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att. Sports - Sumo
att. Sports - Sumo
(att.JAPAN Issue 10, January 2003)


Sumo Which came first, the wrestler or the nation? Take an up-close look and discover Japan's first sport, sumo

Perhaps no other sport on earth is as little known about, laden in mystery, or as misunderstood as the sport of Sumo. Fortunately though, it seems like there is now a better appreciation of Japan's old world culture even outside of Japan. This includes the traditional sports and now more than ever sumo, among other traditional sports- in particular the martial arts such as judo and karate, which have been popularized the world over, long before now. Unfortunately though, sumo has been through the ringer- often the butt of jokes from less cultured individuals. Sadly too is the fact that traditional Japan is loosing a grip on the country, as feelings of patriotism are becoming rarer with the nation's youth. What many don't understand is the significance of sumo to the roots of the country and to national pride. It is indeed an awesome sport worth a second take; worth respecting down to it's every last ounce. This can be attested to even more, when one sees the sport up-close, to get a true image of the power and spirit of the ring. Something that is not transmittable when broadcast to television. Only after viewing the sport live, can you really begin to understand what's really going on. After this, ridiculing the sport doesn't even come to mind, and sumo jokes tend to loose their humor all together.

 The Sport that Created a Nation
The prehistoric Japanese, like most other ethnicities all over the globe, had a special way of keeping record of events in history. There was a seemingly flawless way of storytelling by selecting children gifted with good memory and committing them to memorizing word for word, all the stories of their people. These professional storytellers were known as kataribe in Japan. Although modern historians regard these stories as mere myth and legend, there seems to be a number of things in common among different groups regardless of the land and cultural distances between them. With Chinese characters having yet to be introduced as Japan's first means of writing, prehistoric Japan (most likely consisting of several groups of similar yet differing tribes) went on since the dawn of time telling stories in this way. One story of who's contents are believed to have taken place some 2,500 years ago, tells of how the Japanese came to dominate the majority of the islands the country makes up today. It involves a fight between two gods: Takemikazuchi and Takeminakata. The fight determined which of the two would have control over Japan. They fought it out to the finish. The god Takemikazuchi, victor of that first bout is said to be the founder of Japan's first imperial family, of which all the Japanese Emperors are said to have direct lineage from. Looking at this history, which even appears in Japan's first known written book, the Kojiki (Book of Ancient Things), it can be seen that the significance of the sport of sumo today is more than just a symbol of Japan- it ties to an event of without which Japan as we know it may have never existed.

 The Refinement of Ancient Wrestling
SumoAncient sumo wrestling had little in common with the modern sport. Sumo had a long road of technical developments ahead of it yet. It may not be too far fetched to think of the very first bout between the rival gods as nothing short of a street fight. It is hard to conceive that mighty gods, up against each other in a fight to the finish would take the time out to observe any rules or ceremony. It was freestyle fighting, as were much of the following bouts proceeding the founding of the Japanese Empire. The first official human bout was said to have been held just over 2,000 years ago in the courtyard of Emperor Suinin, Japan's 11th Emperor. The fighting style was more or less still a free one. More than likely, other human bouts went on long before this in the agricultural villages of the times. Sumo bouts by the locals were mainly held to celebrate peace during festivals in which they would also pray for a bountiful harvest. By about 720AD it was in custom to hold a similar annual festival, the Sechie, at the Emperor's Palace. This is where sumo took on its present day likeness. Up until this point there was next to nothing in the way of rules, and the fight wasn't even held in a ring. The rings came about during the first tournaments, during which a group of locals, and later selected wrestlers from around the country, were selected to go head to head by the country's early local authorities. Sumo has always been regarded as a form of martial art, and was an encouraged activity for the country's men and boys. Many sumo wrestlers from around 300 years ago were samurai. After sumo went through a series of changes, it became safer not only to the wrestlers, but also to the spectators. Eventually the wrestlers grouped together and a ranking system was kept track of. There were so many changes in the sport that occurred during the Edo period (1603~); the sport seen today remains about the same as the condition Edo left it in.

