Crash Course: Sumo

Six months of the year, I actually turn on my television. As the only channels we really get are the public NHK ones, I often don’t bother … Japanese game shows have yet to grow on me. But when the sumo tournaments are on, I’m glued to my set for at least the final hour.

The origins of sumo are murky – there are claims that the sport is over two millenia old – but the first solidly documented cases occurred in the early 1600s. Matches were originally performed at Shinto shrines to entertain the gods and even today, the rituals of the sport tie in heavily with Japan’s native religion. The sand that covers the clay of the ring is a symbol of purity, the roof over the ring is in the style of a shrine and the referee (gyoji) is garbed in the robes of a Shinto priest. (I could go on and on but this is a crash course. :))

The ring at a sumo match
The ring at a sumo match

Sumo wrestlers (rikishi) are classified into a ranking system known as a banzuke. The top dogs are the yokozuna – there have only been 68 wrestlers crowned with that title in the history of the sport. Currently, the two yokozuna are foreign-born (Mongolians); in fact, the number of foreign-born wrestlers in the sport is growing to the displeasure of the hard-nosed fans. Next come the ozeki, followed by the sekiwake and the komusubi. These four groupings make up the top makuuchi division. And though there are five more divisions below that, I won’t inundate you!

A yokozuna
A yokozuna

In modern days, sumo tournaments are held six times a year, beginning in January and occuring every odd-numbered month. You can catch them in Fukuoka, Osaka or Nagoya once a year, but Tokyo has the privilege of hosting three tournaments a year at the Kokugikan arena in the Ryogoku neighborhood. It’s quite the experience to see the wrestlers in their finery, battling it out on the hard-packed ring. You can always buy the pricier advanced tickets but show up on a weekday and you can usually score a same-day ticket for the very top row for under ¥2000. You don’t need to be there all day – just show up for the final few hours and witness one of Japan’s more colorful traditions.

Top-ranked wrestlers at a tournament in Tokyo
Top-ranked wrestlers at a tournament in Tokyo

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