When some people think of wrestling or grappling they normally only think of the match or fight itself. For many others this shallow understanding does not begin to capture the deep meaning of Sumo. Some traditions that have close ties to the philosophy, purpose and spirit of martial arts like Sumo, see the actual combative side as merely the external manifestation of the art. The physical part is not its essence. Nonetheless, they take the rigorous training very seriously and seek to develop powerful bodies and techniques. What is less known about the Sumo tradition to the uninitiated, is its deep adherence to rituals. Let’s take a look at a few of them now.
Sumo is a national sport in Japan. It goes back about 1,500 years. It is an art that consists of throwing, sweeping and several versions of powerful palm and hand slapping techniques. It use to also include kicking and punching and was quite violent. The goal being to beat your opponent into submission or force him to voluntarily quit. Sumo’s origin involves a great story. Legend has it that the creation of the Japanese race was decided by a Sumo match! An ancient book called Kojiki (or Book of Ancient Matters) was written in 712. That book records the story. A deity/god was challenged by a human who was ruler of the common people. Apparently, the divine race (gods) was represented by this particular deity who demanded that the common people give up their land. This is when the ruler of the common people challenged the deity. The deity won the match and to this day the Imperial bloodline of Japan is traced back to this god and the divine race of gods.
Sumo’s roots are also deeply tied to the Shinto religion. Shinto, or kami-no-michi, is a very old religious tradition in Japan. It is heavily laden with many ceremonies and rituals. Shinto is more about rituals, customs and cultural heritage than it is about religious doctrine. These practices are mainly performed to purify one’s self and out of respect for the ancestors, culture and history of Japan. They were originally done to influence the gods to bring a bountiful harvest. Shinto means the way of the gods. One of the rituals in Shinto involves a sort of dance whereupon a person wrestles with a god. Sumo matches use to be held on the sacred grounds of shrines and temples before they began being held in the general public.
With the above backdrop let’s now look at some recognizable rituals in Sumo matches today. One would be the spreading of salt into the dohyo (i.e. ring/sacred circle) before the match. This ritual is performed in order to purify the ring. Both wrestlers also engage in shiko that involves raising one leg as high as they can (to the side) then stomping the ground. This is done on both sides. They are given a strength water used to give them power in preparation for their match. Once inside the dohyo they squat down facing each other. They slap both hands together once. Still squatting, they raise their arms up parallel to the ground signifying that they’ve brought no weapons…only their skill. It will be a fair match. The seconds just before the match begins is intense. The stare into each other’s eyes is fierce.
The pre-match rituals also include actions performed by the announcer (i.e. yobidashi), referee and individuals carrying various banners. The announcer sings out the names of each rikishi (i.e. wrestler) and this let’s everyone know a match is beginning. The gyoshi (referee) is dressed in ceremonial clothing that looks a lot like a Shinto priest. While the wrestlers are drinking the strength water, the referee calls out each wrestlers name. It’s reminiscent to calling out to the gods. People carrying banners also traverse the ring carrying banners. These banners display the amount of money that will be awarded to the winner of the match. Everyone involved in Sumo wrestling rituals takes his part seriously. The referees and announcers must also be trained. They are not just randomly selected or hired.
If you watch a Sumo match, it is highly likely that all of the pre and post rituals of each match last longer than the actual match itself. Matches generally only last between three to seven seconds! Personally, I think that there is a lesson in this fact. Fighting is only a small part of the overall experience of Sumo, or martial arts generally. It’s what happens before (and after) a match or actual self-defense situation (i.e. training, preparation, awareness, growth) that is the where the main focus is. All of the communication taking place in the Sumo rituals continue to promote respect, purity and fairness. They also maintain age old traditions that go all the way back to the roots of Japanese culture and spirituality…
-Sensei Derek Fletcher