Sumo (相撲) is a Japanese style of wrestling and Japan’s national sport. It originated in ancient times as a performance to entertain the Shinto deities. Many rituals with religious background, such as the symbolic purification of the ring with salt, are still followed today.
Everyone thinks they know what sumo wrestling is. It’s about big fat guys slamming into each other, right?
Well, yes and no. Sumo may seem comical to you, but it is actually a very serious business – there is an awful lot more to sumo wrestling than most outsiders ever realise.
It wasn’t until I attended a sumo tournament in Tokyo that I began to realise just how fascinating Japan’s national sport really is. Here are a few of the amazing things I learnt about sumo – I hope they will encourage you to go and see a tournament for yourself!
Sumo is a religious ritual!
Compared with most sports in the world today, sumo originated a heck of a long time ago. About 1,500 years, in fact. It was performed at shrines to ensure a bountiful harvest and to honour the spirits – known as kami.
Each of the ring-entering ceremonies is a Shinto purification ritual, and every newly promoted yokozuna (the highest rank in sumo) performs his first ring-entering ceremony at the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo.
The canopy that hangs over the ring is modelled after the roof of a Shinto shrine, indicating that the ring itself is a holy place.
AMAZING THINGS YOU PROBABLY NEVER KNEW ABOUT SUMO WRESTLING ☆
① The rules of the match
A sumo match doesn’t start until both wrestlers have placed both hands on the ground at the same time. This leads to quite a lot of fannying about whilst each wrestler tries to psyche the other out, pretending to put his hand down and then getting back up again.
Once they finally do begin, it is very rare for sumo bouts to last longer than a few seconds – although occasionally they can up to four minutes. This means that the action is very fast-paced and exciting. A match ends when one of the wrestlers is either thrown out of the ring, or if any part of his body apart from the soles of his feet touches the ground.
The following video of a sumo match is a great example of just how long it takes for a bout to begin:
Interestingly, the match can also end if one of the wrestlers loses his mawashi, or loincloth – in which case the de-loinclothed wrestler is disqualified. More interestingly still, this rule was only adopted after Japan began adopting European attitudes toward nudity.
This outcome is very rare in sumo, but a wardrobe malfunction did occur during a match in 2000, when the unfortunate wrestler Asanokiri exposed himself and was disqualified immediately.
② Sumo wrestlers haven’t always been fat
In fact, it was only very recently in the history of sumo that the wrestlers developed the chubbiness they are now famous for. Since there are no weight divisions in professional sumo, every wrestler basically just wants to get as big as humanly possible so that he can use his weight in the ring.
It wasn’t until well into the twentieth century that the modern image of the whale-like sumo wrestler really emerged – with earlier wrestlers typically much more wiry and muscular.
A famous exception to the general fatness is Takanoyama Shuntaro, known as the “Skinny Sumo”, a Czech wrestler distinctive for his diminutive size.
Despite being comparatively minuscule, Takanoyama has had impressive success in the rankings, reaching the makuuchi division in 2011.
If you’ve ever wondered just how modern sumo get so fat, it’s all thanks to something called chanko nabe. This is a special kind of (delicious) hotpot packed with meat, veggies and noodles that is specifically associated with sumo wrestlers in Japan.
This alone doesn’t do the trick – wrestlers have a special routine of exercising on an empty stomach and sleeping after eating to help turn the calories they consume (purportedly up to 10,000 per day) into bulk.
Unfortunately this increase in weight, combined with a high consumption of alcohol, means that modern sumo wrestlers’ life expectancy is more than ten years shorter than that of the average Japanese male.
③ Sumo wrestlers aren’t allowed to drive cars
It sounds absurd, but this is actually true. After a serious car accident involving a sumo wrestler, the Sumo Association banned wrestlers from driving their own cars. Just ‘cus they can, I guess.
Have any travel complaints? …Full of Sumo Wrestlers…
I’m sure that most people have had travel complaints where either a kid was kicking their seat until they arrived at their final destination or maybe even an uncomfortable seat because the other person is taking up all the space.
But, have you ever thought what it would feel like if the plane was actually packed with sumo wrestlers? Doesn’t that make you appreciate having any space at all while these sumo wrestlers are handling the sitting arrangement just fine?
It’s safe to say that you’re most probably much more comfortable than they were sitting in a tight space. Whenever you have the need to complain about being stuck in traffic or how unlucky you are sitting in front of a little kid who keeps kicking your seat, take a look at this picture.