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Along with the samurai and the geisha, one of Japan’s iconic character types is the massive sumo wrestler, a figure of great cultural, as well as physical, heft.

In Japanese, of course, this sport is not called “sumo wrestling”; it is simply sumo, which literally means ”striking one another.” But unlike various forms of boxing around the world, the goal of sumo is not to hit one another. Instead, the goal of each wrestler is to each try to push the other wrestler out of the round ring known as the dohyo. Failing that, his goal is to get the other wrestler to touch the clay floor of the ring with anything other than the soles of his feet.

Thus, sumo is a very simple sport, at least at first glance: A typical bout lasts only three or four seconds. One enormous, almost-naked man pushes the other out of the ring. But as with so many other things that may seem simple in Japan, the subtleties that have developed over many centuries give every aspect of sumo a complexity and nuance that takes time to appreciate.

Sumo is thought to have begun many centuries ago as a Shinto purification ritual, and to this day, sumo is surrounded with precise ritualistic elements that make it much more than just the few seconds during which the physical confrontation takes place. From the tossing of salt to purify the ring to the confrontation itself – in which a human is said to be wrestling with a kami, or spirit – sumo’s ritual and imagery are deeply entwined with Shinto, all the way up to the ceiling above the dohyo, which resembles the roof of a Shinto shrine.

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Sumo wrestlers are, of course, best known for their tremendous weight and girth, cultivated through tremendous caloric intake. Some wrestlers are said to consume as much as 10,000 calories a day. With their top knot of hair and enormous, nearly-naked bodies, it is easy for the uninitiated to regard them as a combination of freakish and comical. But were one ever to face one in the dohyo, he would likely be anything but funny.

Because of their great size – remarkable anywhere, but particularly in a country of such relatively thin people as the healthy-eating Japanese – sumo wrestlers loom large in Japan, literally and figuratively. While their actual time in the ring per year is minimal – with only six tournaments a year, with each tournament featuring a hundred short bouts of 3-4 seconds each – Japan’s roughly 650 professional sumo wrestlers are nevertheless famous throughout Japan, and their tournaments are extensively covered in the media.

The details of the actual lives of the wrestlers may explain something of their mystique as well, for these men are subject to restrictions and a loss of control of their lives that few other athletes would willingly tolerate.

The life of a wrestler may be glamorous at moments, but for the most part it is hard work, akin to a monk’s but with one goal: To get the wrestler as bulked up as possible, and ready to push another huge man out of a small clay ring.

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The tremendous size for which most (but not all) sumo wrestlers are known is a relatively recent development. Because there are no size or weight divisions the way there are for boxers or other one-on-one competitors, sumo wrestlers are involved in a sort of weight-gain arms race, each competing to see how much weight he can put on through eating massive amounts of chankonabe, a stew of meats and vegetables, eaten with rice.

Everything is done to realize that weight gain goal, from denying the wrestler a breakfast and then forcing him to nap after the huge lunch. This works to get him big, but the long-term consequences of fattening athletes this way are what you’d expect: Former wrestlers die, on average, more than 10 years earlier than the average Japanese male.

Each wrestler’s level of accomplishment also determines how he lives his day. The younger, less accomplished ones live lives of service to their more accomplished members of their stable, acting as virtual servants, and a rigid hierarchy enforces nearly every moment of their lives. Their behavior is severe restricted – wrestlers are not allowed to drive cars – and even their dress while in public is tightly monitored and controlled.

That said, they are generally paid well, if not spectacularly so by the standards of international athletes. Even the lowest level professional will make in the low six figures over the course of a year, and the top champions, the yokozuna, can make as much as several hundred thousand dollars a year.

But their real reward, gained at the cost of their health and their freedom, is knowing that they are the latest of a long line of Japanese wrestlers who represent Japan to the world in the way few of their countrymen can claim.

By DAVID WATTS BARTON