Success for Japan – The Secrets of Sumo

Written by Sterling Content
January 25, 2016

Written by Sterling Content
January 25, 2016

Sumo fans throughout Japan celebrated with great elation on January 24, 2016, as the sumo wrestler Kotoshogiku beat fellow wrestler Goeido to win the 2016 New Year Grand Sumo Tournament in Tokyo. It was a particularly exciting event this year as Kotoshogiku is the first Japan-born wrestler to win a tournament title in ten years.

Sumo – A Short Guide

Sumo has its roots in Japan’s Edo period where it was enjoyed as a form of sporting entertainment. Today, sumo can be described as a Japanese form of heavyweight wrestling, in which a wrestler (“rikishi”) wins a bout by forcing his opponent outside a marked circle (“dohyō”) or by making him touch the ground with any part of his body except the soles of his feet.

The characters, 相撲 (“sumo”), literally mean “striking one another”. Japan is the only country in which sumo is practised professionally. Sumo preserves many ancient ritual elements, such as the use of salt purification, the greeting ceremony, stamping in the ring, and the various individual movements.

The Japan Sumo Association has strict rules determining the life and training of sumo wrestlers, which is a highly regimented one. Most sumo wrestlers live in shared sumo training stables where everything from meals, dress, and daily routine are dictated by strict tradition. On entering sumo, they are expected to grow their hair long to form a topknot (“chonmage”), similar to the samurai hairstyles of the Edo period.

Most sumo wrestlers do not have breakfast, but instead enjoy a traditional, generously portioned and calorific stew lunch of meat, fish, vegetables, and rice, usually followed by a long nap. Due to their diet and lifestyle, the life expenctancy of sumo wrestlers is ten years shorter (only 60 -65) than the average Japanese.

The loincloth worn by sumo wrestlers in training and competition is called a “mawashi”. Top-ranked professional wrestlers wear a silk mawashi which comes in a variety of colours. When unwrapped, it is approximately 9 metres in length. It is wrapped several times around the wrestler and then fastened in a large knot at the back. A series of matching, stiffened silk fronds, called “sagari”, are inserted into the front of the mawashi. During training, a cotton mawashi is worn. Those of lower rank wear a black cotton mawashi both for training and in competition.

Sumo wrestling has a strict hierarchy based on sporting merit. Wrestlers are promoted or demoted according to their performance in six official grand sumo tournaments held throughout the year. There are six divisions in sumo, but the top division, the “makuuchi” is the most popular and publicised. The grand champions at the top of the ranking system are called “yokozuna” and are expected to compete for and to win the top division tournament title on a regular basis.

The referees (“gyōji”) begin their training in their teenage years and usually remain in the world of sumo until they retire.The gyōji referees matches, keeps the records of wrestlers’ results, announces matchups, and determines the technique used by a particular wrestler in winning a bout. The referee wears traditional and elaborate silk outfits, based on medieval Japanese costume from the Ashikaga period.

Additionally, five judges (“shinpan”) dressed in a a simple black kimono, sit below and around the ring – these judges are former wrestlers themselves. In a close bout, any of the five judges can dispute the referee’s call. In this case, a conference is held inside the ring between the gyōji and five shinpan.

During the actual bout, a wrestler may use any technique except pulling his opponent’s hair, hitting with a closed fist, ear-boxing, choking, or grabbing his opponent’s mawashi in the crotch area. There are numerous (officially over sixty) techniques which fall into two categories: pushing (“oshi-zumo”) and grabbing your opponent’s belt to force him out of the ring (“yotsu-zumo”). Matches consist of a single round and often last only a few seconds.

In yesterday’s historic match, Kotoshogiku wrapped up the tournament with a 14-1 record.

As the Mainichi Shimbun reports, “Kotoshogiku, who toppled all three yokozuna in his efforts to win the Emperor’s Cup, said he didn’t think about the pressure of trying to clinch the championship in his finale. His focus was on trusting his ability. ‘I was just thinking about doing exactly what I’m supposed to do — not worrying about wins and losses,’ Kotoshogiku said.”