Sumo WrestlingMassive mountains of man flesh in thongs smash together in a ring in an attempt to shake the earth with their girth. At least that is how us Westerners view sumo. Sumo isn’t just a sport. It is also a way to preserve tradition.

The sport aspect of sumo looks simple on the surface. To win, the rikishi have to either push their opponent out of the dohyo or them to touch the ground. Only the bottoms of their feet are allowed to touch the ground. The sport is an exercise in leverage, strength, and, yes, speed. Rikishi are surprisingly agile. Matches usually last only a few seconds. Illegal moves, having one’s belt undone, and failing to show up for the bout result in an automatic loss.

Sumo preserves many Shinto traditions. The sport is thought to originated in the Edo period as entertainment with ronin, samurai without lords, wrestled for a living. Throwing salt, entering the ring, and the leg stomp ( shiko exercise) are all rituals used to purify the area and drive away evil spirits.

Sumo Stable
Sumo in training exercising in their stable

Sumo wrestlers live together in stables. Their life is very regimented. They are to wear a topknot and wear traditional Japanese dress when in public. The dress depends on the person’s rank.  Each rank has its own “uniform.”  The younger wrestlers are in charge of chores, cooking, and preparing baths for the older wrestlers. These wrestlers usually skip breakfast and each a huge lunch followed by an afternoon nap to put on weight.

The higher ranked wrestlers also have to train, but they have different jobs. They have to manage their fan clubs, sponsors,  and more. These wrestlers, sekitori, have their own rooms. The junior wrestlers, rikishi, share dorms.

Sumo tend to die young from diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart attacks. They also have problems with their livers (too much alcohol) and arthritis. This isn’t too much of a surprise when you think about how HUGE these men are.

Sumo Toss
A sumo toss just before a 7.0 earthquake.

Yes, there have been some female sumo in the past. From about the 1700s on there are some areas where woman practice the sport. Although the sport was more associated with brothels than civilized society.  Women do have a prominent role in stable life. When they are married to the stablemaster, they become a surrogate mother for all the master’s students. This is important since many of these men face hard training away from their families.

Sumo is a bit strange for us Westerners. The sport has a long warm up time of ritual and pomp only to end in a few second long collision of muscle and girth. Sumo wrestlers are stars just as popular as our NFL players or baseball players.  I suggest you give sumo a watch next time you can. The sport has a lot of skill and long hours of training behind it. No, not just eating. Sumo are closer to Olympic power-lifters than fat tv-watchers.

Sumo encapsulates many of the aspects that makes Japanese culture so unique.