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  • Silvia Valentini

Sumo – Sport, Art, Culture & Rituality

Sumo is a typical Japanese fight and has ancient origins. Sumo has its roots in the popular tradition and religion and the professional wrestlers called “rikishi” are venerated and elevated to models of virtuous behaviour.

Sumo has its origins in Shinto religion: at first practiced as a ritual, sumo was in fact a sort of spiritual fight with the gods, invoked to ensure that the harvest was rich and abundant. Evidence of this link between sumo and Shinto is in the structure of the ring, very similar to a sanctuary on which before the start of each fight was thrown a fistful of salt to purify it. The first sumo wrestlers were samurai and ronin, who practiced this style of wrestling for purely recreational purposes and to increase the monthly earnings.

In the eighth century sumo was introduced into the ceremonies of the Imperial Court, so an important festival was organised every year. During the same period, the rules of struggle were "refined" eliminating blows such as kicks and punches. Today it is considered a modern art of combat and is the sport symbol of Japan, also practised by Western athletes but Sumo rules keep alive some traditions dating back to ancient times, such as the use of colourful mawashi, a thong made from a long ribbon and ending with a belt; the hairstyle of the wrestlers, called oicho, a knot that recalls the shape of the ginko leaf; the use of the dohyō, a straw-built ring raised from the ground; the grading system used to confirm the preparation of the wrestlers. The referee has a fan that symbolises his authority and a dagger that recalls the old tradition that if he was wrong in judging an athlete would have killed himself.

Before the fight the athletes, who follow a particular diet to reach their weight and at the same time remain agile and strong, beat their feet hard in the ring and participate in a ritual of purification of the ground on which they will struggle. This ritual is a clear reference to the Shinto religion and to the dances that in ancient times were practised in temples by wrestlers. Regarding the weight of the sumo wrestlers, it might seem a real contradiction that a professional athlete, while regularly practising serious sports training, can have such an important weight. Gaining weight is an integral part in the preparation to become a level wrestler. Accepting the condition of transforming their own body in order to achieve victory and notoriety means they have understood the philosophy of Sumo, and they are devoted to this legendary sport and ready to put its teachings into practice. More than a sport, it is better to understand it as a lifestyle and wrestlers are seen as the personifications of an ancient art of fighting. The word Sumo literally means tugging at each other. The victory is awarded to the fist who managed to land the opponent or to push him out of the Dohyō. A massive body and a strong musculature are therefore fundamental to put in difficulty the strength of the opponent. In this way the wrestler offers greater resistance to the moves of lifting, overturning and dragging out of the ring.

Japanese wrestlers are trained in special Sumo schools called heya. There are currently over 50 heya distributed throughout Japan. The master of the school is called Oyakata. The Oyakata is a former high-level wrestler. Young apprentices are recruited at the age of 15. Respecting Japanese tradition and culture, the school remains their home for the duration of their competitive career.

After numerous victories, sumo wrestlers can reach the rank of Yokozuna or "grand master"; it is the highest title that can be achieved by a wrestler. Each year, 6 tournaments are held, each lasting 15 days. Each wrestler has a daily match. The tournament is won by the rikishi who won the most matches. With eight fights won the wrestler rises to the category, with eight lost relegated to the lower category. At the end of each tournament the banzuke (ranking) is drawn. The honbasho or the official professional sumo tournament, are held only in odd month. In Tokyo is possible to see a match in January, May and September, while in Osaka in March, in Nagoya in July and in Fukuoka in November.

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