The Rising Sun Sets on Sumo

Sumo, the centuries-old wrestling sport in which majestically fat Japanese giants collide to force each other out of a circular ring, is in such terminal decline that only one teenager showed up this year to take the exam in Fukuoka, impelling this year’s sumo grand champion, Harumafuji, to complain that strict training schedules and lifestyle are the cause of Sumo’s declining popularity.

Sumo previously has been more than a sport, almost an adjunct to religion and a matter of national pride. But it has been hammered repeatedly in recent years by allegations of connections to the yakuza underworld, match fixing and other problems. Japan’s tabloid press has printed voluminous allegations that wrestlers have consorted with gangsters and that they bet on their own matches. In 2010, an unprecedented seven top wrestlers were forced to sit out the national 15-day tournament and many others were disciplined.

Top stars have come from outside Japan including Russia, the United States, Mongolia and other countries. Television ratings have slid as baseball, football and golf have risen in public popularity. Middle-aged or older fans make up the bulk of the audience as the sport has lost its appeal to young Japanese.

The sport is highly ritualized, taking its elements from ancient traditions from the days when sumo was used in the Shinto religion. Life as a rikishi, or student, is highly regimented, with rules laid down by Japan’s Sumo Association. Most wrestlers are required to live in communal "sumo training stables" known in Japanese as heya where all aspects of their daily lives—from meals to their manner of dress—are dictated by strict tradition.

But those traditions may be waning as the sport seeks to attract new practitioners. The Japan Times reports that the Sumo Association has even lowered its physical standards and cut tests that gauge smaller wrestlers' athletic ability, in an attempt to encourage more applicants.

Harumafuji, who has attained Sumo’s highest rank of Yokozuna, says he understands that these high standards can make sumo a less appealing career option.

“Sumo is a strict sport,” the Mongolia-born champion told Kyodo news agency “I understand that there are people who feel like they need not necessarily go through painful experiences in this time of convenience.”

So just how rigorous is a sumo wrestler’s daily routine? Ordinarily, after sumo-hopefuls compete in tryouts such as this week’s Kyushu Grand Sumo Tournament, successful wrestlers are placed in stables where a strict hierarchy sees junior athletes doing chores for their superiors.

For the youngest wrestlers, the day begins at 4 or 5am where they train for several hours on an empty stomach. Senior sumo start training at the slightly more bearable of 7am. Shiko, or leg-stomping exercises make up a large component of their daily workout. The combination of squatting and lifting the leg high in the air increases lower body strength, balance and flexibility.

Another grueling training exercise is matawari, which involves sitting on the floor with the wrestlers’ legs spread 180 degrees and leaning forward until their chests touch the ground.

Although meals are only eaten twice a day – usually at 11:00am and 6:00pm – they are very calorie-heavy – roughly 10,000 calories-heavy to be precise. A heavy meal, followed by a 3-4 hour nap ensures that sumo wrestles gain the fat they need to protect their muscles during a match.

The Czech Republic wrestler Takanoyama is well known for his small build but this has hampered his ascension in the ranks. In 2011 the wrestler was given a warning after it was revealed that he had been injecting himself with insulin in an attempt to put on more weight.

Because all chores and activities are done in order of rank, junior sumo wrestlers are always the last to eat and bathe. In the evenings wrestlers have free time and can go out, but even the curfew for younger sumo is earlier, usually ending at 10:30.

Although all sumo who are deemed not hard-working enough are subject to physical punishment, these practices are more common for younger sumo. AAP reported that in 2007 a 17-year-old apprentice died as a result of hazing by seniors at their sumo stable. A 2007 survey by the Japan Sumo Association found that 90 percent of the 53 stables questioned used baseball bats or similar tools in “training.” About a third said bullying and hazing occurred during training. Harsh activities like these are also suspected to play a big role in the sport’s recent slump in popularity.

(Anna Watanabe blogs for Asian Correspondent under the nom de plume Rukugoka)