“Shin-Gi-Tai” (“Heart-Technique-Physique”) — those three words can be found all over the sumo world.
Encapsulating what it takes to be a great rikishi, the phrase is inscribed on signboards, ceremonial aprons and in countless other places in Japan’s national sport.
While being big or adept at either pushing or grappling are advantages in sumo, heart is by far the most important of the three elements.
A wrestler can overcome a lack of size or limited technical ability, but if they don’t have the will to win, then progress up the rankings isn’t going to happen.
Heart also includes self-belief, as well as an ability to channel focus at a high level.
In a sport where bouts are over in a matter of seconds, any kind of doubt or hesitation inevitably leads to a loss. A rikishi needs to block out distractions, both external and internal, and put aside any thoughts about losing.
In conversations with dozens of sumo stars over the past twenty years, what always shines through is a singular focus and utter refusal to countenance failure.
It’s not something which is unique to sumo, however. In pretty much any sport that pits two athletes against each other in direct competition, the person who wants it more will come out on top every single time.
Being a professional at the highest levels of sports requires intense concentration and dedication. As the old saying goes, everyone has the will to win, but few have the will to do what is needed to win.
What sets sumo apart, however, is the requirement for a very different kind of mental toughness.
A lot gets written about the harshness of the sumo lifestyle, but most people aren’t aware of the sheer intensity of the daily onslaught on a rikishi’s body and mind.
If I could sum up the experience of sumo in a single word it would be “pain.” Every single morning wrestlers get put through the ringer. Battered and bruised, the lower rankers then have to serve their seniors and do a whole host of chores before getting time to collapse into bed for a nap.
Even with efforts to eliminate violence, the emotional and psychological stresses are never ending. Deprived of all autonomy, it’s not uncommon for younger wrestlers to find themselves on the end of a nonstop stream of abuse and bullying. Appealing to higher authorities generally does nothing but portray them as weak in the eyes of men who all went through worse in their own active days.
In most other professional sports there is a support structure to help athletes cope with its inherent pressures and strains. In sumo things are set up in a far more Darwinian way.
Once you really see what many younger wrestlers go through, the high washout rate is no longer surprising.
It’s not all roses when you make it to the paid ranks either.
Heaven and hell are the well known descriptors for life in the top two (salaried) divisions or the four lower (unpaid) divisions respectively, but life as a sekitori is far from what many people would consider paradise.
Although they have (relatively more) freedom and a decent salary, men in the makuuchi and jūryō divisions can never relax. A couple of bad tournaments and they could find themselves back down in the lower ranks, with all income and privileges stripped away. Having a family or mortgage, the fear of injury or a decline in form, constantly hangs over you like the Sword of Damocles.
As with well known stars in other sports, having to read criticism of yourself in the papers, or watch talking heads on TV dissect your performances and highlight your failures can be wearing. Some, of course, understand it’s part of the game, but for those who take such things to heart there is no opportunity to state your case or fire back in your own defense. Any deviation from the stoic demeanor expected of a rikishi will only make things worse.
The pressure only intensifies the higher you go.
Everyone knows yokozuna are held to almost impossible standards of decorum and behavior, both inside and outside the ring, but they aren’t the only ones who have to sacrifice almost everything for their rank.
Missed funerals for family members are common for ozeki, or rikishi in the higher ranks, especially if they occur during a tournament. In May 1956, ozeki Wakanohana competed in the tournament, despite the sudden death of his four-year-old son just before it got underway. Dealing with a loss that would crush most people, he put his grief to one side and carried out his duty.
Coming from another country also adds the weight of representing that nation. Egyptian Osunaarashi was the first Arab rikishi and as a prominent Muslim received an almost constant stream of abusive and racist messages, especially when freelance journalist Kenji Goto was beheaded by the Islamic State.
For men who are in their early 20s, such pressures can be almost crippling and many missed tournaments and collapses in form can be attributed to mental as well as physical damage.
The effects can last long after a rikishi retires as well. I personally know several former professionals who still display all the signs of PTSD, years after their active careers came to a close.
Sumo is an incredible sport, and one that deserves the passion and love it receives, but fans and media members alike should never forget just how much rikishi are sacrificing for what, at the end of the day, is essentially our entertainment.