The Japan we know and love is full of interesting quirks that make it so unique. Sumo is no exception to this rule with a history dating back over 1,500 years as a shinto ritual. Throughout history it was performed in shrines to ensure a bountiful harvest.
Like many traditions in Japan, these have withstood the test of time. Even today top level sumo wrestlers purify the ring upon entry and Tokyo’s biggest arena, the Ryogoku Kokugikan has a roof hung above the sacred ring to honor these ancient traditions.
This article will examine why you need to go watch a match, although these tournaments are rare, we will talk about our experience with Sumo and what made it so special.
First let’s talk about the tournament itself, tickets for the best tournament in Tokyo start at around 4000 yen for the furthest seats whereas the seats directly next to the ring are the most expensive. These seats are unique however as unlike the expensive seats in boxes of football games in Tokyo, these are simply cushions placed on the floor a few feet away from the ring. It is so close to the ring in fact that I witnessed numerous bystanders get flattened by Sumo wrestlers getting tossed out of the ring by their opponent. The tournament itself is split into three rounds of essentially the junior, intermediate and senior Sumo wrestlers. In the junior division of which is the biggest by far, the level of play increases throughout the round. What nobody told us is that this whole event can take up to 10 hours so nearly no-body witnesses the entire event! This would’ve been good advice as by the time we left we all had chair imprints after 10 hours of sitting on painful wooden chairs.
The stadium we visited was the infamous Ryogoku Kokugikan arena. The Arena is awe inspiring and dotted with many shops selling souvenirs and snacks. At the time of writing this there was a one drink limit on alcoholic beverages however, this is unlikely to be the case when COVID is no longer prominent. A food hall is also present and sells the notorious ‘Chanko’, a dish sumo wrestlers have been eating for centuries. The queue can take upwards of 30 minutes but it is definitely an experience that is worth the patience. The stew itself is delicious and surprisingly healthy which runs contrary to what you would expect for the main source of nutrition of the large Sumo wrestlers in the arena. The Sumo wrestlers actually gain weight because of the amount and timing of their food which is timed to coincide with after exercise and before sleep in order to turn most of it into mass.
In fact, Sumo wrestlers haven’t always been the shape we know and love today. Interestingly, Sumo wrestlers haven’t always been fat and ‘skinny’ sumo wrestlers were a thing of antiquity. As weight classes are not a thing in Sumo, you can theoretically play in any division. Sumo wrestlers praise weight only because it allows them to use their mass to their advantage. Some sumo wrestlers however such as the notorious Takanoyama Shuntaro who was a Czech wrestler achieving high ranking in 2011 with a comparatively miniscule weight. This weight however has become a large issue for Sumo wrestlers as it greatly decreases life expectancy and bizarrely, they are not allowed to drive cars.
The matches themselves only last a few seconds however they are incredibly action packed. The rules of Sumo are simple, a sumo wrestler who is thrown out of the ring or hits the floor with anything apart from his feet loses. Additionally, a Sumo wrestler can also lose if he is ‘de-clothed’. One aspect of sumo that some including me find confusing is that the match doesn’t start until both hands are placed on the ring, this leads to a lot of messing around as wrestlers try to psyche eachother out. The issue with this is that while matches often last less than 30 seconds, this faffing around can take up to ten minutes. It is both stress inducing and infuriating to see them just stare at eachother and walk around.
That begs the question, what makes sumo so interesting? Well apart from the adrenaline inducing fights these titans have when they clash together in the arena, the culture and environment makes a Sumo match incredibly unique. For better or worse, Sumo is dominated by rules and traditions.
Sumo wrestlers live a heavily regimented life living in a stable together. They train unbelievable hours everyday to make them the terrifying athletes we see in the arena. Wrestlers live,eat, train and sleep in the arena every day until they get married and are authorized to move out. In the stables, life is tough and hierarchical, where the lower ranked wrestlers wake up first, do all the chores and cook for the other wrestlers. They are also the last to eat, bathe and sleep. They are also subject to intense hazing, a part os sumo culture intended to toughen them up but can go awry and lead to serious injury or death.
Sumo wrestlers must additionally wear traditional dress wherever they go in uniforms resembling ancient samurai. The dress is also controlled to represent their rank. Lower ranked Sumo wrestlers must wear boring, low quality and thin clothing with wooden slippers, even in the depths of winter. Only the highest ranked Sumo wrestlers wrapped in luxury linen can choose the patterns for their clothing.
Sumo life is also controlled outside the arena where sumo wrestlers must behave in certain ways and always have a stoic poker-face on, in or out of the arena. Interestingly, Sumo referees also live regimented lives with referees entering the sport at 16 and ending only with retirement. These referees are also ranked with the highest rank being ‘gyoji’ consisting of only one master referee. The gyoji even carries a ceremonial dagger to show the gravity of his decisions as in ancient times a wrong decision could warrant self inflicted disembowelment or ‘seppoku’. It is these traditions and rules that make sumo so interesting and a must watch in Tokyo as viewers are transported back in time to witness a sport as those have been doing for centuries.
However, It is these same traditions that unfortunately harbor aspects unacceptable by modern standards, Sumo stables for example are only allowed one foreigner at a time to keep the sport ‘Japanese’. Additionally, Women cannot be sumo wrestlers or even enter the arena for any circumstance as this would violate the purity of the ring. Even important figures have not been allowed to go onto the ring to hand over trophies as culture would dictate. While these certainly raise questions, the experience is still undeniably worth it as it is these traditions that form the sport we know today. A sport which by any standard is thrilling to watch.