Sumo, written as 相撲 (meaning “Striking on another”) in Japanese, is a traditional wrestling and is the Japan’s national sport.
Japan is the only country that has professional tournaments and it has been one of the most popular sports here for a long time.
Let’s learn the history and the rules about it and enjoy the unique culture of Japan!
It is believed that Sumo originated as a way to wish for a good harvest by entertaining the Shinto deities. The first mention of sumo can be found in a manuscript from 712. According to the folktale written in it, there was a match between two Shinto deities (or 神/Kami in Japanese) called Takemikazuchi (the ruler of the common people) and Takeminakata (the god of wind, water, and agriculture) to find which was stronger and suitable for ruling lands. At the end, Takemikazuchi won the mach and claimed Takeminakata’s land for his Kami.
Then, it became a culture to show strength in front of them as a sign of respect and in hope of bringing a good harvest.
First as an ritual dance, then as a combat between two men.
Until the Japanese Middle Ages (1185-1603), there weren’t much regulations and the wrestling matches were rough. Wrestlers often fought to the death of one of the fighters like gladiators.
Sumo became so popular especially within the Imperial court that it was regularly held and ceremonial and religious elements were added.
During the Kamakura period (1185-1333), many training Samurais joined Sumo wrestling to strengthen their combat abilities. By the Muromachi period (1336-1573), Sumo became a huge event for the masses as the 大名 (Daimyo, powerful Feudal lords) sponsored wrestlers. During this period, some rules regarding the match were established including the use of 土俵 (Dohyo. It is 4.55m in diameter and 16.26 m2 in area, and is made of clay and covered in a layer of sand ) as an elevated ring for the battle.
In the Edo period (1603-1867), Sumo fights were banned because they could lead to wild fightings on the streets. However in 1684, it was allowed to be held as a charity event at Shinto shrines. In the Meiji era (1868-1912), the Emperor Meiji organized a tournament and the length of tournaments was extended from 10 days to 15 days in 1949.
Today, professional sumo holds six grand tournaments a year (3 in Tokyo during January, May and September, 1 each in Osaka in March, Nagoya in July and Fukuoka in November). Each tournament lasts 15 days, and currently only men do the sport professionally in Japan.
Customs and Rules
Sumo developed from Shinto rituals, so it has the ritualistic characteristics. The wrestlers stomp their feet on the ring to ward off evil and throw salt onto the ring before a match to purify the ring.
The rules are straightforward. 力士 (Rikishi/wrestler) tries to force his opponent out of a 土俵 or into touching the ground with any body part other than the soles of his feet. A match usually lasts only a few seconds, but in rare cases it continues for minutes. There are no weight restrictions in Sumo, so wrestlers train themselves and try to gain as much as they can. There’s a special kind food for their diet called ちゃんこ鍋 (Chanko-nabe), which is a protein-rich Japanese hot-pot designed to help them gain weight. Many ingredients such as fish, meat, shells, and vegetables are in a broth and it comes in a large portion.
There is a ranking system called 番付(Banzuke), and all wrestlers are classified depending on their performances. The top two divisions are called 幕内(Makuuchi) and 十両(Juryo), and they are like major leagues. Wrestlers in these 2 divisions are called 関取(Sekitori), and they are considered as fully-qualified fighters. The best rank of 幕内 is 横綱(Yokozuna), and then 大関(Ozeki), 関脇(Sekiwake), 小結(Komusubi), and 前頭(Maegashira). 横綱 is never demoted but if he keeps on losing matches he has to retire and leave the position.
Where to enjoy Sumo
It is the best to attend a sumo tournament to fully enjoy the matches. Tickets are available during the 15-day tournaments. You can purchase tickets in advance online or at convenience stores or at the stadiums. 両国国技館(Ryougoku Kokugikan) in Tokyo is the most famous venue.
Right now, Sumo matches are held with less spectators to avoid the spread of coronavirus. It is really sad that we can’t enjoy it in an arena.
I do hope the current situation will be over soon…
Thank you for reading today’s post!
See you next time.
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