Photography by David De Vleeschauwer
Written by Caroline Hughes
apan’s ancient culture has a strong respect for tradition. Understanding sumo wrestling is an essential part of the country’s identity. Sumo began in Japan and it is the only country where the sport is practiced professionally. However, to think of sumo as a professional wrestling theater in the American sense is to completely miss the nuances of the centuries-old sport.
Sumo wrestling is both a lifestyle for the athlete, and a near sacred experience for those spectators fortunate enough to attend. Through tradition, Sumo athletes are considered gods in Japan. Securing tickets for a match is no easy feat, you must purchase tickets as soon as they go on sale and be able to travel to Japan when matches are held in January, March, July and September. Surprisingly, sumo has been dominated by non-Japanese wrestlers in the past few decades. Many of them are Mongolian, with others coming from Bulgaria, Estonia, Egypt and Brazil.
A sumo wrestler’s existence is dictated by tradition and every aspect of day to day life is very deliberate. Most sumo wrestlers live in communal sumo training stables where all facets of their daily lives, from what clothing and hairstyle they wear, to when they train and what they eat, are followed with incredible discipline. The sumo stable is a brotherhood, a fraternity of sorts, with deep roots. The younger wrestlers show their respect and take care of the older wrestlers by cooking and cleaning for the stable, while the older athletes share their years of expertise and knowledge with the newcomers.
Beginning as a way to use the trial of strength in combat, and during the Edo period of the late 1600s sumo bouts were often held to raise money for construction or repairs of public buildings, including bridges, temples or shrines. Around this time, the sport also began making tournament appearances throughout the year in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka.
In the early 1900s two significant developments were made in the world of sumo. The Japan Sumo Association was formed, the body that operates professional sumo wrestling in Japan today, and the Ryogoko Kokuguin sporting arena in Tokyo was built, the most prominent location for sumo tournaments. In Tokyo, the Ryogoku and Kiyosumo neighborhoods are home to the sumo stables, where the wrestlers live, eat, sleep, and practice on a daily basis. Today, there are six professional tournaments throughout the year, and wrestlers travel constantly with their stable to participate.
Each match begins with a ceremony. When entering the arena, the athletes throw large handfuls of salt into the rings – a gesture is a ritual of purification and also serves to excite the audience and intimidate opponents. In order to win a sumo bout, the wrestler must force his opponent to step outside of the ring or make his opponent touch the ground with any part of his body that is not the soles of the feet.
Sumo wrestling is both a lifestyle and a spectator sport. It is important for visitors, and foreigners especially, to be quiet and respectful during a match or practice. As a spectator, it may take years of practice to understand the complexity of the sport, however the skill and dexterity on display will impress even the most novice fan. There is no talking, eating, or drinking in the audience. Practices begin with stretching in silence followed by intense focus and the only noise coming from the bare feet sliding across the clay floor. The match may be over quickly, but the excitement and connection that is felt and experienced by any audience member resonates.