The art of Japanese sumo wrestling has long captured the global imagination. The distinct appearance of the athletes is unlike any other sport – but don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s just two fat guys in diapers shoving each other.
Sumo wrestling in Japan is far more than just a sport – it’s a ritual that is over 1500 years old. Those who sumo wrestle are not simply people with a hobby, they are athletes who have devoted every aspect of their lives to their craft. Many foreigners don’t realize the huge personal sacrifices that sumo wrestlers must make when they commit to the lifestyle – including forgoing driving.
Let’s touch on some of the inner workings of the sumo wrestling world in Japan.
Sumo Wrestling History
Sumo wrestling is a tough lifestyle – for generations, teenagers from all over the world have been sent to Japanese sumo wrestling stables to be trained up in the art by masters. This sport celebrates what it is to be Japanese – foreigners are welcome to join (though only one per stable will be admitted) but are expected to fully assimilate themselves into the traditional sumo way of life. The maximum age for joining a stable is 23, but in practice, most join up at around 15 or 16 years old.
The stable life is highly regimented – the athletes rise early and begin their training on an empty stomach, eat a generous lunch (which they prep themselves), and then retire for an afternoon nap. After a nap, they will eat large amounts of food, necessary for the expected weight gain, and get an early night. The schedule is often likened to a soldier training camp, and there have been stories about a concerning hazing culture for new recruits in certain stables.
The sumo world is split into divisions. The lower divisions have stricter rules (for example, no mobile phones and no romantic relationships) and do not receive a salary. As you make your way up through the divisions, the rules become slightly less restrictive and the perks grow (think salary, travel, and sponsorship deals). However, all divisions of sumo wrestling must follow the basic rules of the profession at all stages of their career. One such rule that often causes outsiders a double-take is the “no driving” policy.
Why Sumo Can’t Wrestlers Drive
There are a few different reasons behind this strange rule. The first is purely practical – it comes down to size. Sumo wrestlers are expected to grow to an extremely large size in order to perform at their best in the sport – and that can make fitting behind the wheel a major challenge. Driving at the size that sumo wrestlers are can lead to genuine health and safety worries.
The rule was initially prompted by a serious car accident involving a sumo wrestler. Driving has associated risks, and the Japanese Sumo Association essentially removed this by putting a blanket ban on sumo wrestlers driving their own vehicles.
This could also be a way of restricting the movements of wrestlers – the athletes, especially in the lower divisions, are kept insight of their coaches at all times. Only married wrestlers of higher divisions are permitted to move out of the stables and live independently – and even then, if they drop a division they must move away from their family and back into full-time stable training. Not having access to a personal vehicle limits where the wrestlers can go and when, increasing their coach’s control over them.
High ranking sumo wrestlers may have a personal driver who will take them wherever they wish to go. Lower ranking wrestlers must make do with public transport like the rest of us plebs.
Related Sumo Wrestling Scandals
There are probably a lot of scandals in the sumo wrestling world that we will never find out about. The industry is notoriously hush hush about anything that could potentially fly in the face of their ultimate goal of preserving sumo culture. However, there are a few stories of sumo wrestlers and their associates behaving questionably that did make it into the media.
Although officially sumo wrestlers are not allowed to drive, there was a recent scandal involving a high profile sumo wrestler that led many to question how strictly these rules are adhered to in practice.
Egyptian sumo wrestler Osunaarashi was involved in a minor car accident in 2018. He initially claimed his wife was the driver until security footage showed that it was in fact him behind the wheel. Osunaarashi was forced to retire from professional sumo wrestling after the truth was exposed.
He was far from the first wrestler to make this mistake – Mongolian sumo star Kyokutenho had a minor crash in 2007 which also saw him being banned from the sport. More seriously, Japanese sumo wrestler, Toki was involved in a collision that killed a female pedestrian in 2000 – resulting in a similar lifetime ban.
This begs the question of how many professional wrestlers actually do drive in their personal lives – they just haven’t had an accident and been caught.
Minimum Height Requirement Dramas
The national minimum height requirement to be a sumo wrestler is 5’8”, and this was once strictly enforced. This led to some would-be wrestlers pursuing extreme body modifications in order to make the grade.
Though he is far from the only one, the most famous case of this is Takeji Harada. This aspiring sumo had a staggering six inches of silicone injected into the top of his head in order to pass the minimum height requirements. Harada did not make it past officials – but his incredible case soon gathered worldwide media attention.
The scrutiny that followed led to a quiet relaxation of the minimum height requirements by the Japanese Sumo Association – and a clear directive that nobody with silicon head implants would be accepted into a training stable.
