The Idiot’s Guide to Everything: Sumo

Posted on July 31, 2013


40 years ago today saw the death of one of the most internationally recognized sumo wrestlers in history, Azumafuji Kin’chi. He was the 40th sumo to gain the status of Yokozuna, which is the highest rank in all of sumo. Also, and probably more interesting to my puny brain, he was also the first sumo wrestler to make the transition to professional wrestling in the United States, all be it with limited success. But, and no offence to Mr Kin’chi, it is not him that I wish to look at today, oh no indeed. It occurred to me that I know very little, if anything at all, about the art of sumo wrestling. I endeavored to find out, and this is what I gleamed.

There is a tendency to assume that sumo wrestling is nothing more than fat blokes running at each other. When you see a fight in your local car park, maybe in Wrexham, between two portly gentleman, I’m almost certain that someone will make a remark linking their rotund state to that of the sumo. Ask anyone to tell you all they know about sumo wrestling, and most likely you will just get some remark about fat people and Japan. Even with the most rudimentary of research however, and also with even the most basic common sense, we know this to be false. Sumo is as intrinsically linked to society and culture in Japan as anything else, if not more. Indeed, according to legend, the entire fate and origin of the Japanese race depended on the outcome of a sumo bout. The supremacy of the Japanese people on the islands was established when the god Take-mikazuchi defeated a rival tribe leader in the ring. Realistically however, sumo is an ancient sport that goes way back, 1500 years or so, and it also keeps its religious origins.

It began as a ritual, a sort of dance dedicated to the gods in the hope that it would bring a bountiful harvest. How many times it was successful in bringing one however, is unknown. By the 8th century, there was already an annual wrestling tournament held at the Imperial Court, and the more competitive side of sumo had begun to flourish. In its early stages it was far more rough and tumble, with actual wrestling elements involved, but the Imperial Court encouraged the formulating of rules, and it grew closer to what we know as sumo today. With the onset of a military dictatorship in 1192, sumo became a useful tool of military efficiency. Peace was restored a mere 400 years later and a time of prosperity ensued. Professional sumo groups were organised in order to entertain. And entertain they did.

It was around this time that the ring would be added to the sport. It is known as a dohyo, and is made of rice-straw bales on top of a platform of a clay and sand mixture. It has two white lines in the centre of it, behind which the combatants stands before the war begins. Even though the matches consist of only a single round which often only lasts mere seconds, there is nothing weak or lame about all of this. It is full contact to say the least, like the biggest hit in rugby you can imagine with men of much more immense girth. There are no weight divisions in sumo though, and it isn’t purely about how big you are. It is, believe it or not, a sport of guile and skill. That being said, I certainly couldn’t rock up and work my way up to Yokozuna status, as shown by the travails of the Yellow Peril on Takeshi’s Castle.

Japan is the only place where the sport is played professionally, and it is immensely insular. All tournaments are organised by the Japan Sumo Association, which you can only be a part of if you are a former sumo wrestler yourself. Even the names of the rikishis (wrestlers) are given to individuals by their trainers. The hierarchy is strict, with promotion and relegation depending on an individuals performance in six separate tournaments over the season. There are six divisions in sumo, named as thus from lowest to highest; Jonokuchi, Jonidan, Sandanme, Makushita, Juryou and Makuuchi, Obviously, the makuuchi division gets the most attention, and those in this division lead the best lifestyles as well.

The life of a Rikishi is incredibly regimented as well. The vast majority of sumo wrestlers are required to live in communal training stables, where every aspect of day to day life is perfectly timed and cared for. The most junior wrestlers will be up at 5am on a daily basis to do chores. Sumo wrestlers are also not allowed to eat breakfast, waiting instead for a large lunch. This is done in order to encourage weight gain. There is a mandatory siesta after lunch. Lucky. The afternoon brings more chores and education for the lowest ranked, and official business for the top ranked. These guys, the sekitori as they are known, often have their own room and spend the evening with their sponsors. The juniors sleep in communal dorms. As you can imagined, the juniors are there to serve, and the sekitori are to be served. This means a particularly sucky life for new recruits, which leads to a particuarly large drop out figure.

What is there for a sumo wrestler after retirement? Well, unless you were particularly successful, it can be tough. The life of a Rikishi is tough, and the health effects it can leave are less desirable than any sort of fantasy you can muster with these guys. The life expectancy of a sumo wrestler is a mere 60-65 years, a whole ten years less than that of your every day Japanese male. Funnily enough though, morbid obesity isn’t a huge problem for sumo wrestlers. Sure, they  may look huge, but there is a large difference between pure fat and obesity. These guys are as in shape as humans of their size can be, and stopping the highly disciplined lifestyle can lead to more problems than the lifestyle itself, as long as you discard the fact the lifestyle in the first place is pretty mad.

So there you have it. There is far more to sumo than it being a hilarious round on Takeshi’s Castle. Who knew?