Sumo - An Overview
Sumo Wrestling - not fat guys in diapers 相撲
Mention the word sumo to most wet-behind-the-ear foreigners and the first response you're likely to hear is, "Ah, fat guys in diapers." It's a sure-fire way to separate the tourists from the expats who've been in Japan for any significant length of time.
That's because anyone who's even remotely familiar with Japan's unofficial national sport (baseball is the official pastime) knows there's far more to it than pot bellies and Pampers.
History of sumo
Far from being infant, sumo has a history of well over 1,500 years, although the exact date and origins of the sport are a matter of debate. What is known is that mythical bouts between gods appear in some of Japan's oldest written documents, some dating back over 2,000 years.
By the seventh century the sport was a regular fixture on the grounds of the Imperial Palace and over the subsequent millennium gradually transformed into the sport we know today. The center of present day sumo is now in Ryogoku, in Tokyo's Sumida ward, where the distinctive sumo stadium, the Kokugikan, dominates the Ryogoku station area.
Sumo had already turned professional by the Edo Period (1600-1867) - eat your hearts out soccer and baseball aficionados - and although the sport has been through some lean years since then, no one can deny its still-prominent place on the Japanese sports mantel.
Sumo wrestlers' banners fly outside the Kokugikan in Ryogoku, Tokyo
Sumo tournaments, or basho, are held six times each year in January, March, May, July, September and November.
Tournaments run for 15 days and always begin and end on Sundays. Tickets range in price from a few thousand yen for general admission seats to upwards of 50,000 yen for four-seater box seats.
Unlike at most major sporting events, drinking is not frowned upon at sumo, and the beer, shochu and whatever else you smuggle in with you can be imbibed free of repercussions in the box seats, which are actually not seats at all, but a square portion of floor with cushions to rest your bottom on. Comfortable for those on the smallish side, but inadvisable for those closer in size to the participants.
A day at the sumo
A typical day starts at 9 a.m. and ends at 6 p.m., but only diehards and the slightly mad show up much before 3 p.m., when the juryo (lower-professional) wrestlers begin their bouts. The top-ranked makuuchi wrestlers make their way to the ring about an hour later.
Most bouts last under a minute, much shorter than the pre-match rituals, which include a couple of leg stamps, a rinsing of the mouth with chikara-mizu (or 'strength water'), and a pat down with chikara-gami ('strength paper').
The white powder you see wrestlers toss is salt, which is used to purify the ring prior to the tachiai, or face-off.
After staring each other down a few times, the rikishi meet in the middle of the ring to do battle.
There are 70 official kimarite, or winning techniques, recognized by the Sumo Association; although with the rapid rise in the size of wrestlers in the last few decades, a number of the moves are rarely, if ever, seen these days.
A win occurs when either wrestler steps outside the ring or any part of his body aside from the soles of his feet hit the ground.
For anyone wondering if a wrestler has ever been denuded in the ring before, yes, it has happened, only thankfully not in the last 90 years. Aside from the obvious embarrassment of losing his mawashi, or belt, the red-faced wrestler is also automatically disqualified.
The popularity of sumo has ebbed and flowed over the centuries. The sport's most recent peak came in the early 1990s, largely as a result of the rise of Takanohana and Wakanohana, the first siblings to hold the title of yokozuna, or grand champion.
With their retirement, as well as those of Musashimaru and the first foreign-born yokozuna, Akebono, the loss of interest in sumo amongst the general public resumed.
But the sport is making a gradual recovery thanks to the popularity of Mongolian yokozuna, Asashoryu, and a host of other up-and-comers, including compatriot Hakuho and Bulgarian ozeki Kotooshu.
Asashoryu: Mongolian sumo champion
Asashoryu is the 21st century's undisputed king of the ring, having single-handedly worn the yokuzana crown since Musashimaru's retirement in 2004.
The "Bully from Bator" has won 20 tournaments, 12 shy of the record held by 1960s colossus, Taiho. Many think the 26-year-old Asashoryu will go on to claim the record as he is still relatively young, in great shape, and without any serious rival aside, potentially, from Hakuho, who has yet to ascend to the rank of yokozuna.
While the influx of foreigners doesn't sit particularly well with sumo purists, there can be no denying the new blood has raised the level of excitement at tournaments and added an intriguing new element to the age-old sport.
Many Japanese would dearly love to see a homegrown rikishi wear the title of yokozuna and give Asashoryu a run for his money, but with fewer Japanese youngsters willing to endure the hardships required to climb the ranks, it appears sumo, for the foreseeable future at least, will continue to be dominated by hungrier foreign imports.
Text & images by Andrea Marcus