The dying sport of sumo wrestling

20 Mar

Sumo wrestlers gorge themselves at every meal, wash it down with plenty of beer, and have daily afternoon naps. They wear yukatas, which are light kimono-like robes and incredibly comfortable, for the majority of their day. On fight days, they are exerting themselves to the maximum for less than one minute. This is a sport I can get behind.

The sumo ring at the Osaka Grand Sumo Tournament.

The sumo ring at the Osaka Grand Sumo Tournament.

I recently watched sumo for the first time as part of the Osaka Grand Sumo Tournament, which runs until March 24. There are six tournaments a year, held in Tokyo, Osaka, Fukuoka and Nagoya. Tokyo holds three tournaments a year, while there’s one a year in the other three cities. We stayed in the cheap seats for 3000 yen ($32) but they were fine for seeing all the action (they’re big guys).

Tournament days run from 8:30am to 6pm, with the least experienced fighters at the beginning leading up to the yokozunas, the top fighters, in the evening. Each wrestler fights just once a day.

Ring entering ceremony with a yokozuna, wearing a sacred rope, in the middle.

Ring entering ceremony with a yokozuna, wearing a sacred rope, in the middle.

The rules of the actual fight are incredibly simple — knock your opponent out of the ring or off his feet. A match can last only a few seconds, the longest ones we saw only lasted a couple of minutes. These matches are surrounded by much ritual. So the majority of the time you are watching the wrestlers squat, slap themselves, and throw salt. These are all rituals associated with the Shinto religion, such as salt being thrown to purify the ring and leg stomping to drive evil spirits out.

Each sumo wrestler belongs to a stable where they train and usually live. Their lives are devoted to the sport. They must always have their hair in a top knot and wear a yukata and sandals. This makes them very easy to recognize out in public. I was beyond excited to see one of the subway in Tokyo and now they’re wandering all over my neighbourhood!

Don't fall over, sumo wrestler!

Don’t fall over, sumo wrestler!

The traditional sumo meal is chankonabe, a stew of meat, fish, tofu and vegetables, rice and beer. The wrestlers don’t eat breakfast, but rather train and do chores in the morning, have a big lunch then have a long nap. This keeps on the weight (a good reminder to eat breakfast!). Sounds like a nice life, except their life expectancy is 60 or 65.

Going to sumo was very fun and felt very Japanese. The stadium was only a quarter filled when we got there but got much busier leading up to the yokozuna matches. There was much yelling and cheering. As we didn’t really know any of the wrestlers, we chose which wrestler to cheer for after they came into the ring and we sized them up.

Ring entering ceremony.

Ring entering ceremony.

While watching sumo seemed like a traditional Japanese thing to do, I was shocked to learn that many Japanese people have never seen sumo live! Only one of my students had seen sumo when she was a child, but all the others hadn’t. They said they thought it was boring and had only seen it on TV.

One student said baseball was much more popular and exciting and no one watched sumo anymore. Another told me that since there are no Japanese yokozunas now it’s not as popular. Sumo has many foreigners now competing, with some of the top wrestlers from Mongolia.

With fewer and fewer people interested in sumo, will this unique Japanese sport soon become a thing of the past?


2 Responses to “The dying sport of sumo wrestling”

  1. Denis September 25, 2015 at 10:44 am #

    I love sumo ! Its far more exiting than our sports in the west because you can see who wins really fast and you don’t have to loose nerves for 40 or 90 minutes. Japanese are weird that they like baseball better since you have to watch for several hours how some dudes scratch and do nothing, but well you can’t argue about the taste in Europe its football and basketball … I watched my first Sumo tournament in August when I was on vacation in Serbia, I think the tournament was the one in Fukuoka it was Amazing and that Sumo wrestler I cheered for won, Mongolian yokozuna that won 32d tournamet :)

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