Sumo originated in Japan over 1,500 years ago, and included competition between ancient agricultural communities. Sumo is also referenced in Japanese mythology. One epic story describes the god Take-mikazuchi winning a sumo match against a rival god to gain control of the Japanese islands.
Sumo developed into entertainment for the royal court over 1,200 years ago, and was also used for martial training of warriors over the centuries. About 400 years ago, professional sumo, the Nihon Sumo Kyokai, was formed, and began to conduct competitions for the masses to enjoy. During these last four centuries, the rules, rituals, training methods, and living guidelines for sumo wrestlers have been further refined and established, reflected in the world of professional sumo today.
Professional sumo wrestlers, or “rikishi”, generally enter a “heya” (sumo stable) at a young age, and engage in grueling training, while following traditional rules of respect, discipline, and service to elders.
Rikishi rise before dawn, and train all morning on an empty stomach, before eating lunch, their first of two massive daily meals. Following an afternoon nap, they may engage in additional training, before dinner.
Sumo recruits are generally strong, athletic boys, not necessarily large nor fat. Years of following the sumo lifestyle puts on weight, mostly muscle. Many sumo wrestlers actually have a lower body fat percentage than the general populace.
It takes not only natural athletic ability – strength, speed, flexibility, and technique – but also determination and patience to succeed in pro sumo. Most recruits drop out in less than a year. Even the most promising athletes with high win percentages in competition must wait to gain rank and respect, as they slowly move up the ranking chart (“banzuke”), which takes years and years, even with consistent winning records. During this process, the rikishi deal with harsh training, constant service to their superiors, injuries, and the challenge to continue winning. Rank is based almost entirely on one’s record – a winning record in a tournament promises upward movement on the banzuke, while a losing record leads to demotion.
For centuries, only Japanese athletes competed in pro sumo. In the 20th century, several foreigners began to enter the sport, most notably, a series of Hawaiians (Takamiyama, Konishiki, Akebono, and Musashimaru being the best) who all achieved great renown and success at the very highest ranks. In recent years, a wave of Mongolians has usurped sumo’s highest ranks, including four Grand Champions, Asashoryu (retired), Hakuho, Harumafuji, and Kakuryu. There are also some promising sumo athletes from Russia, Eastern Europe, and Egypt who have added to sumo’s international reputation. The foreigners, mainly the Mongolians, have been so successful, that after Japanese champion Tochiazuma won a tournament in January, 2006, no other Japanese won for about 10 years (nearly 60 consecutive tournaments were won by foreign-born wrestlers)!
As Japan’s “kokugi”, or national sport, sumo represents many of the ideals and traditions of Japanese culture. Professional sumo is not just a sport , but a wonderful symbol of Japanese ritual, discipline, and philosophy.
RIKISHI: professional sumo wrestler, i.e. one who not only competes in sumo, but also lives the traditional lifestyle
GYOJI: sumo referee, who works not only during competition, but also shares sumo knowledge, prepares the banzuke, and officiates at many events year-round
YOBIDASHI: sumo attendant, who serves many practical and ceremonial functions at tournaments, and who, like the gyoji, works for professional sumo all year long
OYAKATA: a stablemaster, or head of a heya, the oyakata is a retired rikishi who has achieved considerable sumo success during his days of competition
HEYA: a “stable” or training center, where one group or team of rikishi practice and live together
BASHO: professional sumo tournament; there are six basho each year, and each is 15 days long
BANZUKE: a new “banzuke” (ranking chart) is meticulously handwritten by gyoji before each tournament, with about 1,000 names, including all 700 or so rikishi, plus gyoji, yobidashi, and more.
MAWASHI: the loincloth or sumo belt worn by all sumo competitors
DOHYO: the sumo ring wherein competition takes place
SHIKO: the sumo stomping exercise that rikishi practice hundreds of times daily to develop strength, flexibility, and balance