Sumo. The word conjures images of large men in mawashi and the elaborate rituals so typical of Japan. Sumo’s history is linked to the Shinto religion at the heart of Japan’s history and culture. Not so much a system of beliefs as a system of rituals and a code of conduct, Shinto means ‘way of the gods’ and sumo’s origin was as entertainment for gods during festivals. Sumo as entertainment for the masses became widespread in the 1600s, which is when the purification rituals seen today were adopted.
Every year there are six hon-basho, or tournaments, held in the odd-numbered months. To witness a tournament either live or on television is an experience nothing else. The ring entry ceremony is key. This is when the wrestlers are purified before they compete.
When two wrestlers square off, the referee, in Shinto costume, and the wrestlers follow a protocol that a Tokugawa-era fan would recognize.
Don’t let the ritual fool you. Sumo wrestling is as intense as any sport on the globe, and to rise through the ranks of sumo to become yokozuna – grand champion – is rare indeed. The aim of the match is for one wrestler to get the other out of the ring 15 feet in diameter located on a raised platform called a dohyo. Pushing, grabbing, lifting, flipping – dozens of moves have names, and the competitors rise through the ranks only by winning.
The rikishi – wrestlers – live at sumo training camps called stables and follow a strict regimen of training and diet. Practice and exhibition filled the wrestlers’ schedule between bashos.
Of the thousands of rikishi – wrestlers – to compete in the upper ranks of the sport, only 70 wrestlers have risen to yokozuna. In the Shig Sato mysteries, the Tokyo of 1991 has one of the most popular yokozuna of all time, Chiyonofuji. Sato’s sidekick Ken Abe is a regular at the Tokyo bashos.
I believe any traveler to Japan can take in the true Japan three times a year: Cherry Blossom season, o-bon festival time, and any month a sumo tournament dominates the nation’s attention.