Gender Inequality Uproar
Old Shinto and Buddhist beliefs dictate that women are not allowed inside the sumo ring. This obviously means that women can’t train as sumo wrestlers – but the implications go beyond this too.
In 2018, a sumo event in Kyoto became the center of a massive debate on foot of two allegations of gender inequality by the Japanese Sumo Association. The first incident occurred when a male mayor was making a speech in the ring and collapsed. Several female onlookers raced over to offer the man first aid – but were promptly ejected by the referee, who was keen to uphold the “no women in the ring” policy.
Shortly after this incident, a female mayor due to give a speech at a tournament in Osaka was told that she would have to do so outside of the ring in accordance with tradition. She spoke out publically about this occurrence, urging the Japanese Sumo Association to address this policy which she considered discriminatory.
Both of these incidents garnered international interest – especially when it came to light that the male mayor had collapsed as a result of a potentially life-threatening stroke. The public perception that the Japanese Sumo Association considered keeping women out of the ring more important than saving someone’s life prompted the association to issue an apology for the actions of the referee.
A huge match-fixing scandal was unearthed in the sumo world in 2011. Because there is no standardized system of paying sumo wrestlers (some are on excellent money, others receive no salary) the sport is particularly open to this type of exploitation. Unpaid sumo wrestlers are vulnerable to participating in fixing in exchange for financial reward.
14 wrestlers were found guilty of involvement in a match-fixing scheme by the Japanese Sumo Association, along with a handful of stable masters. Those involved were forced to retire from the sport and the affected Osaka tournament was canceled.
Other Weird Sumo Wrestling Facts
The Hairstyle Serves A Purpose
The distinctive sumo top-knot isn’t just a fashion statement – it long preceded the Western man bun. A sumo wrestler’s hair is styled by a specific hairdresser called a tokoyama. They are tasked with molding the locks into the shape of a gingko leaf, with the purpose of protecting the wrestler’s head should it hit the ground. The hairstyle is known as a chonmage, and was originally worn by samurai soldiers.
Upon retirement, the tokoyama will symbolically cut off the chonmage – indicating the end of the wrestler’s fighting career.
Sumo Wrestlers Are Healthy
You’d be forgiven for thinking that gaining excessive weight would automatically result in health issues – but this doesn’t seem to be the case for many sumo wrestlers. Scans have shown that wrestlers, while being extremely overweight, tend to have low levels of visceral fat.
The reasoning behind this is two-fold. The sumo diet is extremely high calorie, but tends to focus on quality protein-based foods – used to build and repair muscle.
The sumo exercise regime is highly intense – daily training sessions can be five hours long. The cardio element of this regime strengthens the heart muscles, and the weight-bearing element further encourages muscle growth.
It’s a highly specialized cocktail that allows sumo wrestlers to be as heavy as they are and maintain their health – it’s not something you or I would be likely to achieve if we went on a 7000 calorie a day diet. I know, life’s not fair.
You Lose If You’re De-clothed
Should your opponent manage to rip off your loincloth during a match, you are immediately disqualified. Interestingly, this wasn’t always the case – this rule is thought to have come in following Western influence. Us prudish Westerners, ruining the fun for everyone as usual!
The Referees Have Interesting Jobs Too
Not just anyone can referee a sumo wrestling match. The gyoji begin their training in their teens, and remain in the role until their retirement. It’s not a position that is taken lightly – traditionally, the gyoji carries a sword during the match to indicate his willingness to disembowel himself in shame should he make the wrong call.
Don’t worry, this is largely symbolic – you’re highly unlikely to witness a gory scene such as this at a sumo wrestling match. What would more likely happen is the gyoji would offer his formal resignation post-match if he makes an error in judgment – which is still a pretty serious consequence.
Wrestlers Must Hold Back Emotion
When you look at other wrestling industries, such as the WWE, the athlete’s personality is as much a part of the show as the fighting. In Japan, it’s the polar opposite. Wrestlers are expecting to maintain a calm exterior at all times – expressing joy or disappointment at the outcome of the match is heavily frowned upon.
And it’s not just in the ring – wrestlers are expected to conduct themselves with the same decorum in their personal lives. This is why if you ever meet a sumo wrestler out and about, they will be dressed in traditional formal Japanese style (as is a requirement) and will speak softly and politely. Needless to say, Conor McGregor could never make the transition to the sumo world!
As an outsider to sumo, you might think that it’s an easy sport – what other discipline lets you gain that much weight?! Researching this article really opened my eyes to just how committed these athletes are – I hope it gave you a similar insight.