Dating back some 1500 years ago, sumo has a long tradition. Beyond the sport, its origins were religious. The first matches were a form of ritual dedicated to the gods for a bountiful harvest. At that time, rules were not really defined and few or no holds were barred. But, just like any other sport, rules have evolved.
Nowadays, sumo matches take place on a ring called dohyo and the rules are extremely simple. The fighter who goes out of the inner circle or touches the ground with any part of his body, apart from his feet of course, loses the match. Furthermore, there are no weight divisions, which means that a fighter can be matched against an opponent much bigger than himself.
I'm not a fan but I had wanted to go to see a sumo tournament for quite some time. There are only six major tournaments a year, which provides few opportunities, but I was lucky: one of those takes place in Nagoya, in july and only 5 minutes from my apartment, so I couldn't miss it!
A tournament lasts for fifteen days and each fighter is pitted against a different opponent every day. The fighter who gets the best record of wins over losses wins the tournament and after each tournament, the rankings are revised. The highest rank is the yokozuna and there are specific conditions to fulfill to reach it. First, a fighter must become an ozeki (second highest rank). Then, while holding that position, he must win two consecutive tournaments, which is of course extremely difficult to achieve. He then becomes eligible to the yokozuna rank, but it is the sumo federation that has the final word on whether to award him with the title or not. Indeed, sumo is halway between sport and tradition and as such, its most prestigious title can only be awarded to a man whose character, on top of his fighting performances, is worth such a position. Besides, a yokozuna cannot be demoted. Should he make poor showings in tournaments, he is expected to retire from his own initiative. According to those criteria, there can theoretically be several yokozuna at the same time. In actual practice, it is extremely rare but it is currently the case as two Mongolian fighters, Asashoryu and Hakuho, share the top spot.
When I arrived with my friends, there were still lots of empty seats:
Then it got more crowded, and finally the fighters came in:
The ceremony ended with a traditional ritual performed by the yokozunas:
To be honest, sumo can be a little boring to watch. First, there's a whole ritual before every fight. Seeing it once is fun, but after 20 times...Then, once the fighters are in position, they suddenly pause, go back to their corners and repeat part of the ritual. This can be repeated several times, for up to a couple minutes. They just wait for the psychological moment when they feel ready...but it's not really fun to watch! Furthermore, the fights are usually straightforward, with no real suspense, and don't last very long...But people don't go to see sumo matches like they would watch a tennis game. The atmosphere is quite relaxed, people eat, drink, talk,...from what I've seen, it looks more like a social thing.
Of course, some of the fights are really worth seeing, and one can only admire the speed and flexibility of the fighters, in regard of their weight. Their strength is also amazing, I saw a couple rounds where one fighter would litteraly lift his opponent to bring him out of the ring.
Apart from that, you might want to know whether sumo is popular. Well...yes and no! It is enough popular to be displayed on tv, but it doesn't seem to attract many young people.
Here are a few pictures to show you the symbolism of the different movements.
The fighters wipe their body to purify their body and mind:
Then they throw a handful of salt to purify the ring:
After clapping their hands to attract the attention of the gods, they extend their arms to the sides, raising their hands palm up to show that they conceal no weapon:
The next move is well known. The fighters lift one leg high and stamp on the ground to drive evil out of the ring:
Ready to fight:
Not yet! A little pause first:
Back to position:
The fight begins:
The knees touch the ground, which means the fight is over: