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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Anorexics and Bulimics Need Not Apply

Aysashōrū Akinori at the January 2008 tournament.
This Mongolian champion is 30 years old, weighs 330 lbs. and is 6' tall.
Photo by Eckhard Pecher via Wikipedia.

The guy above is a rock star.  Sort of.  In Japan, he was one of the top sumo wrestlers until he retired last year.  Sumo wrestlers in Japan are big celebrities. They also make big money.  There are six divisions within sumo wrestling, and they follow a strict hierarchy.  A second level wrestler will make about $11,000 a month; a top wrestler about $30,500 a month, according to 2006 figures.  This doesn't count extra money from bonuses earned at tournaments, prize monies, and bout prizes from sponsors.  First level wrestlers only earn an allowance until they prove themselves and move up in rank.

Aysashōrū wrestling Kotoshogiku at the January 2008 Tournament.
Photo by Eckhard Pecher via Wikipedia.

But this isn't easy money!  The payoff is a shorter lifespan - sumo wrestlers live to be 60-65 years of age compared to the average 75 years of an average Japanese man.  They live in communal training stables.  Those at the bottom (the ones who only get allowances) do most of the chores.  Those near the top live pretty well. Everyone trains every day.  They do not eat breakfast, but they eat a huge lunch, mostly a stew made with a variety of fish, meat, rice, and veggies, swallowed down with beer.  Subsequently they nap - this huge meal and then sleeping afterward is what puts the weight on.  But the weight can lead to diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart attacks, as well as liver problems from the alcohol and arthritis from the stress on joints.

The unranked working out at Tomozuma Stable in Tokyo, January 1998.
This is an end-of-the-workout ritual dance to help build teamwork.

There are no weight restrictions or standards, and smaller men can win against much larger ones.  The art of sumo is to push your opponent out of the ring, or make him place a body part other than the soles of his feet on the ground.  That's it!  Bouts usually last about a minute, but can end in seconds.  Part of the routine is to psych your opponent out.  Each bout starts by performing a number of Shinto rituals.  Then the opponents commence with staring.  Sometimes the wrestlers move back and resort to more mental preparation and/or staring.  If it goes on too long, the referee can order them to begin the bout.

Yokozuna Ashoryu performing a ritual of his rank blessing the ring.

The ring today is made of rice-straw bales on top of a layer of sand and clay.  They are just under 15' in diameter.  A new one is built for each tournament.  At the center are two white lines which position the wrestlers at the start.  Some have roofs resembling Shinto temples.  Around the ring is a layer of finely brushed sand that is used to determine if a wrestler touched anywhere outside of the ring.  This is checked and fixed if necessary before each bout.

The layout of the ring and placement of the participants.

There are six grand sumo tournaments each year, in all the odd months - January, March, May, July, September, and November.  This year, the March one has been cancelled when three of the wrestlers admitted to rigging bouts.  This is a strictly operated sport, and there have been few proven incidents of wrong-doing, however they do happen.

At the grand tournaments, the wrestlers are introduced to the audience one at a time in order of ascending rank.  They enact various rituals, including forming a circle facing outwards toward the audience.  Then they go to their respective dressing rooms and change into wrestling clothes.  They come back out two bouts before their first one, and sit at the side of the ring.

As part of the ring-entering ceremony, sumo wrestlers gather around the referee.

Although women are not allowed to participate in the sport, upper division wrestlers can marry.  They live with their families in apartments at the stables. There were female sumo wrestlers in the past, but they were mostly associated with brothels.  There are some amateur events for female wannabees.  Women, however, cannot enter or touch the professional ring.  There have been complaints about this, however it was decided that it would be dishonorable to the ancestors to allow women in the sport now.

Sumo has a history that began professionally in the Edo period, about 1600 CE.  It is associated with the Shinto religion, and is rumored to have begun as an entertainment for the Shinto gods.  In the Edo period it was both a test for strength in combat, and as a way of honoring Shinto rituals, strong ties that it still retains. The ring concept came into being with the Edo warlord Oda Nobunaga who organized tournaments.  The participants then were mostly Samurai and Ronin, who sought extra income.

Woodcut print of Somagabana Fichiemon, 1850,
by Toyokuni Utagawa aka Utagawa Kunisada.

Although there is a tradition of wrestling similar to sumo in the nations adjacent to Japan, Japan is the only country where sumo is practiced professionally.  Foreign-born wrestlers have been admitted to the sport, but when one stable recruited six Mongolians in 1992, an unofficial restriction was put on admitting foreigners, and none were recruited for the next six years.

A sumo wrestler throwing a foreigner at Yokohama in 1861.
This was a popular theme at the time.

The sumo wrestlers have a huge fan base, and there is a lot of memorabilia available.  If one buys either box or front row seats the tickets typically come with items.  These can be purchased separately as well.  While plates and cups are common, one of the most highly regarded is the tegata.  This literally means "hand shape" and is the sumo version of an autograph.  The hand print is in black or red ink with the wrestler's fighting name written in calligraphy by the wrestler himself. Originals can be pricey, but printed copies are affordable.  Only wrestlers in the top two divisions are allowed to make these.

Tegata by sumo wrestler Terao.

Sumo wrestlers are required to grow their hair long enough to wear in a topknot, and they are expected to wear the topknot and traditional Japanese clothes in public.  Each rank has different dress codes.  Women are very attracted to them, and they are big celebrities.

So eating a lot, napping, being kowtowed to, and honored sounds great.  But every great thing has its drawbacks, and the health problems, plus the loss of general mobility are big considerations.  Decisions, decisions!  In this, I am glad to be a woman.  ;-)

All images courtesy of Wikipedia.
Go to the official sumo organization site for details on the current schedule and players.

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