When one speaks of sumo, images of giants clad in nothing but loincloths immediately come to mind. Almost instantly one thinks of Japan, too. Known all over the world, sumo wrestling is indeed Japan’s national sport. Yet, many do not know much about the sport.
As a matter of fact, sumo wrestling was part of the Shinto religion during ancient Japan. It was performed as a ritual dance – to entertain Shinto gods or to petition the gods for a bountiful harvest. Moreover, some rituals associated with Shintoism are still practiced today in sumo wrestling. An example of this is the salt purification ritual whereby a sumo wrestler throws salt before the start of the match to purify the ring.
But during its early years sumo combat was quite far from what we see today. Matches were rough and the rules were lax. Along with wrestling, the player could employ boxing too.
When sumo became a permanent part of ceremonies at the Imperial Court during the Nara period (AD 710-794), rules were gradually laid out and techniques were refined. Wrestling festivals were held annually and one would see the sumo champion joining in on the singing and dancing. But aside from entertainment purposes, sumo wrestling also became a training tool to enhance the efficiency of fighting men, especially during the feudal period of Japan. By the Edo period (1603-1868), professional sumo began. Sumo groups were organized and, in time, sumo became recognized as Japan’s national sport. The ring, or dohyō, also came into being during this period.
The goal of the game is to push the opponent out of the ring or to force him to touch any part of his body, except of course for the soles of his feet, to the ground first. It is only logical that having great body mass is a winning factor in sumo. Definitely, sumo wrestling is a battle of strength. Interestingly, the loser is called shini-tai or “dead body”. The sumo grand champion is called yokozuna, the highest title a sumo wrestler could ever attain.
The Japan Sumo Association is the official organizer for the sport. It is run by former sumo wrestlers who are the only ones with the right to train new wrestlers. The association is also responsible for setting tournament schedules and keeping a record of all wrestlers and their respective ranks. It is also responsible for dictating how a sumo wrestler should conduct himself. For example, a junior wrestler must get up earlier than the senior wrestler for training, and he must engage in chores. Other examples are that all wrestlers are expected to grow their hair long much like that of a samurai, and that they should wear the prescribed traditional Japanese dress when in public.
Typically, wrestlers live in stable houses where they undergo rigorous training and discipline. Their way of life, from eating to training, is dictated by a stable master.
A silken loin cloth, called mawashi, is an essential part of a sumo’s equipment. It is made of heavy silk about 10 yards long and 2 feet wide. It is folded in 6 and wrapped around the wrestler’s waist several times, depending on his breadth. It is said that there are about 70 winning maneuvers that can be done from gripping the mawashi alone.