50 trillion pounds of sumo

By Patrick Boyle

Sumo. The very word evokes a flurry of images in the mind of the average Westerner. Enormous men trying to push each other out of a ring; diaper-clad bodies colliding with a resounding “smack;” E. Honda’s mysterious “machine gun slap” from Street Fighter II.

While these perceptions are not entirely inaccurate, the sport has many other fascinating features which are not so widely known. Strict rules of conduct, regimented training programs and lucrative advertising contracts are all part of the intriguing world of modern sumo.

The sport itself is several centuries old. From its origins as a ritual dance in the Shinto faith, it took a vital first step toward its current form in the eighth century when it took on aspects of fighting and gained popularity as an event at the ceremonies of the Imperial Court. Although the rules of sumo have evolved over the years to suit the circumstances of specific eras, today’s Grand Tournaments bear a striking resemblance to their ancient predecessors. The last major rule change in sumo was over 50 years ago.

The ultimate goal of a modern sumo match is quite simple: each rikishi (calling them "wrestlers" is a serious misnomer) tries to force his opponent out of the dohyo (ring) or onto the ground. The fighting component actually tends to be rather brief, usually lasting only a few seconds. In some extreme cases, two rikishi will last as long as a few minutes, madly groping at each other’s belts and attempting to shove or throw their opponent. For many first-time watchers, the brevity of the matches is one of the most disappointing aspects of sumo.

To focus solely on the grappling, however, is a serious mistake. Prior to the initial clash and the displays of tremendous strength and speed, the rikishis spend several minutes performing ancient cleansing rituals and vying for a tangible psychological advantage.

Between trips to their corners to drink water and scatter purifying salt on the dohyo, the combatants toe the mark and engage in an intense stare down. Stomping their feet and stretching their arms, the rikishi are allowed to spend up to four minutes in this pre-match showdown. Although spectators who are new to sumo tend to find this aspect slow and tedious, to seasoned fans it is every bit as important as the physical component.

In an interesting parallel to Japan’s historical penchant for feudalism, sumo features a hierarchical ranking system. Prior to each of the six Grand Tournaments (Basho) that take place in a year, organizers release an updated version of the ranking in the form of a document called the Banzuke.

Approximately 40 of the best rikishi make up the elite maku-uchi division, which garners the most attention from fans. Within this division the five ranks, in order of increasing prestige, are Maegashira, Komusubi, Sekiwake, Ozeki and Yokozuna. Normally, there are 30, two, two, four and two rikishi in each of these ranks, respectively.

Since the creation of the top position three centuries ago, organizers have only appointed 68 Yokozuna. In order to achieve this extreme honour, a rikishi must win a minimum of two consecutive Basho while holding the rank of Ozeki. Unlike all other ranks, these masters of sumo can never be demoted, although if they experience a string of bad performances, their code of honour demands a voluntary resignation.

At present, the sole Yokozuna is Asashoryu–a limber, 23-year-old Mongolian. Although he has displayed incredible ability in his unusually quick ascent to the top, the Grand Champion has a significant lack of fans.

One reason for this apparent paradox is an ongoing series of reprimands issued by the organizational committee, chastising Asashoryu for "un-sumo-like" behavior, such as wearing a suit in public. Meanwhile, the same group seems determined to give popular Japanese rikishi like Tochiazuma and Takamisakari the upper hand by bending rules for Yokozuna promotion and overlooking obvious candidates for demotion.

In January, Asashoryu managed to silence many of his critics by winning a zensho-yusho (clean sweep), at the year’s first Basho. Still, the Japanese tendency to treat foreigners–especially fellow Asians–as second-class citizens is an ever-present problem.

In sumo, as in other aspects of life in Japan, this xenophobic mentality is gradually disappearing as the vestiges of World War Two-era ultranationalism are wiped away. It would be fitting to see a progressive change in the country’s mentality catalyzed by the sport that has outlived every era of Japanese warfare.

Of course, in order to survive and make a difference in society, sumo will have to weather at least one major storm.

For many years, it enjoyed widespread support from the Japanese people as the national sport but its hold on public attention has begun to slip. With the popularity of soccer on the rise and baseball firmly entrenched as the nation’s most rabidly-followed sport, the idea of watching large men slam into each other is becoming increasingly unappealing, especially among young people. Could this be the beginning of the end?

Probably not. In spite of these 21st century growing pains, the organizers—like lumbering rikishi–are slowly realizing that the time to change has arrived. In order to remain relevant and competitive, they need to market the sport to a new generation of fans and the ever-growing expatriate community.

With young, powerful rikishi like Asashoryu leading the charge, it is quite likely sumo will be throwing its weight around for many years to come.

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