While most people associate the professional Sumo sport with Japan, and most Japanese regard the sport as an indigenous sport, not many are aware that Sumo is also an amateur sport, with participants in college, high school and grade school in Japan. It remains extremely popular although its popularity took a hit following recent scandals in the Sumo world.
The most successful amateur wrestlers in Japan (usually college champions) can be allowed to enter professional sumo at makushita (third division) rather than from the very bottom of the ladder. This rank is called makushita tsukedashi, and is currently makushita 10 or 15 depending on the level of amateur success achieved. Many of the current top division wrestlers entered professional sumo by this route. All entry by amateur athletes into the professional ranks is subject to them being young enough (under 23) to satisfy the entry requirements, barring qualification as a makushita tsukedashi (under 25).
In addition to college and school tournaments, there are also open amateur tournaments. The sport at this level is stripped of most of the ceremony seen in professional Sumo tournaments.
The monthly salary figures (2006 data Wikipedia source) for makuuchi (in Japanese Yen) were:
- Yokozuna Asashoryu performing the distinctive dohyō-iri of his rank
- yokozuna: 2,820,000, about US$30,500
- ōzeki: 2,347,000, about US$25,000
- san’yaku: 1,693,000, about US$18,000
- maegashira: 1,309,000 or about US$14,000
- jūryō: 1,036,000, about US$11,000
Notwithstanding the above figures, monthly bonuses and lucrative advertising contracts are also substantial income. Needless to say, Sumo wrestling is a viable professional career.
Because of its association with Shinto, the Sumo sport has also been seen as a bulwark of Japanese tradition. However, as with most icons of Japanese tradition, as the Shinto religion has historically been used as a means to express Japanese nationalism and ethnic identity, especially prior to the end of World War II, promoting such tradition in the national educational curriculum tends to embroil the sport activity in controversy over reviving nationalistic sentiments or militarism.
Historical origins of the sport
The Shinto origins of sumo can easily be traced back through the centuries and many current sumo rituals are directly handed down from Shinto rituals.
Children and infants are often dedicated at sumo shrines, with the hopes that they grow up in strength and health, and babies are entered in popular Naki-zumo tournaments or contests officiated by sumo wrestlers … These Naki-zumo (“cry-wrestling) are literally tournaments where the crying babies win depending who is first to cry when held up high and swayed by the presiding sumo wrestlers. One particular shrine, Ikiko Shrine, according to its ancient legend, established since 736 AD, has it that the Naki-zumo originated after a pair of parents prayed for their child at the shrine, who died of smallpox, but miraculously came back to life again on the third day (Source: Naki-zumo: A battle of sumo without physical contact”)
Sumo was originally performed to entertain the gods (kami) during festivals (matsuri) to ensure a bountiful harvest and honor the spirits known as kami. In addition to its use as a trial of strength in combat, sumo has also been associated with Shinto ritual, and even certain shrines carry out forms of ritual dance where a human is said to wrestle with a kami (a Shinto divine spirit. Sumo wrestling contests were originally performed on the grounds of a shrine or temple. Sumo as part of Shinto ritual dates as far back as the Tumulus period (250-552).
Wrestling was also one of the forms of entertainments for early chieftains and at court since the Kofun period, i.e., it is a two thousand year old sport. Excavated tumulus haniwa terracotta and bronzes display sculptured depictions of scenes similar to sumo wrestling.
In modern times, the canopy over the sumo ring, called the dohyō is reminiscent of a Shinto shrine, and is still considered sacred. To begin with, the sand that covers the clay of the dohyo is itself a symbol of purity in the Shinto religion. And the canopy above the ring (yakata) is made in the style of the roof of a Shinto shrine. The four tassels on each corner of the canopy represent the four seasons, the white one as autumn, black as winter, green as spring and red as summer. The purple bunting around the roof symbolizes the drifting of the clouds and the rotation of the seasons. The referee (gyoji) resembles a Shinto priest in his traditional robe. And kelp, cuttlefish, and chestnuts are placed in the ring along with prayers for safety.
Each day of the tournament the dohyō-iri, or ring-entering ceremonies performed by the top divisions before the start of their wrestling day are derived from sumo rituals. This ceremony involves them ascending the dohyō, walking around the edge and facing the audience. They then turn and face inwards, clap their hands, raise one hand, slightly lift the ceremonial aprons called kesho-mawashi, and raise both hands, then continue walking around the dohyō as they leave the same way they came in. This clapping ritual is an important Shinto element and reminiscent of the clapping in Shinto shrines designed to attract the attention of the gods. The yokozuna’s ring-entering ceremony is regarded as a purification ritual in its own right, and is occasionally performed at Shinto shrines for this purpose. Every newly promoted yokozuna performs his first ring-entering ceremony at the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo.
Yokozuna are dressed in mawashi with five white zigzag folded strips of paper on the front, the same as those found at the entrance of Shinto shrines. On the front of all mawashi are sagari, which are fringes of twisted string tucked into the belt, and they represent the sacred ropes in front of shrines. Numbers of strings are odd, between seventeen and twenty-one, which are lucky numbers in the Shinto tradition. Salt is tossed before each bout to purify the ring and this is one of sumo’s best known and most visible of the rituals. The officiator is dressed in garb very similar to that of a Shinto priest, and the throwing of salt before a bout is believed to purify the ring.
Sumo wrestling never really flourished as a professional spectator sport until the early 1600’s or Tokugawa period, and much of the grander costumes accoutrements and rituals emerged during the Edo Period. Also only the higher ranking rikishi perform the pre-bout ceremonies steeped in Shinto tradition. Professional sumo (大相撲 ōzumō?) can trace its roots back to the Edo period in Japan as a form of sporting entertainment. The original wrestlers were probably samurai, often rōnin, who needed to find an alternative form of income. Current professional sumo tournaments began in the Tomioka Hachiman Shrine in 1684, and then were held in the Ekō-in in the Edo period. Western Japan also had its own sumo venues and tournaments in this period with by far the most prominent center being in Osaka. Osaka sumo continued to the end of the Taishō period in 1926, when it merged with Tokyo sumo to form one organization
Photos of school wrestling tournaments, NHK Asaichi programme 27 June 2014 (own work)
Wikipedia entry on Sumo