I was sitting in the Vancouver airport a few years ago when, down the passageway, came the biggest men I had ever seen.
Dressed in full traditional Kimonos of extraordinary colours, these men, with a large entourage, struck a very imposing scene.
People stopped and stared, moved out of the way as they approached and otherwise became very quiet.
What we were witnessing was the arrival to Vancouver of the Sumo wrestlers from Japan. The year was 1998 and this was the first time in their long history that a full contingent of sumo wrestlers was going to compete outside of Japan.
Legend has it that the possession of the Japanese islands was decided by a sumo match between the gods. According to the book, Kojiki (the book of ancient matters), two gods wrestled on the shores of Izumo on the Japanese coast 2,500 years ago until one defeated the other.
The sumo we know today has a long history dating back over 1,500 years. It has gone through many changes in its history. From entertainment for the gods to entertainment for nobility to mass entertainment finally evolving into the sport we see today.
One thing that has been consistent throughout is the many rituals incorporated from the dominate religion of this period.
Shinto religion (the way of the gods) pervades almost every aspect of sumo wrestling. If you ever get a chance to watch a match, you will see leg stamping, raising of the hands, scattering rice to warn off evil spirits and many other rituals connected to this religion.
The sumo ring is 4.55 metres in diameter. It is made up of straw bales circling it with a mixture of clay and sand inside the ring. Unlike many of the fighting rings in the west, in which the floors have a lot of bounce built into them, there is very little give in a sumo ring.
Matches are won by either throwing your opponent out of the ring or upsetting them enough to have some part of their body other than the soles of their feet touch the ground.
The third way a match can be lost is if one opponent uses illegal techniques such as hair pulling, kicking above the knee, grabbing the groin area or striking with a closed fist.
It is very rare to have a match go beyond one minute and most end in seconds.
No women are allowed to compete or even enter the ring.
Rikishi (wrestlers) train and live in what are called stables. I will talk more on that later.
Ranking is done by winning or losing. If you have a winning record in each of the Bashos (tournaments), you go up in rank. If you have a losing record, you go down.
Bashos are held six times a year and higher-ranked rikishi must compete 15 times over 15 days. Lower ranks compete seven times over 15 days.
There are no weight divisions in sumo. Therefore, a small rikishi, about 220 pounds, would have to wrestle other risishi weighing over 600 pounds.
In the next article I will look at the training habits, life styles, the ranking system and more of the customs of sumo wrestling.
Todd Hardy has studied and taught a variety of martial arts over 38 years and trained with many people from around the world. Would you like to comment on what you read here? Contact him at [email protected]