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Sumo Wrestling From Past to Present


The Birth of Sumo


Sumo wrestling is a form of Japanese martial arts that has existed for roughly two millenia, and is still widely practiced today, especially in its country of origin. Sumo wrestling is a full contact combat sport, with specialized rules and techniques that set it apart from similar sports. The origin of sumo can be traced back roughly two thousand years, and was heavily influenced over that time period by Shinto Buddhism.


Some sources claim that the earliest form of sumo practiced in Japan was as a Shinto ritual dance, in which a warrior enters combat against a kami, or divine spirit. This ritual was frequently conducted at the imperial court, and a representative from each province would be chosen to take part in the ritual. There were almost certainly techniques and influences taken from the wrestling styles of neighboring countries, such as Mongolian wrestling and Shuai jiao (Chinese wrestling).


While modern sumo wrestling matches are a contest to control a center ring, original sumo matches would have been held with the goal of performing a successful throw or takedown against one's opponent. In fact, the fighting ring that makes sumo so famous was not incorporated into the sport until the sixteenth century. The beginnings of sumo as a professional sport came about during the Edo period of Japan, which is roughly when sumo really began to gain popularity. Masterless samurai, called ronin, would frequently train as sumo combatants in order to provide themselves with a secondary means of making money.


The first professional sumo wrestling tournament is considered to be the one held at Tomioka Hachiman Shrine in 1684. From there, sumo exploded in popularity and spread across Japan in no time. Osaka quickly became a center for sumo wrestling, and Osaka even had its own separate school until the mid-twentieth century when it began to merge with Tokyo style sumo. Today, sumo wrestling remains a popular sport, and many of the traditions of Shinto and the rituals associated with them have carried over into the modern sumo tournament.


Sumo Match Rules


Sumo wrestling matches are held in a special ring called a dohyo, which is fifteen feet in diameter and constructed on a platform made from a mixture of sand and clay. This platform is then layered with bales of rice-straw in order to absorb impacts. A new platform must be built for each tournament, and is taken down afterward. At the center of the dohyo are two parallel white lines, which mark the starting positions for each wrestler. For traditional matches, a roof mimicking that of a Shinto church is built over the wrestling ring, signifying the wrestling match as a part of the Buddhist belief.


The goal of a sumo match is to either force the opponent out of the dohyo, or to cause one's opponent to make contact with the ground with any body part other than the bottoms of the feet. Some rules are widely but not universally used, such as disqualifying a wrestler whose mawashi (wrestling belt) comes undone. A wrestler caught using an illegal technique (kinjite, or “forbidden hand”) is immediately disqualified and loses the match. A forfeiture and loss occurs if one fighter does not appear for the match, regardless of the cause (this includes no-shows due to injury).


Sumo Techniques


Sumo wrestling is very different from other Eastern martial arts, and from most combat sports in general, given the goal of a sumo match is very different. Because a match is not won by knockout, submission, or other traditional fighting methods, the techniques of sumo are highly specialized, though some movements are similar to (and likely responsible for) a number of Eastern throwing and grappling fighting styles.


Before a given match, most tournament will hold a brief ceremony in keeping with the Shinto tradition. A typical sumo match can be over in just a few seconds, or last for several minutes. Despite the generally large size of sumo wrestlers, the sport places an emphasis on swift movement and decisive attacks. Unlike many other competitive martial arts, sumo wrestling does not have weight classes on a professional level, meaning a wrestler could be matched against someone outweighing them by one or two hundred pounds. However, there are many techniques present in sumo wrestling that allow lighter wrestlers to take advantage of their greater speed to outmaneuver their opponents, and pure weight does not typically offer a clear advantage.


After a match, the judge pronounces the winner as well as the technique that was used to secure victory, called the kimarite. Sometimes, a wrestler may be the first to touch the ground, but have his opponent in a state of shini-tai, or “dead body.” Shini-tai means that even though one wrestler may have touched the ground a moment after the other, he is deemed to have been in an unrecoverable position, thus a technical victory is awarded to his opponent.


Professional Sumo Wrestling


Professional sumo wrestling is somewhat different than both other combat sports, and professional athletic careers in general. Sumo in Japan is refereed by the Japan Sumo Association, and each member of the association is a former professional wrestler. Retired wrestlers are, by organization rules, the only people who are allowed to train new wrestlers in the martial art.


Interestingly, one similarity between sumo and Western professional wrestling is the shikona, or wrestling name. Each professional wrestler chooses a shikona, which may be based on or have nothing to do with their birth name. Sometimes a shikona is chosen for a wrestler by his trainer, a family member, or even a friend who has shown support in their career. Shikona may be based on past exploits, area of origin, or other significant aspects of a wrestler's life or career.


Professional sumo wrestling follows a rigid hierarchical system, with fighters being ranked based on their merit in the sport. The ranking system has been used since the Edo period of Japan, and six official tournaments held by the Japan Sumo Association each year determine whether a wrestler's rank rises or falls. Other than these six tournaments, professional wrestlers may participate in exhibitions both in Japan and abroad. The best wrestlers in the league will perform international exhibitions roughly once every other year, but none of these tournaments have a bearing on a wrestler's sumo rank (though they may influence his reputation and popularity).


There are six major divisions in professional sumo wrestling, with the current count of professional wrestlers standing at just over six hundred fifty. Each division has a maximum number of wrestlers that are permitted to hold positions at a given time, and the division into which one is placed (as well as one's ranking within that division) determine everything about a sumo wrestler's lifestyle, from public exposure to income and sponsorship deals. The divisions are as follows:


·       Makuuchi or makunouchi is the top-tier division, and has space for forty-two wrestlers. These wrestlers are ranked within the division according to skill, with the top slots known as “title holders.” There are usually between eight and twelve title holders at a time. This division makes up the vast majority of televised sumo wrestling, and is the ultimate goal for anyone entering the field of sumo.

·       Juryo is the second highest division, and has only twenty-eight slots. The wrestlers in this division as well as non-title holders in the makuuchi division are colloquially known as juryo, though the official venues refer to them as jumaime. Juryo wrestlers are placed in all fifteen matches in each tournament, and receive a monthly salary and other benefits.

·       Makushita, the third division, consists of one hundred twenty wrestlers – half from the Western side of the banzuke and half from the Eastern side. Makushita are considered junior professional wrestlers, and this division sees a lot of competition due to being the best way to break into professional-level matches.

·       Sandanne, the fourth division, consists of two hundred wrestlers still considered to be in training but who are allowed certain privileges. While they do not receive a salary, rather being granted an allowance, sandanne division is the first significant improvement in lifestyle for sumo.

·       Jonidan, the fifth division, does not have a set number of potential occupants. Jonidan is typically the most populated division, with an average of between two and three hundred occupants. Jonidan are responsible for a greater amount of menial labor and chores than other wrestlers.

·       Jonokuchi, the lowest division, is where a prospective sumo wrestler begins his career, unless special circumstances allow him to skip ahead to a higher ranking. Wrestlers that are new to professional competition or who have had to forfeit matches due to long-term injuries typically make up the majority of this division. Like jonidan, there is no limit to the number of wrestlers in this division, though it is usually a smaller number (between fifty and one hundred).