EVERYONE THINKS THEY KNOW WHAT sumo wrestling is. It’s about big fat guys slamming into each other, right? But its more than that. Sumo may seem comical to many but it is actually a very serious business – there is an awful lot more to sumo wrestling than most outsiders ever realise.
Sumo is a religious ritual: Compared with most sports in the world today, sumo originated a heck of a long time ago. About 1,500 years, in fact. From the very beginning it was entwined with Shinto ritual when it was performed at shrines to ensure a bountiful harvest and to honour the spirits – known as kami. Sumo is still very closely associated with its religious origins and Shinto principles continue to govern the everyday life of today’s sumo wrestlers. Each of the ring entering ceremonies is a Shinto purification ritual and every newly promoted yokozuna (the highest rank in sumo) performs his first ring-entering ceremony at the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo. The canopy that hangs over the ring is modelled after the roof of a Shinto shrine, indicating that the ring itself is a holy place.
Sumo wrestlers aren’t allowed to drive cars: It sounds absurd but this is actually true. After a serious car accident involving a sumo wrestler, the Sumo Association banned wrestlers from driving their own cars. Sumo wrestlers have to wear traditional clothes: In accordance with the strict rules governing their lives, sumo wrestlers aren’t even allowed to choose their own clothes. As soon as they join a stable they are expected to grow their hair in order to form a topknot or chonmage, similar to the samurai hairstyles of the Edo Period. They are expected to wear this hairstyle and traditional dress at all times when out in public – which means that sumo wrestlers are pretty easy to spot on the subway!
The rules of the match: A sumo match doesn’t start until both wrestlers have placed both hands on the ground at the same time. This leads to quite a lot of fannying about whilst each wrestler tries to psyche the other out, pretending to put his hand down and then getting back up again. Once they finally do begin, it is very rare for sumo bouts to last longer than a few seconds – although occasionally they can up to four minutes. This means that the action is very fast-paced and exciting. A match ends when one of the wrestlers is either thrown out of the ring or if any part of his body apart from the soles of his feet