Origami # 1 (11) 1998

Culture and traditions

Sumo Fighters

        If you open any Japanese magazine or a Sunday newspaper you will definitely see a picture of fat people wrestling each other. They are called rikisi and in Japan they are as popular as movie stars. Sumo is a martial art and a popular show as well. It has millions of admirers. Sitting comfortably in front of a TV screen or attending a sumo competition any Japanese feels proud of his culture that has given birth to such a phenomenon.

Photo of Alina Gorlova

Alina Gorlova

           The history of sumo can be tracked many centuries back. Chinese chronicles of the first millenium B. C. mention the syanpy martial arts. The hieroglyphs for syanpy in Japanese sound like soboky. Nowadays they are pronounced as sumo. Very often the word sumo is linked to Chinese dzuedi wrestling that has been also known from the ancient times. Some researchers even say that sumo is spoken about in Buddhist texts of Lotus Sutra that is the main masterpiece of Buddhist literature. They say that before becoming Buddha Siddhartha Gautama was very fond of wrestling and fist fighting.

           Still, these facts bear little relation to modern Japanese sumo wrestling. It is impossible to find out when and where it was born. All we know is that sumo became very popular in Japan during Heiyan epoch (8 - 12 centuries). During this period of time all the celebrations at sinto temples included sports games for samurais, traders and craftsmen. The social status didn't mean much for people taking part in these competitions. In 821 there was a special addition made to the Curriculum of court ceremonies in order to set exact dates for sumo fights. Three months ahead of a competition the emperor's servants would visit all the provinces searching for good wrestlers. Those selected for knock-out competitions would gather for a misiavase ritual meeting that was usually held at emperors' palaces. Yards at palaces would be covered with sand and used as sports arenas, and Kioto would become one huge stadium. Fighters would be divided into two teams. The best heavy-weight wrestler was called hote. He was followed by vaki wrestlers and 17 other categories of fighters. The main difference between Heyan and modern sumo is that in ancient times there were no rules or limitations. This often resulted in traumas during competitions. After each fight the referees would announce a name of a winner and stick an arrow into the ground. Only important commanders could be referees. If they could not come to an agreement among themselves then an emperor would say his final word that was regarded as speech of sinto gods.

          The last competition of this kind took place in 1174. The great discord that started in the country almost destroyed the ritual meaning of sumo. It was revived only during Tokugava epoch. At this time its 72 rules were finalized and a certain procedure for competitions was set forth. Since then not much has changed.

          Starting from Tokugava epoch a special ring (dohe) started to be constructed for sumo wrestlers. It has an area of 18 square feet and is lifted two feet above the ground on a clay base. The fight takes place in the inner circle. Its diameter is a little bit larger than 15 feet. Sometimes a special roof that resembles a roof of a sinto temple is constructed .

          In order to win a fight you have to force your opponent to touch the ground with any part of his body or push him out of the inner circle. It is completely against the rules to hit him with a fist. Since there are no weight restrictions sometimes you can see two people of different weight categories fighting with each other. Though the technical side is very important often a fatter wrestler wins. On top of a fighters' list you will see names of 5 best wrestlers: jokodzuna (an absolute winner), odzeki (a winner), sakivake, komisubi and maegasira. The competitions start with fights between rikisi (ordinary wrestlers) and finish with fights between champions. Each wrestler takes part in one fight a day. Each time he has a new opponent.

          The Jokodzuna title was put in use three hundred years ago. Since that time only fifty wrestlers were considered good enough to bear it. In order to get this title, a fighter has to win at least two championships. The champion holds this title throughout all his life even if he starts losing fights.

          During the fight rikisi are wearing torimavasi, a wide cloth belt which is nine meters long. They are also wearing a special string on their hips. It has zigzag cloth strips attached to it. This is a special sinto gohei talisman for protecting a wrestler from evil spirits who are also fond of sumo! Sumo masters are entitled to a special pseudonym, sikona. It includes one hieroglyph from a wrestler's teacher's name and one from a club's name. Very often sumo fighters would take a special name which is translated like Lightning, Thunder, Hurricane, etc. Sometimes names could be of a boastful character, i.e. Tamer of dragons, or Terror of Edo or Fortress of Iron Clods.

          But the most amazing thing in sumo wrestling are the wrestlers themselves. They are real giants with huge muscles and thick layers of fat. Still they are very lithe. They get training in special schools that accept boys who are 10-15 years old. Though sturdy and strong boys have the advantage no one of them looks like a real sumo fighter. The specific shape of their bodies is achieved through hard training. The special attention is paid to the growth of muscles and the increase of weight. For instance, the famous fighter by the name of Ktanofudzi weighed only 66 kg when he was young. When he became a celebrity his weight already was 132 kg!

         Sumo wrestlers have a very strict day schedule. At 6 o'clock on an empty stomach they start training that lasts for 4 or 5 hours. Then they take a hot bath (furo) and have breakfast. For breakfast they have whatever they want. They usually eat five or six ordinary meals. After such a heavy breakfast they take a nap which is necessary to digest food. At the end of the day they have another training and then eat a light supper. Sumo wrestlers are allowed to drink alcohol. They prefer bear and sake. Though the giants eat only twice a day they grow muscles extremely fast since their food ration is based mostly on rice and meat dishes. The bodily mass is a special attribute of sumo wrestling. After wrestlers retire they get rid of fat with the help of massage and diet. Usually the whole process takes up to 3 or 4 years.

          Besides the excessive weight sumo fighters are famous for their weird hairstyles. When in 1871 the emperor Maizy issued a decree about haircuts only rikisi managed to avoid them. They retained their right to wear complicated hairstyles. Nowadays in Japan there are only 10 tokoyama, people who specialize in creating sumo hairstyles. Most of sumo fighters apply to the services of their apprentices.

          The referees also look very colorful! Their kimonos are made in accordance with the styles developed 600 years ago. Referees rank is recognized by the color of tassels on his fan. Champions' fights are refereed by very special people. They have right to wear tabi socks and straw geta sandals. Other referees are barefoot. Before a fight starts they walk along a ring throwing cleansing salt on the ground. It is done in order to get rid of evil spirits. They use 15 kg of salt daily!

          Nowadays in Japan 6 grand championships are being hold within a year, each of them lasts 15 days, three days in Tokyo, one day in Osaka, one day in Nagoya and one day on Kiusy island. At the end of a championship a winner is awarded with the Emperor's Cup. By that day the Japanese sumo association will have bandzuke (tables with names of winners) produced. After everything is finished fans start waiting eagerly for another championship.

by Alina Gorlova Return to the contents