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att. Japanese Culture - Sumo
att. Culture - Sumo
You are here: att.JAPAN > General Information > Sumo
att.JAPAN Issue 32, January 2007


- Culture, entertainment for the masses or a bit of both?

Wrestling as a sport is quite probably the oldest form of entertainment known to man. Whether it can ever be correctly deemed 'cultural' or if it is merely a form of entertainment is a concept open to endless debate.

In Japan the form of wrestling almost two thousand years of recorded history has produced is known as sumo and is perhaps one of the most widely known forms of wrestling in the world; drawing ever increasing numbers of foreign fans to an aspect of Japanese culture as unique as kabuki and the tea ceremony.

What cannot and should not be doubted is the fact that sumo is, for many around the world, as much about culture as it is about sport / entertainment. Winning in sumo isn't everything - winning properly is far more important and it is often seen as better to lose well than to win badly.

Success is born of failure in sumo and behind every success story lie hours of heartache and gut-wrenching practice that would leave many sportsmen - whatever their discipline - in floods of tears.

Sumo then
Sumo was first 'recorded' in Japanese literature that focused on an era of mythology and prehistory as the chosen method to determine the ruler of the nation. Two gods fought it out, one claimed victory and is said to have thereafter founded the imperial line that has run unbroken to this day - 125 generations later. (Many emperors are said to have been fans of sumo and the Showa Emperor, father of the current emperor, was buried with a list of famous yokozuna grand champions in his casket. His son, the Heisei emperor is a big fan and in September 2006, the daughter of the current Crown Prince and Princess, granddaughter of the emperor was herself seen cheering on the rikishi at the Ryogoku Kokugikan sumo stadium - and she is still in kindergarten!)

In reality sumo first emerged in the form of an appeasement offered to the gods of shrines and temples across Japan. Later, around the turn of the last millennia, sumo was taken under the wing of the imperial family and the nobility of the day and was far less accessible to the common man.

At this time sumo developed along more spiritually pure lines and perhaps cemented its future existence thanks to these centuries of imperial patronage. It was in these early days that many of the gestures and rituals most closely associated with sumo today first emerged; in part as a form of purification of the fighting area prior to a given bout but predominantly to imitate certain methods of prayer for divine protection used in the religious facilities of the time.

The claps, feet stamping (in sumo terminology 'shiko') and throwing of salt all still seen in sumo today are often mistakenly seen by those new to the sport as purely symbols of the sport's shrine / temple based past and while sumo did draw from Japanese Shinto and Buddhist rituals, today's repetition of such actions prior to the initial tachiai are largely part and parcel of sumo for the sake of sumo - the sport as opposed to actions aimed specifically at impressing 21st century gods.

By around the late 18th century sumo existed in similar form to the setup we see today with organized tournaments, a ranking system printed on distributed sheets known as banzuke and with many of the finishing techniques used by the current crop of sumo stars becoming standard.

One of the major middle-ages contributions to sumo took place in the late Edo-era (1603-1867) when rules of subservience to local lords all but established the 'heya' (sumo stable) system that remains in force to this day.

Stables have always acted as bases, homes, training centers and all things in between for young wrestlers who join in their mid to late teens or once they have graduated from a university where they belonged to the sumo club. Once in a heya the only way out is through retirement as there is officially no such thing as re-admittance once a rikishi departs sumo. Professional sumo carries no second chances - it is an all or nothing lifestyle lived 24/7. Changing stables / transfers never happens bar for when a new stable is born of an existing facility and rikishi move with the man who initially acted as their mentor.

Sumo truly is a way of life and there is no more obvious sign of that lifestyle than the 'mage' hairstyle the rikishi must grow and wear as they climb the ranks to possible fame and fortune.

The 'mage' comes in two forms - the standard 'chonmage' which sees long hair laid on top of the head pointing forwards in similar form to the samurai of old. This is the standard appearance of all lower ranked rikishi and the higher ranked rikishi when not fighting. The second type of 'mage' is reserved for 'sekitori' alone. 'Sekitori' are the salaried wrestlers in the top two divisions (the term rikishi is also used but only the word rikishi can be used to talk about those in the lower four, unsalaried divisions) and along with financial rewards for their efforts they are entitled to wear their hair in the 'oichomage' form, similar in shape to ginkgo leaves, for tournament bouts.

Sumo now
In the early 21st century watching sumo or even trying it out at amateur clubs has never been easier.

For those in Japan, sumo is part and parcel of everyday life featuring on news shows and TV commercials.

Six 'honbasho' official tournaments take place each year - one honbasho running for a period of fifteen consecutive days. Tokyo, Osaka, and Tokyo again, Nagoya, Tokyo once more and then Fukuoka are the locations for the honbasho so wherever you are there is a tournament relatively close by. Tickets are not as expensive as many would have you believe and the 400 or so tickets sold on the day cost just 2100 yen apiece. Admittedly the box seats (four cushions in a box in traditional Japanese style - on the floor) can be pricey at approximately 45,000 yen each per day but when divided by four....and considering the action runs from 9am to 6pm....Neither are tickets as impossible to obtain as popular urban myths go. Most Japanese ticket agencies sell the tickets nowadays as do thousands of convenience stores around the nation.

Other one day events, tours and demonstrations are held in different parts of Japan throughout the year when honbasho are not imminent and, for those overseas, the top ranking rikishi do make odd trips with their passports to reach out to the wider world. China and Korea in 2004, mainland USA (Las Vegas) in 2005 and Taiwan in 2006 have all been visited recently and offer a more relaxed form of entertainment as well as chances to meet the sekitori when the pressure is off. Hawaii is on the calendar for early June of this year - 2007 and another stop in Taiwan is being pondered.

Away from the professional game, sumo is becoming increasingly popular with children in Japan as more and more clubs spring up and with both children and adults across the globe where 85 nations are now said to have sumo associations. Clubs in Japanese neighborhoods target the next generation - kids - as sumo in schools is banned below high school, (sumo was seen as to closely connected to State Shinto following WWII) and can only be considered in after school clubs.

Seasonal tournaments and sometimes visits from professionals all serve to keep domestic interest levels high and overseas the interest has never been greater thanks in large part to the American era of former yokozuna Akebono, former yokozuna Musashimaru and several other relatively successful rikishi from the USA in the 1990s and then the current and ongoing European era of which Bulgarian, Estonian Czech, Hungarian, Georgian and Russian rikishi form the backbone.

Sumo might even make an appearance at the Olympics one day if the Tokyo based International Sumo Federation has its way although only around half of its 85 member nations are believed active so a push for full Olympic recognition in the years ahead could be too much too soon for the amateur game.

As with everything in sumo - time alone will tell.

Mini sumo glossary
Rikishi: any professional and sometimes amateur sumo wrestler
Sekitori: a salaried rikishi of the top two divisions (Makunouchi and Juryo)
Heya: a sumo stable (over 50 currently in existence - most in Tokyo's Ryogoku area)
Yokozuna: the top rank in sumo - the Grand Champion. Held today by Mongolian Asashoryu
Ozeki: sumo's second highest rank
Makunouchi: sumo's top division
Juryo: sumo's second ranking division
Dohyo: the earth mound on which bouts take place
Chonmage: the traditional hairstyle routinely worn by all rikishi
Oicho-mage: the decorative hairstyle worn by those in the top two divisions when fighting
Tachiai: the initial clash
Shiko: the leg lifting exercise seen prior to bouts
Banzuke: the sumo ranking sheet - great value at just 50 yen per copy

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