Facts about Sumo and the Tough Path for a Foreign Wrestler in Japan

Dec 12, 2019 | CULTURE, Japan, NEWS, SPORTS

The quintessentially Japanese sport of sumo stops the country during the six big tournaments per year, with millions glued to the live action on TV.

Here are five key facts about the roly-poly sport which dates back centuries, has links to the Shinto religion and plays a central role in Japanese culture.

Sumos wrestle wearing mawashis, or belts

Nearly Nude

Sumo wrestlers squeeze their bulky frames into a mawashi, which looks like a baby’s nappy or diaper but is actually carefully designed sportswear.

It is the only thing worn in the ring and also allows wrestlers to grip their opponent as they grapple.

The belts can be more than nine meters (30 feet) long, made from cotton when training and silk for official tournaments or “bashos”.

To slip into the belt, the naked wrestler first passes the mawashi between his legs. Then, with the help of assistants, he spins around so it fits snugly around the waist.

It must be tightly tied at the back, both to ensure it stays on but perhaps more importantly to prevent opponents from being able to dig their fingers too far down in the belt, giving them a more solid grip.

Sumo wrestlers live and train in heyas, or stables

The Rules of the Game

The winner is the wrestler who manages to shove his opponent out of the dohyo, the sacred clay ring 4.55 meters in diameter. The other way of winning is to throw the opponent so that part of his body other than his feet touches the floor.

A bout is steeped in Japanese traditions rooted in the Shinto religion, starting with wrestlers rinsing their mouths with purifying water and the sprinkling of salt before each match.

The contest begins with the bone-shuddering “tachi-ai” where the two wrestlers come together in a noisy clash of flesh — and frequently heads.

​This is considered the most important part of the bout — “if you fail in the tachi-ai, you have an 80 percent chance of losing. You have to work hard on it,” Georgia-born sumo star Tsuyoshi Tochinoshin explained to AFP.

Slapping is permitted to the body and the face but hair-pulling and punching are strictly forbidden. Only the horizontal portion of the belt can be used as leverage.

It is technically possible to dodge a collision in the hope of forcing an opponent to topple over under his own weight, but this tactic is frowned upon.

While it is true that the vast majority of wrestlers are enormous, there can be a huge difference in weight — a 200-kilo (440 pounds) fighter could easily lose to a 120-kilo opponent.

Men Only

The dohyo is considered a sacred space and women, seen as “impure”, are banned from entering. This reached farcical lengths in 2018 when female medics rushed to help an official who collapsed in the ring, only to be shooed away.

If women enter the ring, it has to be “re-purifed” with copious quantities of salt. The head of the sumo association Hakkaku did apologize to the medics in 2018, but accusations of sexism remain.

Sumo has also been dogged by multiple scandals in recent years including allegations of bullying, illegal betting and links to organized crime.

A bout is lost if any part of the body, apart from the feet, touches the floor

Stable Career

Throughout their careers, wrestlers are housed in so-called “stables” run by a stablemaster under strict rules and a fierce hierarchy.

Trainee wrestlers sleep in a large dormitory on tatami mats, have to carry out a host of domestic chores and effectively act as servants to the more senior sumo professionals.

There is a brutal training routine, fuelled by gargantuan portions of chankonabe, a calorific stew designed to pile on the pounds.

Moral Energy

There remains a debate in sumo over which is most important: the “shin” (heart or spirit), the “gi” (technique) and the “tai” (physical force) but Tochinoshin is in no doubt — “it’s the heart,” he exclaims immediately.

Experts often claim to be able to predict who will win from the pre-bout rituals of stomping around the ring and eyeballing the adversary.

“In a fight between two opponents of equal strength, the only thing that can make the difference… is their moral energy,” wrote Kirishima, a well respected fighter who reached the rank of ozeki, in his 1996 memoirs.

Tough Path to the Top for Georgian Sumo Star

The sumo champion hauls his giant frame from the ground, sand and clay caking his sweaty back and fury flashing from his eyes as he chastises himself for his defeat. 

His 178-kilogramme (392-pound) body and white mawashi, or belt, are commonplace, but his bright blue eyes and Western features instantly mark out Georgia-born Levan Gorgadze as different in the traditional Japanese sport.

