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September 20, 2018

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Live the sumo life: Understanding an ancient Japanese tradition

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Steve Marcus

A sumo wrestler throws ceremonial salt during the Grand Sumo Las Vegas tournament at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas, Nevada October 9, 2005.

Otakon Vegas 2017

Sumo wrestler Byambajav Ulambayar is tossed from the ring by Ryuichi Yamamoto in a demonstration match during Otakon Vegas at Planet Hollywood on Saturday, Jan. 14, 2017. Launch slideshow »

Honbasho

Six annual grand sumo tournaments in Japan. Each lasts 15 days. The goal is to end with more wins than losses. Victories determine ranking and pay.

Yokozuna

The highest ranking for a wrestler. Since 1746, only 72 rikishi have reached this status.

Sumo wrestling is more than 2,000 years old and has remained largely unchanged since its inception. It is Japan’s most popular professional spectator sport but has waned in viewership and participation in recent years. With the sport practiced in more than 60 countries, entrepreneurs and sumo enthusiasts see lots of potential in bringing sumo to new markets, including Las Vegas. Here’s what you need to know about the ancient Japanese sport:

A long history

Sumo wrestling is intricately entwined with Shinto ritual, having first emerged as entertainment for the gods to honor the spirits and ensure a bountiful harvest. The sport’s traditions and etiquette were shaped by traveling samurai mercenaries, known as ronin, who wrestled for money. Official sumo rules were introduced in the early 1600s, when the first professional sumo wrestlers emerged.

Characteristics of a wrestler

Rikishi: Sumo wrestler. Most sumo wrestlers are recruited at about age 15. They are expected to immediately start growing their hair to form a chonmage, or topknot, similar to the hairstyle of the samurai, and wear traditional clothing at all times in public.

Their lives are very much controlled and revolve almost entirely around training and tradition. In Japanese culture, rikishi are considered the embodiment of the country’s most prized virtues: dignity, honor, discipline and strength (although modern scandals have called that into question).

Most sumo wrestlers are big in stature but fit. They train for hours each day and aim to add as much girth as possible through exercise and diet. In the ring, bigger typically is better, since the wrestlers use their size and weight to throw their opponents out of the ring.

The average rikishi today is 6 feet tall and 326 pounds. However, smaller champions have emerged, most notably Pavel Bojar, the “skinny sumo” from the Czech Republic. Until the early 20th century, most sumo wrestlers were lean and muscular.

Sumo wrestling has contended with many scandals in recent years, including allegations of fixed matches, gambling and violence. Last November, a grand sumo champion was accused of assaulting a younger wrestler with a beer bottle, an ice pick, an ashtray, a microphone and a karaoke remote control.

Sumo attire

Mawashi: Sash. The 26-foot length of silk is wound around and between the wrestler’s legs, over and over again, then tied at the back. Higher-ranking wrestlers wear white belts; lower-ranking wrestlers wear black belts

A sumo match ends immediately if a wrestler loses his mawashi, and the naked rikishi is disqualified. In 2000, a wrestler became the first rikishi in 83 years to lose a bout because of a clothing malfunction.

The match

Slapping, shoving and head-butting are allowed. Kicking, punching with a closed fist, eye gouging and crotch grabbing are forbidden.

Sumo bouts typically last only a few seconds, but the buildup to the fight can last significantly longer. The wrestlers fling handfuls of rock salt into the ring to purify it. They offer their upturned palms to the heavens to show they aren’t carrying concealed weapons. They slap their bodies, squat and glare at their opponents, trying to intimidate. The match doesn’t begin until both wrestlers place their hands on the ground at the same time. Then, almost instantaneously, they leap up to begin wrestling. The match ends when one of the wrestlers is thrown out of the ring or any part of his body besides the soles of his fee touches the ground. There are 70 official winning techniques, but most of the action centers around a wrestler trying to grab the opponent’s sash and throw, trip or lift him.

Dohyo: Ring

Sumo wrestling is performed on a raised platform of packed clay sprinkled with sand, on which a 15-foot circle is delineated by sunken rice bales. Two white lines mark the middle of the circle. That is the starting point from which the wrestlers leap up for the clash. Women are never allowed in the dohyo. In early April, the Japan Sumo Association was forced to apologize after female medics were asked to leave a sumo ring while trying to deliver treatment to a local official who had collapsed. In 2000, Japan’s first female governor was barred from entering the dohyo to crown a tournament winner.

What do they eat?

The go-to meal for sumo wrestlers is chankonabe, a hotpot of meat, fish, vegetables and noodles that rikishi eat in large quantities to put on weight. The wrestlers typically pair it with rice and beer, and occassionally dumplings, omelets or fried chicken. A single meal can top 10,000 calories.

Gyoji: Referee

Gyoji typically begin their careers as teenagers and remain employees of the Japan Sumo Association until they retire at 65. The first sumo referees emerged in the 1500s. Before then, emperors determined winners. In the early days of sumo, a gyoji would have to commit on-the-spot seppuku, or ritual disembowelment, if he made the wrong call during a match. Today, the gyoji are simply expected to resign if they make a bad call.

Oyakata: Stablemaster

Only former wrestlers who achieve a high enough ranking are eligible to coach in a sumo stable. They also are the only former wrestlers given retirement pay.

Heya: Sumo stable

The highest-ranked sumo stars earn about $300,000 a year. Low-level wrestlers must survive on only a small living stipend.

All sumo wrestlers must be part of a heya, a dormitory where they live and train with coaches and other wrestlers. In Japan, several of these stables are located in Tokyo’s Ryogoku neighborhood, sumo’s traditional heartland. The stables are private, but tourists can book early-morning appointments to watch the wrestlers train. Wrestlers are expected to remain with the same heya for the entirety of their careers. Life at the heya can be difficult, especially for younger wrestlers. The stable is governed by a strict hierarchy, and the more inexperienced wrestlers are expected to cook, clean and wait on the higher-ranked wrestlers. Insiders also have reported bullying and hazing, including a death. A former stable master and three senior wrestlers were convicted of assault in 2009 after the beating death of a 17-year-old rikishi.

A changing sport

Despite its two-millennia history, sumo has seen a recent decline in popularity in Japan. A record low number of rikishi are entering heyas. Because of the intense and austere lifestyle, many younger Japanese athletes are gravitating more toward baseball or soccer. Some parents also discourage their kids from entering sumo because they fear the health risks of being so large.

Picking up the slack, however, are foreigners. Today, many of sumo’s top wrestlers are Mongolian, European or Polynesian. Non-Japanese wrestlers were allowed to compete in sumo starting after World War II.

This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.