrestlers -- and rely solely on their oyakata for every necessity in life. The lower-ranked men are also forbidden to marry, partially due to a lack of funds but also to allow them to more fully master their art. This in no way, however, detracts from a wrestler's popularity with the opposite sex: Sumo rikishi are among the most sought-after young men in Japan, often eclipsing even the status of pop and movie stars.

At some point after entering the sumo world, young novices assume a new "fighting" name (shikona) chosen for them by their elders. The stronger the name is, the better for the rikishi, and thus the preponderance of shikona containing the Japanese characters for such things as mountains, seas, islands, dragons and strength. Henry Armstrong Miller, an African-American/Japanese currently competing in one of the upper divisions, received the very interesting shikona of “Sentoryu,” which means “Battle Dragon” but is also a play on the Japanese pronunciation of his hometown, St. Louis (Sento Ruisu).

Not into the feudal traditions of sumo? Perhaps it’s the simplicity of the rules of play that will spark your interest. The basics underlying sumo are quite simple: Two men are paired against each other without regard for height, weight or technical ability. Each struggles to defeat his opponent by forcing him out of the ring or by causing any part of his body, other than the soles of his feet, to touch the ground. This is accomplished by means of one of 70 kimarite (techniques) officially sanctioned by the Japan Sumo Association. The rikishi wear no pads, gloves or helmets -- nothing, in fact, except a seven-meter length of colorful silk mawashi, which passes between the legs, encircles the waist and is tied in the back.

Prohibited moves are minimal as compared to other sports -- using fists in any way or fingers pointed towards the eyes, for example. Other infractions that can result in a lost bout include intentionally grabbing an opponent's topknot or throat, slapping his ears with the palms of both hands, kicking him anywhere but in the legs, bending his fingers back, punching him in the solar plexus, squeezing him from the front in an overwhelming bear hug or taking hold of that portion of the silk belt covering his loins.

Promotion in sumo is based strictly on win-and-loss records, and if a young man works hard and becomes skilled in competition, then and only then is he able to move up the ranking list. Opponents are decided upon by a committee that looks at the current standings and pairs men up, regardless of size -- you can see a 600-pound behemoth fighting and being beaten by a “small” rikishi weighing a mere 200 pounds.

Bouts are staged on a raised clay platform studded with rice straw bales in the form of a circle. A new dohyo is constructed for every tournament, using truckloads of fresh clay brought in from the countryside. Prior to the start of the contest, it is blessed in a Shinto-style ceremony performed by the gyoji (referees), who make offerings of food and sake to bring good luck to the competing participants. As the dohyo is considered to be "sacred," women are never allowed to stand on it, for any reason, including the awarding of prizes by female officials.

Or maybe it’s the lavish ritual during the tournaments that catches the eye of non-Japanese. Before the day's bouts begin, the audience is treated to a spectacular dohyo-iri (ring-entering ceremony) in which the rikishi file into the ring in rank order. Dressed in lavishly decorated (and exorbitantly expensive) kesho-mawashi (silk aprons), they form a circle, clap their hands for purification, raise their aprons slightly to drive demons away, throw up their arms to prove that they carry no weapons and leave in the same order as they entered. Following this display, the grand champions perform their own elaborate dohyo-iri, complete with sword-bearer and dew-sweeper. It is to this elite and privileged group that Hawaiians Musashimaru and Akebono were elevated, the first foreigners ever to receive such an honor.

There are six basho (tournaments) a year in January, March, May, July, September and November. Each tournament lasts 15 days, during which each rikishi fights one match per day. The lower-ranked wrestlers vie earlier in the day, with the top division making their entrance later on. Rikishi from the same stable are never allowed to fight each other, except in the case of a tournament playoff.

Whatever your interests, you are sure to find something that catches your fancy in sumo. The Hatsu Basho is currently being held in Tokyo and can be viewed every day on NHK from 4:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. The English-language broadcast is aired on NHK’s BS1 satellite station during the same hours. So why not tune in and enjoy the spectacle? You may find yourself pleasantly addicted to this most Japanese of sports.

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