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All the facts you need to know about Japan's national sport

With matches that rarely last more than a minute and its scantily-clad competitors sporting beer bellies, Sumo wrestling is foreign to most rugby and cricket-loving Aussies. However, Japan's national sport since ancient times is gaining popularity here and around the world as foreign competitors climb the Sumo ranks.

History of Sumo wrestling
Legend has it that a Sumo wrestling match sparked the modern Japanese dynasty. Two gods, Takemikazuchi and Takeminakata, did battle on the shore of the Sea of Japan, with Takemikazuchi killing his opponent and founding the dynasty.
Aside from legend, the sport traces its origins to the Shinto religion. Some 1500 years ago, matches were dedicated to the gods and staged near shrines in the hope of a good harvest. By the eighth century, the sport was introduced into Imperial Court ceremonies. Throughout this time, Sumo incorporated elements of boxing, and the sport was a lot more violent. Under the continued patronage of the Imperial Court, rules and techniques were modified to produce a sporting style similar to today's.

Rules and regulations
Matches are played out in a Sumo ring, called a dohyo, constructed from a special type of clay and covered in a thin layer of sand. Above the dohyo is a roof resembling a Shinto shrine. Four giant tassels hang from each corner to signify the seasons of the year. The actual bout takes place in an inner circle, about 4.5m across.

The aim is for each competitor, or rikishi, to force the other out of the inner circle or make them touch the ground with any part of their body except the soles of their feet. Hitting, pulling hair, eye-gouging, choking and kicking in the stomach or chest are not allowed. Unlike Western wrestling or boxing, there are no weight limits or categories. In Sumo, a wrestler can compete against someone twice their weight.

sumoDiet and lifestyle
With no weight divisions, wrestlers gain as much weight as possible and this forms a large portion of their training. Typically, Sumo wrestlers weigh more than 150kg. The sport's heaviest wrestler, Sumo champion Rikishi Takamisugi, weighs in at 285kg. The Sumo diet differs greatly from that of an average person and it can take years for new recruits to reach an acceptable fighting weight.
Rikishi don't eat breakfast as they can't train on full stomachs. By midday they are extremely hungry and can eat a meal between 5 and 10 times larger than that of an average person. By eating later in the day, the metabolism drops and the body is encouraged to store the food as fat.
A Sumo wrestler's traditional meal is a stew called chanko-nabe. It consists of either fish, seafood or chicken and is served with either rice or vegetables. Although high in protein, the meal itself is not fattening. It is the sheer amount the wrestlers consume which leads to weight gain. After these large meals, Sumo wrestlers generally sleep for around three hours. Rikishi also have special massages to move the intestine, allowing them to eat more food.
Sumo wrestlers also consume a large amount of beer. A "beer belly" is desirable in Sumo wrestling as a large stomach makes competitors more stable in the ring.

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Throughout Japan there are six Grand Tournaments held annually; three in Tokyo and one each in Osaka, Nagoya and Kyushu. Each tournament lasts 15 days, with each rikishi fighting once a day against various opponents. The tournament winner - the rikishi with the best win-loss ratio - is awarded the Emperor's Cup. Additional prizes are given to the rikishi who upsets the most grand champions, as well as an award for technique and fighting spirit.


The Banduke
Given the popularity and history of the sport, professional rikishi are not allowed to compete at just any level. Instead, the 800 or so current wrestlers are ranked according to experience and ability. The Banduke is the official listing of Sumo wrestlers and ranges from the lowly trainee to the most superior rank possible, the Yokozuna. After each Grand Tournament the Banduke is updated, with rikishi either promoted or demoted depending on their performance. The highly ranked rikishi always feature at the end of the day's tournament to give spectators something to look forward to.

The position of Yokozuna is exceptionally unique, with only 63 rikishi having been honoured with the title since it was created some 300 years ago. One can never be demoted from the position, with a poorly performing Yokozuna expected to retire rather than continue competing. Yokozuna compete in the Makuuchi, the top division of professional Sumo wrestling in Japan. The division has just over 40 wrestlers.

One can identify the rank of a rikishi according to the way in which their hair is styled. A mage is the topknot worn by rikishi, and it has two variations. The first, the chon-mage, is a plain style tied with paper strings and worn by all rikishi. The o-icho, however, is only worn by members of the top two divisions in competition and on other formal occasions. The traditional styles have not only been kept because they were fashionable in the Edo period, but because they serve as head protection in the event of a fall.

Foreign competitors
While Sumo wrestling has been Japan's traditional sport since ancient times, the sport has experienced a recent influx of foreign competitors. Coming from around the world, including countries such as Russia, Mongolia, Bulgaria, Georgia, Estonia and South Korea, there are now a number of foreigners competing professionally in Japan.

The first foreign competitor to win the top division championship was 1970s rikishi Takamiyama Daigoro, from Hawaii. Konishiki Yasokichi was another Hawaiian wrestler who won the top division title on three occasions and was the first foreigner to reach the rank of Ozeki - the champion rank immediately below Yokozuna. In 1992, Hawaiian-born Akebono Taro became the first foreign-born Yokozuna.

