One of the most surprising aspects of sumo for first-time watchers is the sheer violence of the sport.
Notions of cuddly pandas gently belly bouncing each other out of the ring get blown away when the first thunderclap of a harite (roundhouse head slap) echoes off the rafters of the arena.
It’s also common for the jaws of those viewing a training session to drop open in shock when first seeing a wrestler receive kawaigari (tender loving care.)
In sumo that’s the term for grueling post-bout pushing sessions that leave the wrestlers covered in dirt, gasping for air and barely able to stand.
As might be expected in such a physically intense sport, injuries are ever present.
Indeed, success at the highest level is often a measure of just how much pain a wrestler can tolerate.
Sprained wrists, fractured fingers, partly torn ACLs and similar injuries that would put athletes in virtually every other sport out of commission for weeks or months, are taped up and soldiered through.
Medical treatment is available of course, but rikishi are notoriously macho and unwilling to drop out of a tournament.
Partly that’s a result of every missed bout counting as a loss, but it’s also reflective of the sumo mindset espoused in coaches’ and trainers’ common refrain to wrestlers: “If you can’t fight, you might as well quit.”
The process is as important as the result in Japan’s national sport, and if you can’t get in the ring every day you are disrespecting sumo in the mind of many insiders.
It’s a big reason Kisenosato’s missed tournaments weighed so heavily on the yokozuna. There is a sense of shame in failing to fulfill your responsibilities as a rikishi.
Needless to say, all this is something that takes a toll on many rikishi long after they retire. It’s rare to find a former veteran that isn’t dealing with constant pain as a result of their life in sumo.