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Nothing could be further from the truth. Starting over 1500 years ago as simple competitions intended to please gods and crowds alike, Sumo has evolved into Japan's most recognized traditional sport. Two very large men wearing almost nothing and sporting a hairstyle out of a period movie smash into each other at very high speeds, hoping to knock each other down to the floor or out of the ring.
Structure and Rules
The Sumo ring sits upon a mound of hard clay called a dohyo. The ring itself is demarcated by bands of straw, called tawara, that are embedded into the dohyo, and the surface is covered with a thin layer of sand, to which much salt is added over the course of a tournament. A new dohyo is constructed for each tournament, and during its use only men may stand upon it. Women, and in fact any person who is not a participant in the competition, should never approach the dohyo.
The two most important people in the ring are the two wrestlers, or rikishi. Wearing a special belt, called a mawashi, and a traditional topknot hairstyle, these two behemoths attempt to slap, smash, push, trip, or throw their opponent to the surface of the dohyo or off of it entirely. The rules are simple - force your opponent out of the ring or make him touch the ground with any part of his body other than the soles of his feet. This can be achieved using any method that does not involve choking, hair-pulling, eye-gouging, ear-boxing, kicking above the knee, groin contact, or hitting with a closed fist. Everything else, including great open-handed slaps to the face, is fair game.
Besides the two rikishi, there is a third man present in the ring during a bout. Clothed in a Kamakura Period samurai kimono, this man is called the gyoji, and he acts as a referee for the bout. He ensures that the bout starts fairly (i.e. both rikishi have made a motion to touch hands to the ground before lunging at their opponent) and also makes the call as to who won the bout, using the a ceremonial fan he carries, called a gunbai.
Sitting around the dohyo are five men dressed in black kimonos. These former rikishi make up the shinpan, the judges who intercede when they feel that the gyoji has made a wrong call, or when the match was just too close to call. When this occurs, the five men gather in the center of the dohyo, in what is called a mono-ii, to discuss the match and, for televised matches, to talk with a further judge who watches a video replay behind the scenes. After conferring, the head of the shinpan uses a microphone to announce the result of the mono-ii, which may be as the gyoji originally judged (gunbai-dori), opposite to gyoji's judgement, or a rematch may be called (torinaoshi).
Sumo is overflowing with ceremony. What many people notice when they first watch a few bouts is that very little time is actually spent competing. Of the five to seven minutes between matches, the actual competition only takes up 30-45 seconds.
When a rikishi steps onto the dohyo, he bows to his opponent. Then, after a few claps and arm spreads, he proceeds to his corner, where does the first of several foot stomps, called soroibumi, intended to drive evil spirits from the ring. At this point, either the rikishi who just won the previous match or a rikishi yet to compete hands the current competitor a ladle of purifying water, called chikara-mizu. The rikishi consumes a little of this, but he spits most of it into a receptacle build into the dohyo after receiving a small piece of paper to cover and wipe his mouth.
Now, the first salt is thrown, in what is called shiomaki, a process intended to purify the ring even more. The rikishi then face each other and perform more soroibumi, followed by a return to their respective corners for more salt throwing. From this point on, the rikishi will repeatedly toss salt into the ring, then enter and squat down before each other, touching both fists to the ground. The number of repetitions depends on the judgement of the gyoji and the shinpan, but it tends to increase as the rank of the wrestlers increases. Once the shinpan and gyoji decide that the ring has been purified sufficiently, the gyoji will turn his fan to face forward, signaling that the bout is about to start.
Upon completion of a match, both winner and loser must stand at their respective ends of the ring and bow to each other. The loser than exits the arena while the winner squats before the gyoji as his name is announced. If sponsors have offered money on a bout, the gyoji approaches the winning rikishi and rests envelopes filled with prize money upon his fan. The rikishi then moves his hand in the four cardinal directions and picks up the money. Finally, the rikishi steps down from the dohyo and waits to give water to the next rikishi before leaving the arena.
A Sumo tournament, or basho, is held six times a year, once in every odd-numbered month. Each tournament lasts 15 days, starting and ending on a Sunday. The tournament locations are: Tokyo (January), Osaka (March), Tokyo (May), Nagoya (July), Tokyo (September), Fukuoka (November).
In the top two ranks, Maku-uchi and Juryo, rikishi compete once per day, and the winner of the division is the rikishi with the best win-loss record after 15 days. Ties are settled with playoff matches. A given days match-ups are determined two days in advance by the Sumo Association based on the rikishi's rank as well as his performance up to that point during the tournament. Thus, if a lower ranked rikishi does well during the first week, he will soon find himself matched against higher ranked rikishi, including even a Yokozuna. This ensures that a rikishi does not win the tournament by only beating low ranked opponents.
