Sumo Wrestling - The Ancient Sport From Japan
By Nancy McDonough
Wearing nothing but a mawashi (loincloth), two larger-than-life opponents face each other in a dohyo (wrestling ring) to push, wrestle or throw each other out of the ring. This is the basic definition of sumo wrestling but, like any other centuries old Japanese tradition, the "why" and the "how" is more important than the "what".
Sumo has been performed the same way since the Edo Period (early 1600's) and still retains the rituals and techniques developed in those early years. The rikishi (wrestlers) even wear their hair in a topknot - the hairstyle typical of samurai in the Edo period. the umpires and referee wear elaborate kimono-style garb that depicts their experience ranking. Before each bout, both wrestlers toss salt into the ring because the dohyo is a sacred place. After each day's match, a lower ranked wrestler closes the event by performing the yumitori-shiki (bow dance).
Sumo wrestling bouts are fast - some lasting only a few seconds - and very intense, with a series of three "stare down" practice starts that the wrestlers use to intimidate their opponent. These trained athletes weigh in at 300-400 pounds, but follow a stringent regiment of training and nutrition that creates an athlete of great strength. Wrestlers grapple at each other with their bare hands and employ a range of moves that require precision, timing, and balance to succeed.
Every year, six basho (tournaments) are held in four different cities in Japan, each lasting 15 days. A wrestler's ranking changes depending on his performance in the tournament, with the top ranking, called yokozuna, bestowed on only one or two wresters at a time.
For centuries sumo wrestlers were exclusively of Japanese birth. In the last two decades, foreign wrestlers have begun to compete in greater numbers and have earned top rankings. Currently there are 60 non-Japanese professional sumo wrestlers out of a total of 700. China, Russia and several other Eastern European countries have made an impressive showing recently, but in the 1990's two American wrestlers -- Konishiki and Akebono (both from Hawaii)-- were the first to reach the yokozuna rank.
Nancy McDonough was for many years an English teacher in Japan. She is fluent in Japanese and travels to Japan yearly. She founded her retail kimono company in 1992. Nancy currently manages her kimono retail company Kyoto Kimono and her blog is here, Kyoto Kimono Mania.