Japan's national sport influenced by history

Japan's national sport influenced by history

by Maj. Giuseppe A. Stavale

TOKYO, Japan - If you have not been to a sumo match then your Japan experience may be incomplete. Sumo is Japan’s national sport and has its origins in Shinto, the traditional faith of Japan. In keeping with Japanese folklore, the Japanese people were created due to gods struggling in a sumo match. As a result, sumo matches were held at Shinto shrines as offerings for good luck and good harvests among other things.

If one pays attention, you will see the signs of Shinto surrounding modern sumo. Above the dohyo, or sumo ring, is a roof designed as a Shinto shrine’s roof to symbolize the sacred nature of the sport. This is just the start of the influence that Shinto has on sumo.

Sumo wrestlers are called rikishi, or powerful person. Before an actual match, sumo wrestlers execute very traditional movements which are actually ancient rituals. For example, upon entering the ring, each rikishi will clap their hands as they would at an actual Shinto shrine to get the attention of the deity at that shrine. Then, they will extend their arms with their palms facing up to show they are concealing no weapons. Next, they will lift one leg at a time toward their side and bring it down with an exaggerated stomp to drive out any bad luck or evil spirits. The rikishi will repeat this about four times.

Rikishi will also rinse their mouth with water as a symbol of purifying themself, just as a person would purify themself at the purifying well upon entering a shrine’s grounds and before approaching the main hall of the shrine to offer a prayer.

In accordance with Shinto, rikishi will also throw salt because it is believed it drives evil spirits away. The rikishi will go back and forth in the dohyo throwing salt and stretching while keeping an eye on the referee, or gyoji. As the gyoji turns to his side it indicates to the rikishi the next time they step back to the “starting lines” the match will begin.

Confucianism also influences sumo. In accordance with Confucian principles, everything is ranked.

There are 10 individual sumo ranks and the gyoji are also ranked and only the tate-gyoji, or chief referee, will officiate a match involving the yokozuna – the highest ranking rikishi. The Japan Sumo Association maintains a detailed description of all the ranks. The banzuke, or official ranking, is published prior to each tournament in classical Japanese kanji, and the heading is extraordinarily large. The bold characters are the names of the upper division rikishi, known as the maku-uchi. Following the maku-uchi ranking in smaller characters are the ranks of the juryo and maku-shita, and then the san-dan-me, jo-ni-dan and the jo-no-kuchi.

The matches start in the morning with the lowest ranking rikishi, followed by those of higher rank, ending the day with what all have been waiting for – the matches involving the great yokozuna.
In 2013 there were about 800 rikishi in professional sumo that compete in grand sumo tournaments throughout Japan on a set schedule, according to the Japan Sumo Association.

There are six grand sumo tournaments held annually, and each tournament lasts about 15 days. It is tradition that the prime minister or other distinguished person will present the grand champion of the tournament with the trophy.

After each grand sumo tournament, rikishi are either promoted or demoted based on their performance; however, only the yokozuna cannot be demoted. A yokozuna will always be and hold the title yokozuna until he retires from the sport.

The word yokozuna means horizontal rope which refers to the tsuna, or rope, that is worn by the yokozuna. The tsuna resembles the shimenawa used in Shinto to mark something sacred and has an interesting history as to why it is bestowed upon a rikishi. This, along with other historical and modern aspects about the yokozuna makes an excellent self-study topic while exploring sumo.

When watching sumo in person or on television you will notice a parade of banners. The banners are paid for by sponsors for advertising. The payment includes placing prize money on the match for which their banner has been paraded. Each banner represents 60,000 yen, in which 30,000 yen is marked for the Japan Sumo Association (which covers retirement costs and other fees), and the other 30,000 yen is placed in the envelope which is presented to the winner of the actual match.

Next time you watch sumo, pay close attention to the number of banners paraded for a particular match, especially if two yokozunas are facing each other in a match, and multiply the number of banners by 30,000 yen and you can calculate the total cash the winning rikishi will take home.

Sumo connoisseurs appreciate the tradition and continuity this sport contributes to Japanese culture, which has endured under the same rules, more or less, for centuries. However, just like other aspects of Japanese life, sumo has its contradictions to tradition, many of which have been positive toward promoting the sport internationally.

In recent years many foreigners have entered professional sumo, something unthinkable in the past. Sumo pioneers such as American-born Akebono Taro contributed toward sparking this interest by being the first non-Japanese-born wrestler to earn the title of yokozuna in 1993.

Just as a country’s theater and literature can assist in understanding its culture, sports and local pastimes can do the same. No matter your tour length in Japan, consider viewing sumo in person during one of the grand sumo tournaments in mainland Japan. For more information on venues, schedules and ticket prices, visit http://www.sumo.or.jp/en/index.

Story by Maj. Giuseppe A. Stavale is the law enforcement integration and anti-terrorism/force protection officer in charge with 1st Marine Aircraft Wing and a Japan foreign area officer.

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