Sumo wrestlers are the largest and heaviest of athletes. And
when they sprinkle the salt, stomp their feet and exchange
intimidating positions to begin the bout, one gets to watch
one of the most scintillating sights in the world of sport.
This is among the features that has made Sumo wrestling so
thrilling to the Japanese for centuries and now to the West.
The biggest proof of this is the recent win of the highest
Grand Champion title by the US-born Akebono.
is no clear date when Sumo wrestling, Japan’s national
sport, evolved as few written records have been maintained.
Sumo is also regarded as the earliest of martial arts with
Jujitsu being its direct descendant. Many believe it goes
back 1,500 years, while some fans say that ancient paintings
have revealed that the sport was played in 23 BC.
thing is for sure that Sumo wrestling has its origins in
religion. According to legend, the very origin of the
Japanese race marked the victory of a God, Take-Mikazuchi,
over his rival Take-Minakata in a Sumo fight. The Emperor of
Japan traces his ancestry to Take-Mikazuchi. The bouts,
along with dramas and dances, form part of the rituals and
prayers dedicated to the Gods for a bountiful harvest.
the beginning, these were held mostly in shrines and later
moved to the forecourts of warlords, who used the event as
another means to demonstrate power. In the 8th
Century, Sumo became an integral part of ceremonies of the
Imperial Court and most of the rules and techniques then
developed laid the foundations for the Sumo we know of
today. Today’s Japanese Sumo Association has its direct
origins in the professional Sumo groups first formed in the
early 17th Century.
most fascinating thing is the wrestler’s gigantic size
that is based on a scientific principle – the heavier the
fighter, the lower his center of gravity and therefore that
much tougher for a rival to force him out of the ring. To
ensure this, the wrestler has an elaborate rice-based diet.
For breakfast, he is served chanko – a fat-rich stew
comprising pork, eggs, cabbage and bean sprouts. Then after
training, it is lunch followed by a nap. Soon, they are
ready for dinner. This process, too, is based on a principle
that heavy eating followed by sleep results in weight gain.
Not surprisingly, the champions weigh several hundred
pounds. Though they look obese, they do pump a lot of iron.
the contestant wore beautifully embroidered aprons
indicating the feudal family he represented. 17th
Century onwards, the hair was tied into a topknot to cushion
the fighter’s head during a fall. This tradition continues
till date. Nowadays, wrestlers wear equally colorful aprons
that denote their birthplace, ranking and the professional
group they belong to.
commencement of the game is preceded by a ring-purifying
ceremony. Salt and sake (rice wine) are placed at the center,
after which the priest blesses the ring. Salt is meant to
purify the ring and rid it of evil spirits. Just before the
bout, the wrestler rinses his mouth with water to
symbolically cleanse his mind and body. The higher the
ranking, the greater are the ritualistic obligations on the
wrestler. For instance, the Grand Champion has to perform a
dance before the bout. The steps are only extensions of his
is said to be essentially a mind game, which is why there
are occasions when opponents stare at each other far longer
rather than engaging in the physical bout itself. In the
4.55-metre wide ring, there is much slapping and pushing.
The aim here is to break the other’s concentration.
Kicking in the groin or the chest or any move intended to
injure the contestant is not allowed.
wrestler’s dress is the mewashi or loincloth.
Interestingly, these are never washed as belief has it that
if washed, the wrestlers’ entire experience is washed away
in the process. At the physical level of the bout, it is the
mewashi that the rivals seek to hold in a vice-like grip so
that he can try to have the rival’s body, other than the
soles, touch the mat. Thereafter, it is simple – the
winner goes up in rank and the loser is demoted. And no
matter what, the wrestler would simply show no emotion.