Nine years ago I had entertained the question, all the while eyes fixed and intrigued as that very scene played out before me, successfully making me part of the problem. I and some American friends were allowed to visit a beya , the traditional training hall of the Japanese sumo wrestler. With a little net searching and a lot of courteous inquiries, we finally found a place in Ryogoku, Tokyo, dubbed “sumo-town”, that was brave enough to welcome potentially ruckus Yankees into the ancient mix. I don’t use the word “ancient” lightly, mind you. Sitting there on a wooden viewing stage and watching the wrestlers stomp around a ring that’s been shaped and molded out of clay mixed with sand, thick hemp ropes hanging over doors and names of past wrestlers written in Chinese kanji; it felt like we had arrived at the age-old birthplace of the fighting man.
Sumo, now a professional full-contact sport, is said to have originated over 2000 years ago. It’s early incarnation was heavily influenced by Japan’s Shinto religion and some accounts speak of a ritual dance in which a wrestler contends with a divine spirit, a kami. The current competitive form we know today took shape in the 16th century in a time when civil strife was growing, prompting the need for martial disciplines to train young men. Competitions officially began in 1684 and soon tournaments were being held in Ryogoku, Tokyo and Osaka before joining together under the same association in 1928.
The traditions of the actual sumo match haven’t changed much over the years. Wrestlers, or rikishi, mainly use two methods in winning matches; forcing their opponent to step out of the ring or forcing them to touch the ground with any part of their body except the bottoms of their feet. Not showing up for a match will also cause a wrestler to forfeit it, as well as using illegal techniques. The rikishi are dressed only in an elaborately tied loin cloth called a mawashi, which they will usually try to grab on their opponent to use as leverage. Before a match begins, Shinto resurfaces in the purifying of the ring, or dohyo. Wrestlers step up and toss salt across the clay floor and deliver the trademark stomp to drive off evil. It is said that the salt also serves as a disinfectant for any scratches they may receive during the bout. The rikishi take a deep wide legged stance, as if riding a horse, before launching themselves at their opponent.
Sumo, like many things in Japan, is hierarchical as evidenced in the ranks of the wrestlers. These ranks are directly influenced by the performance of the rikishi with the lower levels receiving an allowance and the top-level, the Yokozuna, receiving the highest salary of course. Everyday life of the wrestler revolves around training in the sumo heya (beya). It is a communal life, one in which lower ranks do the cooking and cleaning and are taught by higher ranks and sumo coaches, the latter usually being retired wrestlers themselves. This I witnessed first hand as high-ranking rikishi squared off against each other while junior wrestlers stood against the wall, observing and ready to help with menial tasks.
One of those tasks included aiming a disapproving grimace at my friends and I when one of us accidentally used a flash while trying to capture a dramatic tussle. The rikishi stopped for a moment and glared in our direction. Suffice it to say, we didn’t stay long after the training ended, but if you find yourself in supply of a bit more consideration than we had, make a trip on down to Ryogoku to watch a training session. Rather enjoy the thrill of high stakes competition instead? Consider coming out to one of the six grand tournaments per year, each lasting 15 days. Maybe sitting among the rooting fans and in view of the massive, stoic warriors will answer the question of why you’re there in the first place. Or maybe not, but one thing is for sure, you won’t forget the experience.