A Fighting Chance: Sumo Wrestling's Return to the Top

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After scandals and waning popularity, the sport has made a comeback in Japan.

Let’s get one thing out of the way: Contrary to worldwide belief, sumo is not Japan’s national sport.

True enough, sumo is categorized as a traditional Japanese sport. The competitive, full-contact wrestling matches between two rikishi—the general term for a wrestler, a “man of strength”—started between 1,500 and 2,500 years ago, depending on the consulted authority. Truer still, it is by far the most well-known of the nation’s sports in the modern era, with fans filling stadiums and treating its rikishi like sex symbols and celebrities. Neither judo nor kendo, comparably historic Japanese sports, has ever had that kind of pulling power.

And perhaps truest of all is that millions around Japan will point out that sumo tournaments in Tokyo take place in the Kokugi-kan—whose name translates as “the stadium of the national sport.” And yet sumo has never been recognized as such by local authorities; in fact, no sport has.

Although sumo has done just fine without official recognition, such classification could bring with it government support and maybe sponsorship, allowing for formal programs to be established in schools and in turn foster more homegrown talent.

Because that’s the other thing: The majority of successful sumo wrestlers aren’t Japanese. From 2006 to January 2016, there wasn’t a single Japanese-born sumo champion. (Wrestlers from Mongolia and Hawaii have dominated sumo since the 1990s.) On top of that, the sport, steeped in ritual and spirituality, has been engulfed in scandal in recent years. So when a local, the 32-year-old, 384-pound Kotoshogiku, from Fukuoka won the Emperor’s Cup, the top division prize, on January 24, cheers rang out. His win is, hopefully, a turning point.

The smell hits first. That sweet scent of bintsuke, the wax that shapes a rikishi’s hair, folded up at the back, tied off, and flopped forward over the top of the head. Then you see him.

Imposing, powerful but lacking any muscular definition. Sizewise, not all rikishi are huge, to the bemusement of Westerners raised on myths of wrestlers force-fed 20,000 calories a day. And it’s not accurate to call them fat. Certainly, the average rikishi is well above average weight: in excess of 330 pounds, some topping 440. But as the adage goes, size is not everything. A Mongolian named Hakuho, a yokozuna, or grand champion, has become, at 31, the most successful wrestler in sumo history despite usually weighing in at around 300 pounds lighter than three-time American champion Konishiki, who at his peak weighed 628 pounds.

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Those unfamiliar with sumo may be surprised to know that it is as much about flexibility and speed as it is about bulk and out-and-out strength. According to the ancient legend, which first appeared during the Heian period in the oldest chronicle of Japanese folklore, the god Takemikazuchi won a sumo bout with the leader of a rival tribe, giving him possession of the islands. Subsequent mentions refer to sumo matches being carried out as rituals to improve crop yields. Not until 1757 was sumo first organized and seen more as a sport than a religious offering of sorts. It was in those early years that the rituals—leg stomps, salt throwing—were formed. Still, sumo was then, and is now, a tough sport.

In its 259 years of official history, only 71 men have earned a promotion to sumo’s top rank of yokozuna. (Kotoshogiku, who won in January, holds the rank of ozeki, or champion; he has one more rank to ascend before yokozuna.) The majority of them were born and bred in the archipelago. But in the past 20 years, Japanese dominance has waned; the most recent native yokozuna retired in 2003. Two have been American and four have been Mongolian, including three still active (Hakuho being one of them) atop the 600-man sport. The fourth Mongolian, however, served only to reinforce a belief held by some in and around sumo and Japan in general that foreign participation in this sport of the gods should be limited. His name is Asashoryu, and in the early 2000s he was idolized. Fans flocked to see him fight. He had no real equals and seemed unbeatable; he was called the Michael Jordan of sumo.

By the time he retired in 2010, he had won the Emperor’s Cup an incredible 25 times. (Japan’s Taiho, active between 1956 and 1971 and a media darling in his own time, had the most sumo wins in history, with 32 titles; Hakuho took over that title in 2015, when he won his 33rd.) Unfortunately for Asashoryu, the fame went to his head. The behavior expected of a yokozuna—humility, discretion, respect of rank—just wasn’t there. He made headlines for all the wrong reasons: destruction of property, failing to respect defeated opponents, being physically aggressive outside the ring, and, worst of all, feigning injury to avoid taking part in a tournament.

In 2007, when Asashoryu opted to play hooky by claiming he needed to return to Mongolia for some much-needed R & R, footage emerged of him—injured, remember—playing soccer. He even scored a goal! The Japan Sumo Association was not impressed. Neither was the sumo-following public. He was banned from competing in the following two tournaments, and when he did return, he headed straight to the Kokugikan to make a live televised apology to the nation. His car was followed from the airport that cold autumn day by five helicopters. (When the Beatles took Japan by storm in the 1960s, they had only four choppers tailing them, says an aging reporter who covered it.)

For a while he behaved, but he was finally kicked out for assault. Sadly, he was not the last foreigner to misbehave. The next few years saw problems with drugs, gambling, and match-fixing envelop sumo. Large numbers of Japanese and foreign wrestlers were given their marching orders. And the sport was already reeling from the hazing death of a 17-year-old recruit in 2007.

Over the past few years, the sport has slowly begun to rebound. Since 2009, the strong local showing from a number of Japanese rikishi—powerful in the ring and handsome outside it—has carried the sport. Kotoshogiku’s victory this year is a further step in the right direction. Stadiums once half empty, following the antics of Asashoryu and the scandals, are filling up again.

So part with this: Sumo is approaching its 260th year of action; it’s had its share of problems, sure (what sport hasn’t?), but no trip to Japan is complete without cheering on these men who eat, sleep, and breathe sumo 24 hours a day, seven days a week, their entire career.

For more on how to see a sumo match, visit our Tokyo City Guide »