Today, 26-year-old Mongolian Dolgorsuren Dagvadorj is considered one of the best Sumo wrestlers in Japan. He has experienced exceptional success and is now the only Yokozuna to be competing. Competing under the name of Asashoryu, which means Blue Dragon of the Morning, he weighs just 148kg and is 180cm tall. With 20 Makuuchi division championships to his credit, he has gained a large fan base in his home country and in Japan.

As the sport opens its doors to foreign competitors, Sumo is gaining notice around the world. But the high level of commitment, dedication and training required by wrestlers to reach the elite Sumo ranks, will ensure that only the best make it to the top and become true heroes in Japan's traditional national sport.

Sumo ritual and tradition
Sumo is not only a colossal sporting battle of strength and strategy, but a formalised ritual with its roots in ancient Japanese tradition.

Every tournament day, just before the makuuchi matches occur, the dohyo-iri ceremony takes place. Wearing kesho-mawashi - the richly embroidered, handcrafted ceremonial aprons synonymous with Sumo - teams of makuuchi rikishi enter the arena. Graceful in spite of their size, each team of riskishi climb into the dohyo where they undertake a brief Shinto ritual.
It is the Yokozuna who is most revered in the dohyo-iri ceremony. He enters flanked by a senior gyoji and two sword-bearing makuuchi rikishi. After first clapping his hands together and revealing his palms, he lifts first one leg high into the air, followed by the other, bringing each down with a thunderous noise believed to drive evil spirits out of the dohyo.

The rite that concludes the day is the "bow dance". After the final match a specially picked makushita rikishi climbs into the dohyo and is handed a bow by the gyoji. He then performs the yumitori-shiki, a mesmerising routine featuring twirling bow and incredible dexterity.
Introduced during the Edo period, the yumitori-shiki was first performed by the winning rikishi as a sign of gratitude for receiving the bow. Today, it has become an expression of satisfaction on the part of the victorious rikishi.

A fundamental part of rikishi equipment, the mawashi is the silken loincloth worn by Sumo wrestlers during competition.
Made from heavy silk and measuring about 9m by 60cm, it features ornamental silk strands that hang from the front. It is folded in six then wrapped around the waist four to seven times, depending on the competitor's girth.
Most winning techniques in Sumo are achieved by maneuvering the opponent with a grip on the mawashi, making it more than a uniform.

After entering the dohyo and performing numerous symbolic gestures, including the famous scattering of salt to purify the ring, the rikishi squat and face each other. This part of the ritual is called shikiri. Supporting themselves on their fists, intense mental confrontation ensues. After staring each other down the rikishi break, go back to their corners for more salt, scatter it, then return and glare some more. The intensity of the contest builds, usually for the full four minutes allowed by the rules, until one of the rikishi initiates the match.

The Gyoji
Clad in a spectacularly colourful kimono patterned after samurai of the Kamakura period, the gyoji have the weighty responsibility of adjudicating Sumo matches.
Gyoji are graded and only a tate-gyoji or top-ranking referee can officiate at a bout involving a Yokozuna. The rank of a gyoji can be determined by the colour of the tassel on his fan as well as by his footwear; higher-ranked referees wear split-toe socks and straw sandals, lower-ranked officials go barefoot.
The gyoji enters the dohyo with the combatants, calling out the names of each. Then, when it's time for battle, the gyoji signals with his fan in a gesture globally synonymous with Sumo.

Mr John Traill (left) with Kiwi wrestlers

The 2008 Oceania Sumo Championships

Text courtesy of Katrina Watts President, Australian Sumo Federation
Australian Sumo Federation members crossed the Tasman in April to pit their skills in the Oceania Sumo Championships.
Against strong competition, Australian John Traill secured a silver medal in the men's middleweight division.
However the heavier Kiwi wrestlers dominated in the open division, where the Australians were only able to achieve fourth place.
The championships, hosted by the New Zealand Sumo Federation, were staged before an appreciative audience in the city of Lower Hutt, near Wellington.
The Australian Sumo Federation is looking forward to its next international challenge on November 17 and 18 in Lausanne, Switzerland, where the 15th World Sumo Championships, 8th Junior World Sumo Championships and 6th Shin Sumo (women's Sumo) Championships will be held.
Australian Sumo Federation

Interview: Peter Armstrong

peter Dr Peter Armstrong
Architect and senior lecturer
at the University of Sydney
Former president of the
Australian Sumo Federation
Former Sumo coach
and competitor

How did you become involved in the Australian Sumo Federation?
I got involved through Ivor Endicott Davies, who was the president before me and he started back in 1992. I really got involved because of the First Oceania Championships in 1996. I saw the publicity for it and got in contact with Ivor. I was too old, so for me it was just an interest.


Had you been involved in Sumo beforehand?
No, mountaineering was actually my sport at university. My guidance professor wanted me to do a traditional Japanese sport, so I choose mountaineering. Suddenly the opportunity turned up to become involved with Sumo in 1996 and I did. I never really expected to wrestle. I started at 50! I wrestled once at a world tournament, because our heavyweight dropped out, so I competed in his place. I actually won my first bout.

What is participation like in the Australian Sumo Federation?
I don't really know where they are at, at the moment, but I think there are about half a dozen active people who train. We just have an annual tournament, a club one and a national one too. People come from all over the place to compete.


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