As a teen in 2006, Gorgadze left his mountain village in the Caucasus near the ancient Georgian city of Mtskheta for the bright lights of Tokyo, a city with 10 times as many people as his entire home country. 

It hasn’t been an easy path for Gorgadze, one of a growing number of foreign sumo stars, who has faced homesickness, injury and even being beaten with a golf club on his way to the top of the sport.

His story typifies the difficulties encountered by overseas sumos, who started making their mark in the 1980s and have to negotiate the sport’s arch-conservatism and spartan lifestyle if they are to succeed. 

Sumo has also been dogged by multiple scandals in recent years including allegations of bullying, illegal betting and links to organized crime. 

“My mother was against it but I took the decision on my own,” Gorgadze, 32, told AFP in a rare interview for a sumo, speaking at his stable after training.

He quickly found that the life of a trainee sumo wrestler was not for the fainthearted. 

Fastidious Rules 

Cloistered in a stable, or heya, in the Tokyo sumo district of Ryogoku, the wrestler’s days are filled with chores and punishing early-morning training sessions. 

One thing he does not lack is food: wrestlers have to consume gargantuan portions of chankonabe, a high-calorie stew designed to add bulk. 

The heyas are one of the last vestiges of traditional Japanese life and there is no privacy — the junior wrestlers eat, train and sleep as a group. 

Sumo wrestling is a bastion of Japanese culture

Despite this, Gorgadze said that “at first, I felt sad and isolated… annoyed by the (obligatory) wearing of a kimono and fastidious rules”.

He pined for his native village. “I couldn’t speak Japanese… I didn’t even have a mobile phone to call home.”

However, he persevered and rose up the ranks to become ozeki, the second-highest grade after yokozuna (grand champion).

Now known by his Japanese wrestling name of Tsuyoshi Tochinoshin, he says he “learned everything” in Japan, above all “look after your colleagues because we all have to live together”.

The camaraderie is clear at training as the wrestlers move around the sumo dohyo, or ring, with surprising grace, bringing each other water or brushing dirt from the back of a defeated stablemate.

Gorgadze known by his Japanese wrestling name of Tsuyoshi Tochinoshin, is one of a growing number of foreign sumos

Beaten Over a Kimono

The inspiration for Gorgadze came back in 2005 when he watched compatriot Kokkai, then a low-ranked 24-year-old, defeat Mongolian yokozuna Asashoryu for the first time, a win that sent shockwaves through the sumo world.

As a junior judo star, Gorgadze took easily to sumo and trained initially at the prestigious club at Nihon University to become one of the sport’s expanding cohort of foreigners.

His journey to the rank of ozeki was not without incident, however. In 2011, he was one of three wrestlers beaten with a golf club for appearing in public without a kimono. 

He also suffered injuries that ruled him out of several tournaments, or bashos, and has had to win back his rank after demotion. He has recently suffered another demotion after an injury-hit basho.

When in Tokyo, he sometimes gets a taste of home by listening to ancient Georgian polyphonic chants or eating traditional fare such as khachapuri — bread stuffed with cheese — or satsivi, chicken in a walnut sauce.

Back in Georgia, he is treated as a returning hero and greeted by huge crowds at Tbilisi Airport on his occasional trips home.

Trainee sumos have to carry out a number of domestic chores, including the washing-up

“I can only say good things about Levan. Ever since childhood, he was a good kid. And he has become a successful man the whole village adores,” said one neighbour, 43-year-old Nino Suramelashvili.

His mother has now changed her mind about her son’s unusual career choice.

“I am very proud, I am very happy that my son has achieved such success. In the sports world, he is a bright star. And besides that, he is a very good person with his human qualities,” says Nunu Markarashvili under the shade of the vines. 

And his uncle Tristan Maghradze cries: “Long live Tochinoshin. Levan Gorgadze. My famous nephew whom I am proud of, he is a worthy person.”

Gorgadze is not sure what his future holds but one possibility is obtaining Japanese citizenship to be able to open his own sumo stable. His dream is to see “lots of Georgians taking up sumo”. 

by Ursula Hyzy and Shingo Ito with Vano Shlamov