A Japanese sport and a form of wrestling with a very rich and noble tradition.
Sumo is one part sport one part traditional ceremony. With a history dating back centuries sumo holds a special place in Japanese society, and in-spite of its popularity declining in recent years it is still an instantly recognizable part of Japan’s culture.
The basic idea of sumo is simple; one must force their opponent to touch the ground with any part of their body other than the soles of their feet or the opponent must be forced out of the sumo ring. Sumo matches take place in an elevated ring that is made of clay and covered with sand.
Every sumo match begins with a ring entrance. This isn’t a simple walk into the ring. Instead the ring entrance his a highly scripted ceremony. It is said that sumo “begins and ends with a bow.” Bowing when entering and leaving a match is one part of ring etiquette. Wrestlers also rinse out their mouths using “strength water” (chikara mizu). In addition a piece of paper is used to wipe ones mouth and face for purification. When entering the ring wrestlers with throw salt to purify it. Starting the bout is no simple task. Called tachiai the practice consists of the two opponents both crouching, bending and putting both of their fists on the ground, all of this must be done while maintaining eye contact. The moment their breathing is synchronized the bout will begin. After the bout the winner will squat and perform the hand sword (tegatana) motions. This consists of the wrestler making three cutting motions with his right hand. This is a form of thanks to three gods of victory. If there was a prize at stake, most often some money in an envelope, the wrestler will receive it after finishing the tegatana motions.
Sumo has a strict ranking based hierarchy. At the top of the pyramid is the rank of yokozuna. Once a wrestler has been named a yokozuna he cannot lose that rank, however if his performance begins to slip he is expected to retire.
Since becoming a sumo wrestler is highly demanding it has been getting more difficult to attract young Japanese to partake in the sport. In part because of this sumo has seen a growth in the number of foreign wrestlers. The only current yokozuna, Hakuho, is from Mongolia. Mongolia also produced another yokozuna in Asashoryu; and two other yokozuna were from Hawaii. In recent years many sumo have come from Eastern Europe. In 2008 Bulgarian born wrestler Kotooshu became the first European to win a sumo tournament. As of August 2011 no Japanese born sumo is in the top two ranks.
Every year six sumo tournaments are held in Japan. Each tournament lasts for 15 days. Three of the tournaments are held in Tokyo, they take place in January, May and September. Osaka hosts the March tournament, Nagoya gets the July tournament and the final tournament of the year is held in Fukuoka, in November. However, 2011 was a notable exception to this tradition. A match-fixing scandal caused the March sumo tournament to be canceled. Additionally the May tournament was a trial competition and not an official tournament. In July of 2011 Nagoya did host a normal tournament after some new changes to sumo were implemented.
Recently sumo has faced several obstacles. Television ratings and fan interest has been on the decline. Accusations of match-fixing have damaged the sport to its core. Yokozuna Asashoryu, one of the most successful sumo of all time, was forced to retire in 2010 after his involvement in a fight outside a Tokyo night club. Also in 2010 a gambling scandal forced ozeki (the second highest rank) Kotomitsuki and several other sumo to be removed from the sport. The incident also shined a light on the sumo world’s connection with the yakuza. In 2009 the sport come under fire for a drug scandal. The most tragic incident took place in 2007; it involved the death of an aspiring 17-year-old wrestler who was beating to death as part of his hazing. Currently sumo faces an uncertain future.