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April 30, 2006
The Heart of Sumo Part 1
Filed in: Current Affairs, Japan, Photography, Sports

During my last trip to Japan, while in Osaka, I was treated to one of the most unique and honoring experiences I have ever had.

My joint venture partner took me to observe Sumo practice.


Perhaps most of us in the west have significant preconception about what Sumo is. We likely subconsciously connect it with our own sports experience and associate it with what we know about western professional sports. Most all of these preconceptions aren't true.

I quickly learned a set of facts which quickly disabused me of my western notions.

Sumo is more of a team sport than an individual one - it's not like our tennis is or golf (with an individual supported by their own courtege) as we might suppose. As with most things Japanese - there is a collective effort, a group think, each combatant an extension of his peers. Each Sumo stable (as they are called) is associated with a Buddhist Temple - and would be rather like us saying: "The Green Bay Packers are associated with the First Baptist Church in Green Bay". Most of the Sumo stables (there are 56 if I recall correctly) are home based around Tokyo, but there are six major tournaments a year at different locales (the Osaka tournament was coming up when I was there) so they move en masse to sister Temples near the city where the tournament is taking place. Located on the premises of the Temple is a practice area, which, in our case, was a loosely set up canvas and tarp tent, with the sacred circle contained within.

Sumo athletes pretty much lead a monastic existence. They begin practice every day at 5 AM - that's 365 days a year - and they practice until noon or so. They then eat a huge meal and rest for a little while, do some chores around the Temple, perhaps go to the market, and then in bed around 5PM - they sleep 10-12 hours a day because of the intensity of their training. They buy and prepare their own food. Most of them don't make much money. All of their winnings in tournaments are given to their stable - for those who are very successful, some amount of their earnings are returned to them. A career may last ten to fifteen years with this kind of existence. After their career, those that have made a name for themselves are some of the most honored citizens in society - some living their days out like royalty. Most go to work somewhere in Japan society or stay associated with the sport as a trainer or coach.

Though there is an official Sumo organization, it is focused almost completely on the sport's tradition - there are no significant commercial efforts for the kind of lavish corporate sponsorship and commercial television contracts that our professional sports are pervaded with. In fact, it appears that in many ways Sumo is a sport that remains financially 'wanting' because the sport depends almost completely on tournament winnings and donations.


I had always thought that Sumo athletes were obese, out of shape guys who just tried to push each other around the ring. I was quickly disabused of that notion as well.


It's very true that mass is an important aspect of the sport. There are a number of caucasian entrants into the sport (mostly eastern European) - and the guy on the right above was an example - and though, for the most part, they are extremely well built and powerful, their overall lack of mass keeps them from avoiding the kind of most powerful brute force technique that the more massive opponents employ. The object of the sport is to either move your opponent out of the ring, or throw him to the ground.


The nature of the practice we observed was that the elite members (those with the white belts) took on the other most advanced athletes as well as the up and coming within the stable - and each other. What was most surprising to me about what I observed was the amazing cardiovascular shape these guys were in. They conducted a series of mock bouts and then a series of exercises that involve them pushing each other around the ring in what is akin to our blocking dummy exercise in football.


This followed by a series of round-the-ring wind sprints, hunched over with their hands held close to their chest, their team mate's hold them in that crouched position - to the point of exhaustion.


Between each successive work out set, the youngest and most inexperienced team members vigorously sweep out the ring - more as a measure of renewing its energy for the next exercise than any measure of cleanliness for the dirt.


Subsequent to each of the exercise series the participants in the previous series offer a cup of water to the stable master (that's the literal translation) which he usually takes and spits out.


This stable master is as famous in Japan as any star football player in the US who has become an NFL football coach. This guy was the Grand Master Sumo champion between 1972 to 1975.


This guy is one of the top ten ranked Sumo athletes in the world. They are ranked only on the basis of their tournament performance - nothing else.


This guy is the emerging hope of this stable. He's only nineteen years old and already has had significant success and they have very high hopes for him.


This is another one of those experiences that's extremely rare for a westerner to have. For that matter, it's rare for Japanese people to be allowed to have this kind of access to Sumo training. I know that it was my host's close relationship with the Temple and the coaching staff - along with significant generosity from his pocketbook - that made this possible. Wow!


For me, it was really eye-opening to see these dedicated athletes - who live a most sparse existence - be so dedicated to their sport.


The sport has certainly come a long way from a diversion for the Temple strong men in antiquity.


They do not argue with the price. They pay it - whatever is asked of them.


And when they all are done, they sweep a mound up in the middle of the ring and set up the sacred center. No one is permitted in the ring again until it is purified with salt the next morning.

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» Sumo from Scribal Terror
MC at Pull on Superman's Cape has a fascinating, culturally insightful piece on Sumo wrestling, along with (of course!) some great photos. Like this one: [Read More]

TrackPulled on May 7, 2006 5:43:26 PM

People Pulling

I just wanted to say that this was an excellent and very informative look at what goes on behind the scenes in the world of Sumo wrestling. I have to admit that I had many of the same preconceived notions about the sport that you did. Thanks for setting me straight! Great pictures too, btw.

Posted by: panasianbiz at May 1, 2006 2:54:58 PM

MC, what a wonderful piece. Absolutely fantastic, and what a great appreciation of the culture you have.

Posted by: Scott P at May 5, 2006 7:21:12 AM

Wow, Mac. That's really cool. Wouldn't it be interesting if all sport were dominated by its spiritual component?

Posted by: Ana at May 7, 2006 6:13:14 PM

Wow. Very cool.

Posted by: Nathan Azinger at Jun 9, 2006 1:19:26 PM

Nice! I love sumo and the sumos. I have some photos in my blog, too. You may visit my site at I have some sumo videos there too.

Posted by: jimmy at Dec 3, 2007 6:39:38 AM

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