Sumo isn’t really a sport in the true sense of the word. It’s a combination of sport, religion and entertainment wrapped up in a quasi-monastic and militaristic lifestyle.
Every sumo wrestler belongs to a heya. While the word literally means “room,” it is normally translated into English as stable.
A heya isn’t just a designation either. It’s an actual physical place where wrestlers live, eat, sleep and train.
All new recruits without exception must live in the heya and share sleeping quarters with several other wrestlers. Only upon reaching the juryo division can they get a private room or move out into their own apartment or house.
Stables are run by sumo elders. While there may be several elders (oyakata) in a stable, only one is the stable master and both he and the heya share a name.
A sumo stable is like a family with the stablemaster taking the father role.
Just as families run the gamut from Von Trapp to Kardashian, so too do sumo stables vary widely in their environments. Some are friendly places with an oyakata taking a hands-on approach and raising the wrestlers well, both physically and emotionally.
Others are harsh environments with an almost Darwinian atmosphere.
No two stables are alike and all have their own unique rules and practices. Some allow wrestlers to have phones and active social media lives, while others have a “no internet the first three years” policy.
Any young man thinking of joining sumo would be well advised to spend time living and training in his intended stable on a trial basis first to see if that particular heya suits him. You only get one shot at sumo. Once retired you can never rejoin, and many a promising career has been cut short simply because of a poor decision when choosing what stable to join.
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