Seeing a sumo match is an important check mark completing any extended visit to Japan. Sumo is the Japanese sport in which a ‘rikishi,’ or sumo wrestler attempts to force another wrestler either out of the ‘dohyō,’ or ring, or to force them to touch the ground with a part of their body other than the soles of their feet. The sport has a history spanning centuries and many traditions and ritual elements.
The tournament itself is a round robin where each fighter of the top two divisions will compete once a day, with the lower ranked fighters competing on just seven of the days. These ‘honbasho’ (literally main, or real tournament) are held just six times a year, and are the only times that a rikishi can climb or fall in their rankings. It is thus imperative that they attain ‘kachikoshi’ – winning a majority of their bouts – to at least maintain their current status. The lower ranked wrestlers’ fights begin at a little after the venue doors open at around 8:15, but the crowds tend not to arrive until about 15:30 before the ‘dohyō-iri’ ritual, the entering of the top-ranking ‘makunouchi’ wrestlers to the ring.
Sumo has its roots in Shinto practices many centuries old. This is most obviously reflected in the fact that the referee, or ‘gyoji’, is dressed in the fashion of a Heian Period (AD 794 – 1185) Shinto priest, and that above the ring is a canopy in the style of a shrine roof made of the same material and built using the same techniques as that of the Grand Shrine in Ise.
Another way in which we can see the Shinto religion in sumo is in the prefight rituals. Prior to the bouts of those wrestlers ranked in the top division of fighters, these ‘makunouchi’ will enter the dohyō together dressed in ‘mawashi’ loincloths, extravagantly decorated and donated by wealthy patrons or company sponsors. Following this the ‘Yokozuna’ (the highest ranked wrestler, denoted by the 20kg braided hemp rope wrapped around his waist from which hang white zigzag shaped papers like those at Shinto shrines) will enter the ring. This fighter claps his hands vigorously to summon the spirits and stamps heavily on the ground to ‘stamp on’ any evil spirits. This ritual shows the historically shaman-esque status that the sumo wrestler holds, and is perhaps the most internationally famous element of sumo. It is a moment not to be missed.
Before two wrestlers face each other they will scatter handfuls of salt around the ring as purification, another nod to the Shinto background. Respect plays a huge part in the competition of the rikishi, and the greeting ceremony is of the utmost importance. The wrestlers greet each other crouched, holding eye contact. They rub their hands and clap to summon the gods once more as to not enter combat alone. They extend their arms , palms up and then down to show that they are unarmed, before placing hands on their knees. As well as showing respect, this is also a moment to intimidate and unsettle the opponent and often, with this ritual seemingly completed, a wrestler may return to his feet and begin once again in order to psyche out his opponent. Today this is limited to a maximum of four minutes, but in the past it could have gone on for hours.
After the greeting ceremony is completed, both wrestlers touch their fists on the ground in readiness and, as the referee yells “Hakkeyoi”, the fight begins. As most fights last for little more than a few seconds, and rarely more than a minute, the ‘Tachiai’, the moment of first impact, is perhaps the most important moment of a fight, with 70% of fights decided in this instant. There are 82 official techniques for a wrestler to win a fight, all of which culminate with their opponent either touching the ground with a body part other than the soles of the feet, or stepping out of the dohyō.
After the battle the loser bows acceptance and leaves the ring. The winner crouches again and the referee announces the victory by calling ‘winner east’ or ‘winner west’, depending on the geographic location of the rikishi’s stable, or team. The winner shows his respect to the loser by making a closing arm movement, though no emotion is to be shown in any event: victory and defeat are to be taken with equal dispassion. He is then given kensho envelopes filled with prize money, donated by patrons and sponsors.
In sumo the referee’s word is final, and even if there was cause to appeal a decision, a fighter would not be permitted to do so due to the respect he is duty-bound to show. However in each competition there is a panel of judges, former rikishi, who can overrule a referee’s decision, and though there is no video replay, they may check the footprints in the ring. This is a relatively new occurrence in sumo, and the first referee to have his decision overturned was so pained by his perceived loss of face that he committed suicide.
After all of the fighting is done and the victories are totted up, a winner is declared in an elaborate presentation ceremony at which a band plays the Japanese national anthem and Handel’s Hail, the Conquering Hero. The winner is presented with an immense trophy, the Emperor’s cup, as well as two tonnes of rice; a tonne of chestnuts, grapes and pears; four tonnes of onions; and a year’s supply of sake amongst other prizes that can include cash and cars.
As in his fight, the winner accepts all this with stoicism, and returns to his stable where he celebrates by drinking sake from a large bowl and holding up large sea bream fish for waiting photographers.
“The July Tournament,” or the Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament takes place every July at the Aichi Prefectural Gymnasium near Nagoya Castle. Nagoya hosts one of six annual Grand Sumo Tournaments. Grand Tournaments are held every two months, and each last for 15 days. Fukuoka, Osaka, and Nagoya each host one of the Grand Tournaments, while three more are held in Tokyo.
July 12 to July 26, 2015
Advanced ticket purchases can be made by telephone, online, at the venue (Aichi Prefectural Gymnasium 10:00 AM – 5:00 PM / closed Saturdays, Sundays & holidays), or through a variety of other ticket agents outlined on the Nihon Sumo Kyokai Official Grand Sumo Home Page. Tickets go on sale from May 21.
Ray Proper and Mark Guthrie
Photo: Wikimedia - "Asashoryu fight Jan08" by Arcimboldo - (CC BY 3.0) - modified