Seeing sumo wrestlers during the Olympics may have sparked your interest in this mysterious Japanese spectator sport. Understanding sumo will help you better enjoy this not-to-be-missed sporting event.
One of Japan’s premiere spectator sports, the art of Sumo, dates back to the dawn of Japanese civilization. It is most likely the truest Japanese martial art that was not influenced by outside cultures over the years.
The rules are deceptively simple: cause any part of the opponent’s body to touch the floor or push him out of the ring. Of course, when you’re talking about heaving a three hundred-plus pound man, things take on a definite degree of difficulty.
As such, sumotori, as the participants are called (sometimes also called Rikishi), can use any of forty-eight classified techniques to disrupt their opponent. While blows, kicks, hair pulling and chokeholds are forbidden, slapping is not. Often a match will resound with fierce skin slaps, shoves and throws.
Despite their large size, the degree of finesse utilized by accomplished sumotori can be remarkable, indeed. It is not uncommon for a smaller opponent to gain a victory over a larger favorite merely by using proper body positioning and letting his opponent’s energy and inertia carry them out of the ring. Such skill only comes from years of intense training.
Most sumotori begin their training by entering a school called a stable. As novices, part of their training is to care and clean their more accomplished and higher ranked brethren. Low class sumotori have little privileges, receive only a small stipend and attend to daily chores and studies as well as actual physical practice — all this serves to educate the novice into the finer, more spiritually refined aspects of this ancient art.
Indeed, of the many martial art systems throughout the world, the art of sumo has deep spiritual observances that have helped shape it into art over the centuries. Drawing primarily from the uniquely Japanese religion of Shinto, most sumo bouts begin with the ritualistic scattering of salt to purify the area. Referees are clad in traditional Shinto priest garb (or are priests themselves), while overhead shimenawa (sacred ropes) hang to signify the spiritual significance of the area.
As the sumotori gains rank, the privileges also expand. Stipends increase, they gain attendants who see to their everyday needs, and they may enjoy a degree of sponsorship as well.
Those who attain the highest rank, that of Yokozuna, enjoy tremendous fame and prestige as well as monetary rewards. Many retire from active wrestling and devote themselves to training the younger sumotori.
Bouts are usually over quickly. Endurance matches are seldom seen and a match lasting longer than four minutes is indeed rare. Audiences see quick spectacular displays of raw power and thundering techniques. It’s very easy to get swept up into the excitement, especially when seated close to the ring.
Fighting for the top prize, the Emperor’s Cup, sumotori compete in six tournaments annually lasting fifteen days each. They face different opponents each time and the winner is the sumotori who beats the most grand champions and high-ranking rikishi. Other awards go to the sumotori who displays the best fighting spirit and to the best technician.
Exquisite timing, subtle technique, grand throws, slapping, shouts, grunts, and brute force and power all contribute to make sumo one of the most popular past times in Japan. And, it’s one not to be missed if you have the opportunity to see a bout in person.