Overview of Sumo

Sumo wrestling is Japan's most popular professional spectator sport and is considered by many to be the national sport of Japan. Its appeal lies not only in the immediate excitement of the bouts but also in a rich legacy of ritual and tradition accumulated over its 2,000-year-long history.

Two large wrestlers (rikishi) with their oiled hair in topknots and wearing an 80 cm-wide silk sash (mawashi) enter the ring. The next few minutes are spent in a psychological buildup to the clash. They throw salt in the air (a remnant of Shinto purification rites), squat and glare at each other, then suddenly leap up for the tackle. Using one of 70 official winning techniques, one wrestler finally forces the other out of the ring or causes him to touch the ring with a part of his body other than the soles of his feet and is declared the winner by the referee (gyoji) wearing 14th-century court costume. A panel of judges sitting at the ringside may sometimes confer on a borderline case.

A sumo bout is usually over in seconds and the next pair of wrestlers comes to the ring. Most of the grappling in a bout centers on the wrestlers trying to get a two-handed grip on the opponent's sash, which gives them extra leverage to throw, trip, or lift. Kicking or punching with a closed fist are the only moves forbidden in the rules.

The sumo ring (dohyo) is a raised platform of packed clay sprinkled with sand, in which a circle 4.55 meters in diameter has been delineated by sunken straw bales. In the middle of the circle are drawn two white lines, which mark the initial positions from which the wrestlers leap up for the clash.

A sumo wrestler is big (average height 185 cm) and heavy (average weight 148 kg). However, weight and size do not necessarily determine a winner. Wrestlers spend hours every day practising technique, so that even small wrestlers have a chance of overbalancing huge ones.

The life of a sumo wrestler is difficult and demanding. Most are recruited at around age 15 and enter a stable where they live and train with other wrestlers, presided over by a stablemaster (oyakata). After a wrestler gets married he may move into his own domicile. The stable has dormitories for the wrestlers, dining and bathing facilities, and a practice ring, into which the wrestlers descend every morning for keiko (practice). The junior wrestlers arrive at 4 or 5 A.M. to prepare the ring; most senior wrestlers are in the ring by 8 A.M. Here they hold practice bouts as well as endlessly repeating three traditional exercises - shiko, teppo, and matawari - designed to build coordination, timing, and flexibility. At 11 A.M. senior wrestlers head for the baths, then have brunch - a high-calorie stew called chanko-nabe. After that they are free, and most wrestlers prefer to eat out for dinner.

The 750 or so wrestlers in professional sumo are ranked according to their win-loss records in tournaments, normally held six times a year. The ranks are written on a graded list called a banzuke. The top division is called makuuchi ("within the curtain") and at the very top is the yokozuna, or grand champion. Every aspect of professional sumo is governed by the Japan Sumo Association, composed of retired wrestlers.

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