The national sport of sumo traces its origins to an early Shinto ritual to pray for a bountiful harvest, and the professional tournaments of today date to the 17th century during the Edo Period.
The traditional all-male sport in recent years has been dogged by scandals, including the beating death of a young trainee in 2007, alleged marijuana use and even claims of match-fixing. The recent retirement of the brash Mongolia-born yokozuna Asashoryu while still in his prime was prompted by allegations of drunken violence.
Earlier this month, reform-minded former yokozuna and stable master Takanohana, 37, was elected as a new board member of the Japan Sumo Association. Observers view this as a sign that some stable masters are concerned with the way the board members in their 50s and 60s are handling the problems that have eroded sumo’s popularity.
The sport faces various challenges to restore its dignity, recruit fresh blood and attract more fans.
Following are questions and answers regarding the basic structure of pro sumo:
When are tournaments held?
There are six grand tournaments every year: in January, May and September in Tokyo, in March in Osaka, in July in Nagoya and in November in Fukuoka. Each lasts 15 days.
In months when the grand tournaments are not held, wrestlers visit other parts of Japan to promote sumo to a wider audience while trying to attract boys into the sport.
How does one become a sumo wrestler?
Certain qualifications must be met. Applicants must have completed junior high school, which is usually at age 15. They must apply before they turn 23.
Applicants usually have engaged in amateur sumo. Some begin as a child and continue through high school and even university.
To go pro, candidates must first approach one of 52 stables. They can be recruited by a stable master or apply directly. The stable master must submit specific documents, including a junior high school graduation certificate, family registry and health check results to the sumo association before an applicant undergoes the association’s physical examination.
To pass, an applicant generally must be at least 173 cm tall and weigh 75 kg or more and have a clean bill of health. Recently, however, these criteria have been relaxed, so an applicant 167 cm tall or taller and weighing 67 kg or more can also apply but will have to take a physical strength test.
Once registered with the JSA, the applicant becomes a trainee and spends the first six months in sumo school, leaning various subjects including sumo history, Japanese and sports medicine. The trainee also engages in actual sumo practice. After the schooling, training continues at the stable.
What is the JSA?
The association operates and manages professional tournaments. Everyone involved in sumo — from stable masters and wrestlers to referees and hairdressers — are all members of the association and are on its payroll. The organization is under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.
The board mainly consists of stable masters, but two external members have been added since 2008 after the JSA came under fire for scandals.
How does the ranking system work?
Currently, about 800 sumo wrestlers are registered with the JSA. Everyone starts in the bottom rank and aims for the summit: yokozuna.
The ranking system, called “banzuke,” consists of six divisions: makuuchi, juryo, makushita, sandanme, jonidan and jonokuchi. The number of wrestlers in each division mostly increases in descending order.
Ranks also exist within each division as well. For example, yokozuna is the top wrestler and is in the makuuchi division, followed by ozeki, sekiwake, komusubi and maegashira. In each grand tournament, the wrestlers fight against competitors in the same division.
Basically, wrestlers are promoted or demoted based on their performance. After each tournament, a committee decides the ranking for the next tournament based on the latest results. If an ozeki wins grand tournaments more than twice, the JSA board chairman would recommend that an advisory panel promote the wrestler to yokozuna.
A wrestler who reaches yokozuna will never be demoted. But as the top title holder, representing all wrestlers, he is constantly expected to perform well, both in and outside the ring, or dohyo.
What privileges do wrestlers have as they climb in rank?
The higher his rank, the more privilege a wrestler commands. In particular, there is a substantial divergence of status for those in and above the juryo division and those ranked below.
First of all, pay is based on rank. Significant wages are not paid until a wrestler reaches the juryo division. But once there, a wrestler will receive about ¥1 million a month.
JSA regulations call for a yokozuna to be paid about ¥2.8 million a month, while an ozeki receives ¥2.3 million. The wrestlers are also awarded bonuses for winning tournaments and receive special prizes for good performances.
Rankings also influence their choice of kimono and hair styles, and whether they don silk or mere cotton belts.
Daily life changes with rank as well.
According to Yoshinori Tashiro, a former wrestler and author of “Minna no Ozumo” (“Sumo for Everyone”), once a wrestler reaches juryo, he gets a single room in the stable, and junior-ranked wrestlers serve as attendants, doing all the cleaning and other chores.
But if a wrestler is demoted from juryo, he is doomed to give up everything. “To keep that good life, one must keep winning,” Tashiro writes.
The lower ranks are only rewarded by the JSA once every two months. Those in the makushita division receive around ¥150,000, while the lowest jonokuchi wrestler receives about ¥70,000. It is actually the stable masters and support organizations that cover the living expenses.
How about foreign wrestlers and how do they rank?
In the wake of Asashoryu’s exit, among the 42 wrestlers in the top makuuchi division, 16 are foreigners, including yokozuna Hakuho and ozeki Harumafuji from Mongolia, and ozeki Kotooshu from Bulgaria.
Of all wrestlers, there are more than 30 foreigners hailing from 11 countries — Mongolia, Bulgaria, Estonia, Georgia, Russia, Brazil, China, South Korea, Czech Republic, Kazakhstan and Hungary. The JSA allows each stable to train only one foreign national among their wrestlers.
Before the war, there were Japanese-Americans and colonial-era Taiwanese and Koreans in the dohyo, but they never made the top ranks.
Popular postwar star Taiho, who gained fame in the 1960s with a record 32 makuuchi division tournament wins, is half Ukrainian. One of the first most prominent foreign wrestlers was Hawaii-born Takamiyama, who began his career in the 1970s and climbed the ranks up to sekiwake. After retiring from the ring in 1984, he became a stable master until he retired last June.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, foreign-born sumo wrestlers in the top league were mostly Hawaii-born — ozeki Konishiki, and yokozuna Akebono and Musashimaru. But Mongolians eventually became the largest group of foreign nationals and are now indispensable in the makuuchi division. The first prominent Mongolian wrestlers were Kyokushuzan and Kyokutenho, who started their careers in 1992.
How does one qualify to be come a coach or stable master?
Under JSA rules, any yokozuna or ozeki qualifies, as does any wrestler who participated in 20 tournaments in the makuuchi division, or any who fought as juryo or above for 30 tournaments. But they also must have Japanese nationality, which is why Asashoryu is not eligible. The retirement age is 65.
Eligible candidates must transcend one of the 105 traditional coach titles. If there is no vacancy in these titles, the JSA offers preferential treatment for a limited period.