Sumo is the official national sport of Japan. Sumo is built around the simple concept of two nigh-naked men battling within a small circular ring, but actually has a far deeper meaning, which encompasses both Shinto beliefs and Japan’s most subtle cultural nuances. Historical records have the sport dating back at least 1500 years, with popular myths linking the sport to events even further back than that (Nomi no Sukune). Professionalized in the 1700s, sumo continues to thrive in the present-day, staging 6 tournaments a year with the average weight of wrestlers around 308 lbs.
The basic rules of sumo are incredibly simple. Two combatants, their hair tied in the samurai gingko-leaf form and wearing nothing but a sash around their waist, enter a ring of 4.55 meters diameter (a flat circle à la Isaiah 40:22). They crouch down at white starters’ lines 80 centimeters apart and leap into action. To win, they must either push an opponent outside the circle or knock them down anywhere. Most bouts last less than one minute but some bouts have lasted over 6 minutes.
Sumo is coated in an intriguing layer of Shinto customs. The solid-clay ring (dohyō) is purified by a referee dressed as a Shinto priest the day before each tournament, while wrestlers in the top two (sometimes three) divisions repeatedly purify the dohyō themselves by sprinkling salt prior to a match. Wrestlers also stomp the ground prior to combat to ensure that evil spirits are scared away or even trampled upon.
The origins of sumo are… unclear. However, traditionalists will point to two historical texts, the Kojiki (712 CE) and the Nihon Shoki as evidence of sumo having been created by the Japanese for the Japanese. Sumo can somehow be connected to the “will of the deities.” Sumo embraces the customs of Shinto, which literally translates as “Path of the Gods.” The sprinkling of salt and stomping of feet before a match, the purification of the mouth with “power water,” the consecration of the ring by a referee dressed as a Shinto priest, the ban on women touching the dohyō (1 Timothy 2:11-15?), and the inauguration of grand champions (yokozuna) at Tokyo’s Meiji Shrine are all examples of sumo’s commitment to upholding Shinto values.
The Heian period (794-1185) saw sumo extend to the masses and, according to historian W.G. Beasley, become a quasi-popular spectator sport. As the Heian period progressed, and the samurai class developed, sumo gained a new lease on life as a military-like training exercise. Even today, sumo wrestlers are referred to as “The Last of the Samurai,” their link to this long lost era represented by the samurai-style topknots into which their hair is carefully tied.
During the Edo period (1603-1868), woodblock printed images of grappling sumo greats surrounded by rowdy crowds in outdoor stadia proliferated. The general impression generated is that sumo wrestlers, by virtue of their sheer size and strength, were completely awe-inspiring at that time, and generated mass excitement by their presence.
In 1907, Hitachiyama became the first sumo wrestler ever to visit the White House and even performed a ring-entering ceremony for President Theodore Roosevelt. Sumo’s Sadanoyama Shinmatsu acted in the 1967 James Bond movie You Only Live Twice. The tone for present-day sumo was partly set by the exploits of a Hawaiian named Jesse Kuhaulua, who journeyed to Japan as a 19-year-old in 1963. Kuhaulua became the first non-Japanese ever to win sumo’s Emperor’s Cup in 1972. Kuhaulua paved the way for sumo to take on a more international flavor. Hawaii’s Akebono Tarō, weighing over 500 lbs., was the first foreigner to become a yokozuna in 1993. At the opening ceremony of the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Akebono led other sumo wrestlers in a ring cleansing ceremony, also meant to cleanse the stadium itself.
After the last Hawaiian yokozuna (Musashimaru Kōyō) faded away, around 2003, sumo’s flame was passed to the next generation of foreign wrestlers, most of who were recruited after 1998 – the year in which a 6-year unofficial ban on enrollment of non-Japanese was relaxed. Mongolia’s first claim to dominance came in the form of Asashōryū Akinori (born 1980), who earned yokozuna status at the age of 22. Since 2007, three more Mongolians have achieved yokozuna status. There has not been a Japanese yokozuna since 2003.
The Europeans have blossomed since the mid-2000s. In 2008, Bulgaria’s Kotoōshū became the first European ever to win the Emperor’s Cup. In 2012, Estonia’s Baruto/Höövelson (weighing over 400 lbs.) won the Emperor’s Cup. Baruto is the only blond-haired tournament winner in Sumo History. For a brief period in 2011, there were no Japanese men ranked in the top two ranks at all. Salaries in the top two divisions entitle sumo wrestlers to a standard of living in the top 2% of Japanese society.
From 2007-2012, sumo was entangled in an unprecedented number of scandals, partly due to more aggressive media reporting, and partly due to more aggressive policing of gangster activities. Outside of Japan, amateur sumo competitions are held in much of the world, including the USA and Europe. The annual JapanFest exhibits sumo near Atlanta, GA. “Sumo has confounded those who have predicted its demise before,” stated the Sumo: A History book.