 The Modern Sport
BanzukeAlthough replaced in national popularity with baseball, and although less recognized around the world when compared to other traditional Japanese sports (martial arts, most of which were founded on the principles and techniques of sumo), sumo today is still Japan's most important sport, symbolically speaking. Unlike the other martial arts, sumo at first appears to be a kind of performance, when all the ceremony and rites are looked at. It all starts in the ring, or dohyo; the most fundamental thing besides the players. The modern dohyo is all done up. Other than the essential raised clay platform covered with sand, and the ring of rice straw, the dohyo today includes a Shinto shrine roof, suspended from the ceiling of the arena. Often, there is also a Japanese flag above or near this shrine structure. Perhaps this shrine is a symbol of the original story of the founding of the Japanese Nation, in where the annual sumo champion (or yokozuna) represents the original god victor, Takemikazuchi. There are tassels hanging from each corner of the square shrine roof structure. They each represent one of the four seasons. So the ring is a symbol of Japan, and the players are mighty gods (you'll have to remember that in the Shinto religion, everything in nature (i.e. in the universe) is a god or is represented by a god). To win in sumo, the opponent must be forced out of the ring of straw, or thrown down to the ground. The rules that determine these conditions of loss are not liberal. Barely touching any part of the ground with anything other than the feet, or even just being on the outer side of the straw bale itself will determine the winner. Fouls include fist punches, chokes, eye gouges, hair pulling, touching the lower part of the loincloth, and kicks to anywhere other than the legs (most of the time kicks are rare due to concentration on the upper pushing and gripping action). This leaves any pushing, gripping the upper part of the loincloth (and twisting lifting or throwing the opponent), and slapping as the three most used techniques. In combination they form a variety of named techniques along with a few other moves such as dodging, and reversing.
There is a ranking system in sumo based on the number of wins to losses of each player. The players are listed up on a sheet of paper with their names written in old-fashioned calligraphy from Edo. The sheet is called a banzuke. Sumo wrestlers (rikishi) are each given made-up poetic sounding names based on their place of origin or overall character. Their names appear on the list in order of their placement after the previous tournament. When the present tournament has ended, the banzuke are rewritten to reflect the new levels and rankings earned. The highest ranking is yokozuna, the champion of the 'Grand Tournament.' The ranks that follow this are: ozeki, sekiwake, komusubi, maegashira. Together they make up the upper division (maku-uchi) of the ranking system. There are usually no more than 40 individuals in the upper division. The 40 wrestlers are divided into two groups on the banzuke, by east and west, 20 in the east and 20 in the west (but this division has nothing to do with the format of the games; all ranks are decided based on the ratio of wins to losses).

 The Place to Be
Ryogoku KokugikanSumo is held at 4 different arenas throughout Japan. There are six tournaments each year each consisting of 15 full days of games. Three of the six tournaments are held in Tokyo, the other three are held in Osaka, Nagoya, and Kyushu. The Tokyo tournaments are held in Ryogoku (can be accessed from Akihabara by taking the Chiba-bound Sobu Line to Ryogoku Station), in the Ryogoku Kokugikan Sumo Arena. Arriving at Ryogoku Station, you don't have to go far before you start your sumo experience. In fact, you don't even have to set foot in the arena. There are signs of sumo's presence all over the town. Since the majority of the heya, or places where sumo wrestlers train and live, are located right in town, you can see any number of sumo about on their daily activities...riding their bike to the convenience store, waiting for the train, or just walking down the street. They are required to wear their hair in the traditional chonmage style, even in their free time- the only modern profession in Japan to require such. If you just go to the outside of the arena on game day, you can see the wrestlers walking outside. But then, nothing beats seeing them in action. Tickets sell from about 11,000 yen (the best section, section A, requiring reservations in advanced; a phone call from your Japanese speaking friend is needed- you can get your hotel or a tourist lobby staff to do this) to about 2,000 yen (non-reserved, same-day purchases subject to availability); children 3~15 years old can get 200 yen, same-day tickets. Entering the arena, you will normally be escorted to your seat by an usher in traditional dress. A stop by the snack vendor to pick up a beer or box lunch, and you are off to your seat. Walking along the corridors, the sound of the referee calling out the names of the wrestlers, and the echo of the wooden block ring out. Behold, the mammoth sumo heroes doing what they do best, live and up-close.

Nihon Sumo Kyokai

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