Where the Big Boys Wrestle! Sumo, Briefly.
“Sumo in Japan dates back at least 1,500 years, possibly more. Matches were held at Shinto shrines, at festivals with music, dancing, drama, and other performances. As early as the 7th century, regular sumo competitions took place at the imperial court, as entertainment for royalty.”
I’m happy to have Andrew F. Freund, Trustee, US Sumo Federation as a guest contributor. He does an excellent jon describing the culture of sumo and how the sport has grown in the United States. –Tim
SUMO – Japan’s National Treasure, Martial Art, and Sport
Andrew F. Freund, Trustee, US Sumo Federation
The word “sumo” means various things to various people, so let’s explore what this tradition is really about. On the one hand, as an integral part of Japanese culture for many centuries, the pro sumo lifestyle exudes an aura of exotic martial discipline. On the other hand, sumo as an international sport (sans some of the traditional trappings) is also accessible to martial arts participants and fans, worldwide, today.
Ancient Japanese Origins
Sumo in Japan dates back at least 1,500 years, possibly more. Matches were held at Shinto shrines, at festivals with music, dancing, drama, and other performances. As early as the 7th century, regular sumo competitions took place at the imperial court, as entertainment for royalty. Over the centuries, warlords kept regiments of sumo wrestlers, as part of their retinue. After civil war ended in 1603, samurai continued cultivating their fighting skills via martial arts forms, and sumo was one of them.
Development of Professional Sumo
During the ensuing centuries, sumo tournaments developed into a public spectacle, with increasingly standardized rules, regulations, and rituals. Various controversies and reforms created rifts and separate geographical governing bodies, but by 1925, the Japan Grand Sumo Association was formed, as Tokyo and Osaka associations merged into one body.
Throughout the 20th century, additional standards were established, including the official ring size, timing of rituals, and ranking systems. In 1939, the tournament length was increased to 15 days, for each of the four annual tournaments, and by 1958, there were a total of six annual tournaments, the current standard.
While Japanese have practiced sumo for centuries, in recent decades, a foreign presence has developed in the pro sumo ranks. The Hawaiian wave began with the entrance of legendary Takamiyama in 1964, followed by Konishiki, Akebono, Musashimaru, and more.
Though this wave has now passed, the new Mongolian wave, which began in 1992, has now crested with astounding dominance, as 30 of the past 32 tournaments have been won by Mongolians (the other two by Europeans). In fact, starting from the first Mongolian-won tournament in 2002, Mongolian-born sumo wrestlers have won 50 of the past 57 tournaments!
A strong Eastern-European (Bulgaria, Estonia, Georgia) and Russian presence is also growing, and other foreigners have made it into the top division, including men from Korea, Brazil, China, and more. This international presence in pro sumo has definitely increased awareness of the tradition, globally.
Professional Sumo Lifestyle
The daily life of pro sumo wrestlers is rooted in traditions and training practices that date back centuries. Hierarchy and rank are key elements in the daily routine. Each sumo wrestler knows their place in the pecking order, which is adjusted after each tournament, based on results.
In each pro sumo team, the wrestlers mainly live, train, eat, and sleep in one building. Their routine is virtually the same, year-round. There are no “seasons” (as in most other sports), since the tournaments are held every other month, and there is not much time off. Pro sumo wrestlers rise in the very early morning, and beginning their grueling training on an empty stomach. This training may last all morning long, and includes warm-ups, calisthenics, movement exercises, in addition to lengthy sets of matches.
After the intense training, the wrestlers have a large lunch, usually consisting of “chanko-nabe” (sumo stew), to rebuild their exhausted bodies. Chanko-nabe, consisting of meat, fish, and vegetables, is rich in protein, vitamins, and minerals. Although some sources report sumo wrestlers eating 10,000+ calories daily, the reality is that most pro sumo wrestlers eat roughly double the caloric intake of average people, an intake that is offset by hours of extremely rigorous training daily. In fact, many young sumo wrestlers struggle not to lose weight!
Upon eating, an afternoon nap is customary, followed by chores or free time. After a hearty dinner, the wrestlers don’t generally stay up late, as practice starts the next morning, bright and early.
Passing through years of this constant training, and keeping up a winning record will ensure that a wrestler moves up the ranking charts to the top divisions, but this is never easy. Many aspiring champions fall by the wayside, due to the rigors of the sumo lifestyle, because of injury, or just lack of ability to compete at the higher levels.
The few sumo wrestlers that succeed do achieve great fame, honor, and wealth in Japan, but the pyramid is very steep. While 90% of the 700+ pro sumo wrestlers get nothing but a small allowance, plus room and board, the top 10% can make a decent living, and the top handful of pro sumo wrestlers can get very wealthy indeed. All appearances and endorsements in professional sumo are strictly monitored by the governing body, to maintain the honor, integrity, and image of the tradition.
Significantly, despite living in the modern era, pro sumo wrestlers today maintain essentially the same daily practices, hierarchies, training styles, and codes of conduct that their predecessors followed in centuries past. So, professional sumo is not just a sport in Japan, but also a cultural bridge to Japanese history and tradition.
The Rise of International Sumo
Only a few men have the talent, commitment, and stamina to survive in the pro sumo world. There are others, though, who enjoy practicing sumo, but do not want to live that pro sumo lifestyle.
For these folks, both men and women, the sport of sumo is accessible to almost anyone. Under the auspices of the International Sumo Federation, headquartered in Japan, amateur competitors practice and compete in sumo around the world.
One of the main goals of the International Sumo Federation is to get sumo qualified as an Olympic sport. With that in mind, amateur sumo includes gender and weight and divisions. For men, it’s up to 85 kg (lightweight), up to 115 kg (middleweight), and heavyweight is over 115 kg, while for women, the cut-off points are 65 kg and 80 kg, respectively. With the institution of weight classes, many competitors now defy the stereotypical image, as they strive to reduce their size and cut fat, in order to make weight.
Sumo in the United States
While sumo is still at a relatively low level in the United States, there are some sparks of hope. Over the years, three U.S. Competitors have medaled at the World Sumo Championships, including Emmanuel Yarborough, Wayne Vierra, and most recently, lightweight competitor, Trent Sabo. These guys are ideally setting inspirational examples for the next generation of young sumo wrestlers here.
As an example of an international tournament, the annual US Sumo Open (http://usasumo.com/ussumoopen2011.html), now in its 12th year, has set a high standard of competition, with over 300 competitors from more than 25 countries participating over the years. The US Sumo Open has been attended by tens of thousands of fans, and media coverage is growing. This kind of international competition may be a model for developing other similar tournaments in the U.S.
We are also fortunate to be able to train with three-time World Sumo Champion, Byamba (http://www.sumobyamba.com), who spent 5 years in professional sumo, but now resides in Los Angeles, and continues to compete worldwide. An iconic, highly decorated, and skilled figure like Byamba is one of the important elements necessary to improve the overall quality of sumo in an area still new to the sport.
So, as the traditional professional sumo organization in Japan preserves and displays the ancient sumo culture, many of us internationally are making sumo more accessible, to athletes and fans alike.
For basic information on sumo, see: