Sumo is a physical sport to many, but it is very much a spiritual rite to others. The bouts commence and end with a bow, in much the same way as judo or kendo bouts start with a similar acknowledgment of the opponent. Mutual respect is forever the name of the de facto national game.

Another similarity sumo shares with other forms of Japanese martial arts is the attitude of its participants. The victor should never laud it over the vanquished, and emotion — be it positive or negative — should appear only in private, never atop the earthen dohyo (which is why Asashoryu recently received so much heat for his triumphant post-victory pose).

Yet, despite the austere attitudes of so many in sumo, one aspect of the sport that relies largely on spectacle, albeit in a slightly somber form, is the ring-entering ceremony called the dohyo-iri.

An event that has largely remained unchanged since the times of Commodore Perry in the 1850s, the dohyo-iri is today one of the highlights of a sumo tournament.

In the Western media, it was first mentioned in detailed form when Mr. C. Wirgman of The Illustrated London News reported on an Osaka tournament in the Feb. 1, 1867, issue: “The umpire then reads the names of those who are going to act next day, amidst the loud applause of the spectators; and the finale consists in whole corps coming in, naked to the waist, but wearing magnificent aprons and clapping their hands, three times as they stand in a circle.”

The dohyo-iri, at this time, was slightly unusual in that it was performed a day ahead of the bouts.

Just a year later, in the first year of the Meiji Era (1868-1912), The New York Times reported a variation: “The matches continued all the afternoon, and toward evening the excitement increased, for the great contest of the occasion was then to come off. The antagonistic athletes came in the dais in elegant robes of rich brocades, with heavy tassels and figures of barbaric gold. These . . . extended from the waist to the feet, with an end thrown up from behind, which fell gracefully in front over the left shoulder. The wrestlers formed a circle, kneeling.”

The slight differences in form in the dohyo-iri notwithstanding, sumo coverage had come a long way, given that just over a decade earlier, the May 1856 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, displaying a very early sketch of rikishi wearing kesho-mawashi, had claimed that wrestlers demonstrated their strength by lifting an 11 kg bag of rice — using only their teeth!

Today the event is still performed by juryo- and makunouchi-ranked wrestlers today when they enter together, parade around the ring in highly decorative kesho-mawashi and, in doing so, offer the fans a chance to view them up close ahead of the fights.

Moves aimed at appeasement of the gods resident in the dohyo form a large part of the ceremony, which ends when the last member of the entourage joins the circle of men, who all turn inward and raise their arms before filing out.

A special form of “iri” then follows, as reigning yokozuna perform their own individual entrances in a form vastly differing from the ceremony carried out by their subordinates.

Two forms of dohyo-iri exist for yokozuna. One, the Unryu style, is performed with a single arm outstretched as the yokozuna regains his stance from a low posture, following a stamp to dispel bad spirits lingering in the dohyo. The other, the more physically demanding Shiranui form, involves stretching both arms out at right angles to the torso which prevents the arms being used as leverage when close to the body or to help maintain balance.

Regardless of the form, both involve dramatic entrances, with a yokozuna being led by a “dew-sweeper” and followed by an aide carrying a sheathed sword. The order then reverses before a final bow to the ring’s center and the subsequent exit of the yokozuna, as he joins the rank and file and begins prepartion for his return to the dohyo later in the day.

When he does return, as he has done throughout his career, each time he enters a dohyo, he will bow yet again before he fights, and whether he wins or loses, he must bow respectfully to his foe before departing.

In recent years the lack of a proper bow, accompanied by a scowl in some cases, has caused the ringside judges to call back several losing rikishi to bow again, in doing so demonstrating a fuller degree of respect towards the victor. Given the antics of Asashoryu in raising his arms in jubilation after he beat Hakuho on the final day of the Hatsu Basho, however, and his own less than stellar bowing etiquette when defeated sometimes, this could be an uphill battle with no summit in sight for the Sumo Association, but it is one that concerns the very essence of what sumo is all about — respect all round — beginning and ending with a bow.

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