In the lower ranks, the rikishi compete only once every two days, for a total of 7 bouts during the tournament. Unlike the two upper divisions, rikishi in the lower divisions are matched up against rikishi who have the same win-loss record up to that point. Thus, the winner of each of the lower divisions will have a perfect 7-0 record.
Sumo is divided into six main ranking groups. These groups are, in ascending order: Jonokuchi, Jonidan, Sandanme, Makushita, Juryo, and Maku(no)uchi. Within each group, the rikishi are ranked by number (excluding the specially named ranks in Maku-uchi, explained below) and are divided into East and West pairings, with East being the better rank. Besides the obvious prestige involved in attaining a higher rank, money is also a motivating factor, as only rikishi in the Juryo and Maku-uchi rankings receive a salary from the Sumo assocation.
As a general rule, a rikishi must win at least 8 bouts (kachikoshi) in order to maintain or increase his ranking. On the other hand, a rikishi who loses 8 or more bouts (makekoshi), will find himself at a lower rank when the banzuke, or list of rankings, for the next basho is released. The exceptions to this rule are the top two ranks, Ozeki and Yokozuna, as explained below.
The highest division, Maku-uchi, is divided into the groups Maegashira, Komusubi, Sekiwake, Ozeki, and Yokozuna. Within Maegashira, the rikishi are ranked from 1 (the highest) to 15 or 16. Above Maegashira is San'yaku, a group originally consisting of the ranks Komusubi, Sekiwake, and Ozeki, however today it generally only refers to the Komusubi and Sekiwake ranks. There are usually two or three rikishi for each San'yaku rank.
Above the San'yaku are the Ozeki, usually between 3 and 5 rikishi who have demonstrated a consistent ability to win bouts. The generally understood rule is that a rikishi must win 33 bouts during 3 tournaments to achieve this rank, but the final decision is up to the Sumo Association, and factors such as how wins are achieved as well as when, how, and to whom a rikishi loses also come into play. Additionally, if there are already a high number of Ozeki, a candidate rikishi may also find himself denied this rank. Once the rank is attained, however, only 8 wins per tournament are required to maintain it. Additionally, if an Ozeki loses 8 or more bouts in a tournament, he only needs to achieve 8 or more wins in the following tournament to maintain his rank. However, two consecutive makekoshi tournaments result in demotion from the Ozeki rank.
Finally, above everyone is the rank of Yokozuna, Grand Champion. There are usually only one or two rikishi at this rank at any time. As with the Ozeki rank, there is no hard rule for achieving the rank, however in recent years it has been stated that a rikishi must win two consecutive basho while ranked Ozeki in order to be considered for Yokozuna promotion. This is no simple task, as can be seen from the fact that there have only been 68 rikishi who have achieved this rank since its creation in the 1700's.
The Yokozuna's role in Sumo is to represent the epitome of what a rikishi should be. He is both a fierce fighter and a master of ceremonies. As is fitting for someone who has achieved this great rank, a Yokozuna can never be demoted. While he is not expected to win every tournament, a Yokozuna is expected to be in the competition for the championship. When the time comes that a Yokozuna can no longer maintain this level of competition, he is expected to retire.
A Typical Day's Schedule at Nagoya Basho (with approximate times):
8:30 AM: The Gymnasium opens, lowest division matches begin.
If you arrive at this time (or anytime before 2:00pm or so), you can watch the lower level rikishi having their matches. At this level, each rikishi only has one match every other day, for a total of seven matches during the tournament. In the lowest divisions, many of the rikishi still have short hair, and their technique is still being refined. The style of wrestling is often quite different than what you will see later in the day when the top division is competing.
Because almost nobody is in the hall at this time, you should definitely take the opportunity to sit down in the first couple rows while you watch. It's a great chance to experience the view from the most expensive (and most uncomfortable) seats in the house, even if the quality of wrestling isn't the best. Just be sure not to do anything offensive such as approaching any of the rikishi, judges, or the ring itself.
