Japan Culture Corner: Sumo!

Useful Japanese words:
Rikishi 力士 / りきし (Professional Sumo Wrestler)
Gyōji 行司 / ぎょうじ (Sumo Referee)
Yokozuna 横綱 / よこづな (Grand Champion)
Ryōgoku Kokugikan 両国国技館 / りょうごくこくぎかん (Sumo Hall (arena))
Dohyo-iri 土俵入り / どひょういり (Ring-entering Ceremony)

The Ryogoku Kokugikan (Sumo Hall) was buzzing with excitement as spectators entered the building. Some of the locals were wearing their traditional Japanese yukatas to the event, celebrating a traditional Japanese sport. The outside of the building had painted murals of Sumo wrestlers, and the foyer was lined with more murals and inscriptions detailing the history, legends and mythology of Sumo. Fans wandered around the halls, buying food and souvenirs. The bouts between wrestlers had technically already started, but these were preliminary rounds, so the audience was a bit lighter. Everyone knew that the really good fights would be later in the afternoon, so now was the best time to explore the accessories and attractions around the arena. A tour guide mentioned an interesting fact. He said that being hit by a rikishi (professional Sumo wrestler) was about equal to being hit by a truck! We filled out a form prior to the bouts, checking off which of the competitors we thought might win each match.

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Gradually visitors found their way to their assigned seats. The Ryogoku Kokugikan has four sides, like a square. Each side is labeled by direction, north (北), south (南), east (東), and west (西). Sections are equally divided according to the side they are on. The seats rise at a steep angle above the center ring. The fighting ring (dohyo 土俵) is on a square platform with a circle outline extending almost to the platform edges. The inside of the circle has a layer of sand and two short lines in the center which serve to separate the two competitors as starting positions. Announcers boom over the PA system behind the chattering of the crowd.

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Soon two rikishi step up into the dohyo and begin performing the dohyo-iri, or ring-entering ceremony. This ritual can take 3-5 minutes, the length of which is determined by the rikishi themselves. It takes place before every Sumo bout, and the wrestling itself may only last a few seconds. The rikishi do stretches, leg lifts, and often slap their bodies with their hands against their belly or thighs making a clapping sound. They will go to the corners and wipe themselves with a cloth or take a drink, then grab a handful of salt and toss the salt into the dohyo. The throwing of salt into the dohyo is believed to be a sign of purification that has its roots in the Shinto religion. The activities that each rikishi performs are mirrored by one another according to type, but not specifically the same exact movement. They will often do leg lifts at the same time, but not necessarily in sync with each other. They will both exit and enter the circle, but not necessarily at exactly the same time. There is a pattern to their ritual, but it is not synchronized choreography.

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The rikishi finally crouch in their starting positions for the last time to initiate the fight. The gyōji (Sumo referee) stands off to the south side of the dohyo in a wide stance, watching very closely. The rikishi always start on the east and west sides of the dohyo. Generally the rikishi on the east side is of the higher rank in the Sumo ranking system. The gyōji wears fancy traditional garments in the practice of their duties. Once a victor is named, the gyōji will announce the winning technique to the crowd and will stand in front of the winning rikishi and lower a fan toward him. In the championship bouts, the fan also holds some sort of paper or envelop award, sometimes multiple, depending on the significance of that bout, which could cause changes in rank for the rikishi. In the final bout there may be additional awards and ceremonial presentations.

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The rikishi lunge at each other suddenly, grasping for a stronghold and reaching for each other’s belts to gain advantage. There are two ways for a rikishi to win. (1) He must force his opponent out of the ring, or (2) he must force his opponent to touch the ground with any part of the body other than the bottoms of his feet. As soon as one of these happens, the bout is over and the fighting ends. This can happen very quickly, and often does. As soon as one of the two conditions are met, the rikishi return to the center of the dohyo and the gyōji formally acknowledges the winner.

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After preliminary bouts, there is an intermission and another ritual ceremony is held. This ceremony involves 3 rikishi from each side (east and west), one of which is a yokozuna (Grand Champion). The yokozuna is in the center of the three, with another holding a sheathed sword to his right. The yokozuna does ritual clapping and moves to the center of the dohyo at the base of the two white lines marking the starting positions. He claps and lifts his leg and drops it, landing in a wide stance with the feet on or outside of the white lines. After every time he drops his foot, the crowd shouts, “yoishou!” Roughly it has a significance of acknowledging the heftiness of the rikishi, like the impact of something tremendously heavy and powerful. From his wide stance, the yokozuna performs a sort of heel-toe forward movement from a squatted position as he moves along the white lines without lifting his feet completely off of the ground. As he nears the other end of the lines he gradually stands up fully. He then does the leg lifts again and more ritual clapping. Soon after this, the ceremony ends, there is a break, and then the final bouts begin.

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Click HERE to see a video of this ritual!

Finally, at the end of the tournament we have the last bout between the two top competitors! At least one of them is already a yokozuna. More than one can hold the title of yokozuna at a time. As they perform the dohyo-iri, attendants circle the edges of the platform parading the banners supporting each of these rikishi. Each banner represents a sum of prize money from a sponsor which will be given to the winner of that bout. Elite competitors like yokozuna usually have many sponsors and a lot of prize money to be won. The winner is presented with certificates and other items and performs more ceremonial rituals upon receiving the championship awards.

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Click HERE to see a video of the final bout from beginning to end, including the dohyo-iri and championship award rituals!

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For some of the murals and history seen in the foyer of the Ryogoku Kokugikan, see the images below!

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(Above) This is a depiction of Oda Nobunga’s Sumo tournament in the second half of the 16th century. Professional rikishi (Sumo wrestlers) emerged in the 15th century. This picture shows us a state of affairs nearing today’s ozumo. The Dohyo (Sumo ring) came into being in the second half of the 17th century and modern day ozumo emerged in the middle of the 18th century.

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(Above) This is a depiction of the bout between Nomino Sukune and Taimano Kehaya. It is thought that Sumo began as a competition of strength. Sukune won the bout and is worshipped as the god of Sumo. The tale of this battle is in the “Nihon Shoki (720).”

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(Above) This is a depiction of the gods Takemikazuchi and Takeminakata fighting each other at Inasa No Hama in the Izumo district (present-day Shimane prefecture). This is said to be the origin of Sumo. The bout is mentioned in the “Kojiki (712).”

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(Above) This is a depiction of an Imperial court Sumo ceremony in the Heian era (794~1192). Sumo bouts were held annually as ritual ceremonies prayer for a good harvest. The ceremonies became a regular event in the Imperial court and continued for 400 years.

Thank you for reading! I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about Sumo. Go out and find your own adventures and stories, then share them with me! I also welcome guest bloggers if you have a story or experience you’d like to share, please contact me and let me know!

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