According to the Japanese legend, the very origin of the Japanese race depended on the outcome of a sumo match. The supremacy of the Japanese people on the island of Japan was supposedly established when the god, Takemikazuchi, won a sumo bout with the leader of a rival tribe. Apart from legend, however, sumo is an ancient sport dating back some 1500 years.
Sumo origins were religious: The first sumo matches were a form of ritual dedicated to the gods with prayers for a bountiful harvest and were performed together with sacred dancing and dramas within the precincts of the shrine.
During the intense waring period in 1192, Sumo was regarded chiefly for its military usefulness as a means of increasing the efficiency of the fighting men. The samurai later developed the fighting style of jujitsu as an off shoot of sumo.
A sumo bout is won by forcing the opponent outside of the inner circle of the dohyo. Though, to lose a match it is not necessary to be completely pushed out. The rikishi who touches the ground with any part of his body, his knee, the tip of his finger, or even his top-knot, loses the match. There are also no weight classes or weight limits in sumo. Weight and strength are definitely an asset… so, the bigger the better!
There are six grand tournaments a year that last for fifteen days each. The winner of the tournament is the rikishi with the best fighting record of wins over loses. He is awarded the Emperor’s Cup on the last day. In addition, there are three different prizes awarded. The shukun-sho is given to the rikishi who upset the most grand champions (the under-dog award). The kanto-sho is given for fighting with the most spirit, and the and the gino-sho is awarded for technique.
Sumo has managed to survive with its formalized ritual and traditional etiquette intact making it unique among sports. Each day of the tournament, the rikishi walk down the isle in a line wearing their brightly coloured aprons or kesho-mawashi. These aprons are made of silk and are designed with intricate embroidery. These aprons can cost anywhere from 400,000 to 500,000 yen, which in Canadian dollars is roughly $4,000 to $5,000.
The ceremonial dance is performed with the greatest dignity. The yokozuna first claps his hands together to attract the attention of the gods. He then extends his arms to the sides and turns his palms upwards to show that he is not concealing any weapons. Then he lifts one leg high into the air then the other, bringing each leg down with a loud stamp on the ground symbolically driving evil from the dohyo.
Now it’s time to fight… or is it? After entering the dohyo, each rikishi goes through a series of symbolic movements. To cleanse his mind and body, he rinses his mouth with water, the source of purity, and wipes his body with a towel. Certain motions are repeated from the ceremonial dance (raising his arms to the side and the stamping of his feet). Each rikishi also scatters a handful of salt to purify the ring. The rikishi then squat in the centre of the ring facing each other in anticipation of their first clash. Here they engage in a kind of “cold warfare” as they glare at one another. This process is repeated and lasts up to four minutes. Finally, they launch themselves towards each other creating a big “slap” as their bodies make contact. A wave of rippling flesh passes through each rikishi as he bares-down against the weight of his opponent. Each match is over within seconds. It seems like a lot of pomp and circumstance for such a quick fight, but I guess that it’s all a part of the “big show”.
So, if you ever visiting Japan, I highly recommend catching a sumo match! The matches begin at 8:30am. The champions hit the dohyo at around 4:30pm. Order yourself a few Sapporo beers and enjoy the show. Hopefully you will have a better idea of what’s going on in the centre ring.