Sumo has a very long history. Ancient Kofun-period clay images depict individuals engaged in a form of wrestling that resembles modern-day sumo. Japan’s oldest historical text, the Kojiki (712 A.D.), mentions a test of strength between two deities and traces the origin of sumo to this contest. Another ancient text, the Nihon Shoki (720 A.D.), describes two wrestlers testing each other’s strength before the Emperor. However, such tests of strength probably had more in common with martial arts or kickboxing matches than with present-day sumo.
From the Kamakura Period onward, sumo wrestling was actively practiced as a means of training the minds and bodies of samurai warriors and as a way of helping them acquire useful battle techniques. However, when the Edo Period ushered in a long era of peace, sumo ceased to be a necessary accomplishment of samurai warriors and became a spectator sport. This resulted in the development of sumo as a profession and led to the creation of today’s Grand Sumo Tournaments in which professional sumo wrestlers compete in matches for financial gain.
In the Meiji Period, however, sumo's fortunes took a dramatic turn for the worst. In keeping with the new Meiji government's 'enlightened civilization' policy, the Tokyo authorities enacted a law called the 'Nudity Prohibition Order', resulting in some wrestlers being fined or subjected to physical punishment. Also, forms of entertainment that had been supported by feudal lords during the Edo Period fell on hard times when the clan system was abolished, and sumo was no exception. However, in 1884 due to the efforts of Emperor Meiji, Hirofumi Ito, and others, sumo bouts were performed before an imperial audience. This helped the sport regain social acceptance and led to its revival.
Banzuke Rankings Table
In professional sumo, the banzuke rankings table lists all wrestlers by rank. The highest ranked wrestlers are called yokozuna. Currently, three wrestlers, Hakuho, Kakuryu, and Kisei-no-Sato, hold the rank of yokozuna. In descending order, the ranks after yokozuna are ōzeki, sekiwake, and komusubi. All other wrestlers in the top Maku-uchi division are called maegashira. Using baseball as an analogy, the Maku-uchi division corresponds to the Major League. Most televised sumo bouts are Maku-uchi division matches. There is a fixed number of forty-two wrestlers in this top division, while wrestlers in the second highest division, Juryo, number twenty-eight. Wrestlers from these top two divisions are collectively called sekitori, a title that distinguishes the bearer as a full-fledged professional sumo wrestler. As of September 2017, there were 648 sumo wrestlers. Therefore, the forty-two in the top Maku-uchi division account for only 6.5% of the total number of wrestlers.
Currently a total of six Grand Sumo Tournaments are held annually. In the course of a tournament, each wrestler participates in fifteen bouts, and the one who amasses the highest number of victory stars is declared champion. Rankings in the banzuke table fluctuate depending on the results of these matches. All wrestlers belong to sumo training stables (heya) run by stablemasters (oyakata) where they live and train together. Wrestlers in the third Makushita Division and below live together in large common rooms. Upon becoming a sekitori, a wrestler is allowed to have his own room and, as a general rule, lives at the stable until he marries. Young wrestlers follow a strict training regimen every day, and over time become strong, working hard in order to ascend as quickly as possible to the Maku-uchi division.
Many foreign wrestlers are currently active in the sumo world. The first foreign wrestler to step up into the ring was Hawaiian-born Takamiyama , who debuted in 1964. Takamiyama had a very difficult adjustment period. Training was quite strict, and he had a hard time becoming acclimated to his new environment. Because he had an aversion to white-fleshed fish, he had special difficulty getting used to the taste of chanko-nabe, the stew-like dish that is the staple meal of sumo wrestlers. However, in 1972, after enduring many hardships, he won the Maku-uchi division championship and was promoted to sekiwake. Other wrestlers from Hawaii, such as Konishiki, Akebono, and Musashimaru, were active in the 1990s. Akebono became the first foreign wrestler to be promoted to yokozuna, and following that Musashimaru was promoted to yokozuna. The groundwork had been laid for the coming era of foreign wrestlers.
What was behind this increase in the number of foreign wrestlers? In those days the harsh world of professional sumo was suffering from a shortage of new apprentices. Every sumo stable found it difficult to attract promising Japanese candidates. However, every stable was anxious to produce sekitori wrestlers in-house as soon as possible for the simple reason that doing so would burnish the stable's reputation and raise its status. By welcoming a foreign wrestler who was physically larger than Japanese wrestlers, the time required to produce a sekitori wrestler could be shortened. As a result, stable masters concerned about establishing a strong performance record started actively searching for foreign wrestlers.
Until the 1990s, there were many American wrestlers from Hawaii. Starting in 2000, however, the majority of foreign wrestlers came from Mongolia, and later many European wrestlers also became active in the sport. The result was a new, internationalized sumo. Currently, twenty-one of the sport's thirty-four foreign wrestlers are Mongolian. At last November's Fukuoka Grand Tournament, twelve of the forty-two Maku-uchi Division wrestlers were foreign. Today any discussion of sumo must take into account these important foreign players.
In November 2017, the average weight of a Maku-uchi division wrestler was 164 kilograms. The heaviest wrestler is Ichi-no-Jo from Mongolia at 206 kilograms, while the lightest wrestler is Ura at 136 kilograms. Unlike wrestling and judo, sumo is not divided into weight classes. Heavier wrestlers are considered to have an advantage because they are more difficult to push out of the ring. Another factor is impetus momentum. Impetus momentum is calculated by multiplying weight times speed and measures the amount of force required to move an object. According to the law of impetus momentum, even if two wrestlers charge forward at the same speed, the heavier wrestler will have an easier time of knocking down his opponent; when receiving a charge, the lighter wrestler will find it more difficult to sustain the blow and will be more likely to be knocked out of the ring.
Try as you will, you cannot become taller. But you can become heavier! It is only natural for professional sumo wrestlers to try to gain every physical advantage, and, as you would expect, they strive hard to increase their body weight. However, this extra weight is not composed purely of fat. They develop and train muscles and then cover them with a moderate layer of fat that cushions the body from blows.
Weight alone, however, does not necessarily translate into overall strength: Hakuho, who as yokozuna won a record forty championships, weighs 157 kilograms - a figure that is below the average weight in the Maku-uchi division. (He is the twenty-seventh heaviest of the forty-two wrestlers.) Kakuryu, also a yokozuna, is similarly below average in weight at 158 kilograms.
Filming was done with the kind cooperation of the oyakata, or stable master, of Kasugano stable. We would like to express our deep appreciation to the oyakata and to the wrestlers of the Kasugano-beya.
Kasugano stable currently has three wrestlers - each ranked sekiwake - active in the Maku-uchi division:
Tochiozan, from Aki City, Kōchi Prefecture.
Tochi-no-Shin, from Mtskheta, Georgia.
Aoiyama, from Sophia, Bulgaria.