2:30 PM: Juryo Division Competition Begins
If you've seen Sumo on television in Japan before, you may have caught some of the matches in this rank, since NHK usually starts broadcasting at 3:00pm. From this rank on, a rikishi is considered a sekitori, a class of wrestler with special privileges such as a tsukebito (a lower-ranked rikishi who serves as a personal assistant) and the right to wear the more formal O-icho hair style (with its distinctive ginkgo leaf shape) during competitions and formal occasions. Perhaps most importantly, it is also starting at this rank that a wrestler receives a salary from the Sumo Association. Given all of these benefits, it isn't surprising that the quality of the wrestling improves.
4:00 PM: Maku-uchi Dohyo-iri (Ring Entering Ceremony)
Before the top division matches begin, all of the top-ranked wrestlers enter the ring and perform a simple ceremony to demonstrate that they carry no weapons and will fight fairly. During the ceremony, the rikishi wear a special apron, called a kesho-mawashi, which is embroidered with various images, and sometimes even sponsors' names.
After the lower-ranked Makuuchi wrestlers have performed their ceremony, each Yokozuna performs his own ceremony, including the well-known foot stomping to drive evil from the ring. With each foot stomp, the crowd gives a loud "yosho!"
4:15 PM: Makuuchi Competition Begins
This is the top division of Sumo wrestlers, and by now the fans who have tickets for the day's bouts are streaming into the tournament hall. If you bought general admission tickets or aren't sitting in the seat indicated on your ticket, you may find someone politely asking you to leave their seat. Just stand up, be properly apologetic, and go find another seat.
Meanwhile, you should be focusing your attention on the behemoths crashing into each other in the ring. These are the elite wrestlers, both in size and technique. As the matches go on, higher and higher ranked wrestlers make their appearance, with the final match or two always being between a Yokozuna and his opponent for the day. This is the group of rikishi that people pay 10,000 yen or more to see.
6:00 PM: Competition Concludes, Bow-Twirling Ceremony
Once the Yokozuna have had their matches, the day's competition is complete. As people begin leaving, a lower-ranked rikishi steps into the ring and receives an unstrung bow, which he swings around in various motions in the Yumitori-shiki, or bow-twirling ceremony. This ceremony, which originated in the Edo period as an expression of satisfaction by a winning rikishi upon receiving a bow as a prize, concludes the day's competition.
Nagoya Basho - Every Year in July
How to Get Tickets: There are a few different options to get tickets. If you plan to go on a weekend, your best choice is to order tickets ahead of time via internet (start here: http://www.sumo.or.jp/), phone, or by going directly to the arena box office. You have the choice of individual or group tickets, and prices range from approximately 3,500 yen for the farthest seats (Western style), to over 40,000 yen for a box with four Japanese style seats fairly close to the ring. As weekends are the busiest times it's best to order these tickets well ahead of time, although pre-ordering does incur an extra service charge unless you purchase the tickets at the box office itself.
The cheapest option, though perhaps most troublesome for late-risers, is to get to the arena at or before 8:30 AM and purchase a general admission ticket for just under 3000 yen. This allows you to enter the arena, however you don't have an assigned seat. If all tickets have sold out on the day you go, you are out of luck and will have to stand in the back in the areas designated for holders of these tickets. However, you will usually find a few empty seats here and there where you can sit, at least until the customers holding tickets for those seats arrive. (If this happens, simply apologize and move to another empty seat.) Besides the price advantage, this option is also good if you decide to go at the last minute, because these tickets are only sold on the day for which they are valid. The disadvantage is that you need to get to the box office at or before the time it opens at 8:30 AM, because these tickets sell out quickly.
If you have afternoons free during the week, going on a weekday may be your best bet. Of course, you can pre-order tickets for a weekday, but in recent years it's unusual for all seats to be sold-out on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, and the cheaper tickets are often still available into the afternoon. And even with an assigned seat, you can often sit in an empty (more expensive) seat closer to the ring, as long as you are sufficiently apologetic should the real ticket holders of that seat arrive. As a Yamasa student you can leave directly after your last class and be at the tournament by 2:30 PM (AIJP) or 3:30 PM (SILAC), in plenty of time to see the dohyo-iri, or ring-entering ceremony, of the top wrestlers, including the Yokozuna's ritual driving away of evil from the ring.
How to Get There: From JR Okazaki Station, board a train bound for Nagoya and exit at Kanayama. Exit the JR section and enter the subway. Take the Meijo Subway line in the clockwise direction to Shiyakusho (City Hall) Station. At Shiyakusho, use exit 7 and continue heading north a couple hundred meters until you reach the entrance to the gymnasium grounds. Walk through the entrance and you will soon see Aichi Prefectural Gymnasium, the location of the Nagoya Sumo Tournament.
Links: Sumo in Okazaki City
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