Sumo: Japan’s National Sport

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Photo by The New York Public Library

Adam Navis and Liz Waid look at the history and traditions of the ancient Japanese sport of Sumo.

Voice 1

Welcome to Spotlight. I’m Adam Navis.

Voice 2

And I’m Liz Waid. Spotlight uses a special English method of broadcasting. It is easier for people to understand, no matter where in the world they live.

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Voice 1

Two large men stand facing each other on a raised area. They stand inside a circle four and a half metres across. They show no emotion. A man moves around them. He wears colourful clothing. He will manage their fight. Thousands of people cheer for the two men. Everyone is waiting. Then the men begin. Their bodies smash together. Arms pull and hit. Legs push and bend. The crowd becomes louder. Suddenly, one man loses his balance. He is thrown to the ground. He has lost the match. The fight lasted only a few seconds. But that is what happens in Sumo.

Photo by Bob Fisher
Voice 2

Today’s Spotlight is on Sumo Wrestling. Sumo Wrestling is the national sport of Japan. There are two ways to win a Sumo fight. You can push your opponent outside the circle. Or you can make them touch the ground with any part of their body that is not their feet. It sounds simple. But Sumo is rich in tradition, customs, and complex rules.

Voice 1

The Sumo wrestler is a powerful athlete. However, he does not look like most athletes. In most fighting sports, the fighters are divided by weight. Small people only fight other small people. But Sumo are not divided by weight, so being large helps. Sumo wrestlers weigh around 90 kilograms when they begin to train. Top Sumo weigh between 130 and 180 kilograms. The largest Sumo ever weighed 272 kilograms.

Voice 2

Sumo compete wearing only a mawashi. This traditional clothing is one long piece of cloth. It goes around the fighter’s waist and between his legs. A fighter’s hair is long. If any hair touches the ground, the fighter will lose the fight. So fighters tie their hair high on their heads. There is a different way to tie the hair for each Sumo skill level.

Voice 1

There are many skill levels in Sumo. This list of skill levels, called the Banzuke, is very important. If a Sumo wins, he moves up the list. If a Sumo loses, he will move down the list. Moving up the Banzuke brings honour. But it also means more money, freedom, and moving closer to becoming a yokozuna

Voice 2

A yokozuna is a great champion. A Sumo must win many fights to become a yokozuna. But he must also demonstrate grace and honour as he fights. His behaviour out of the competitions must also bring honour. Once he has become a yokozuna, he will be a yokozuna for life. If he does badly at a competition, he is expected to retire. In all the years of Sumo, only 68 men have become yokozuna.

Voice 1

The Banzuke rankings also have meaning beyond the wrestling circle. Sumo train in a “stable”. Each stable has a trainer and group of Sumo that exercise together. Sumo compete by themselves. But these stables are similar to teams. Each stable has high and low ranked Sumo.

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Voice 2

The higher ranked Sumo are very famous. They are like sports super-stars anywhere in the world. They have money, popularity, and status. But for those at the bottom of the Banzuke, life is very different.

Voice 1

Sumo at the bottom of the Banzuke must rise early in the morning. They must serve the higher ranked Sumo. They must cook the meals. They must clean. They must do what they are told to do. Sumo the lower rankings are not given any money or permitted to go out at night. These are all reasons for them to work hard and win more fights.

Voice 2

Sumo began 1500 years ago. The first Sumo fights were connected closely to the Shinto religion. They were part of a celebration that included dancing, theatre, and prayers for a good harvest. As time went on, Sumo became a way to train men for war. It was a measure of strength and power. But in 1603, Japan’s areas were united. This brought in a time of wealth and peace. Official Sumo organizations began. They established rules and traditions. Sumo was recognized as the national sport of Japan.

Voice 1

Today, many people see Sumo as only a sport. However, there are still symbols of the Shinto religion found in Sumo. For example, before a Sumo enters the circle to compete, he must throw salt before him. This is believed to purify the circle. Then the Sumo must lift one foot high in the air and then bring in down against the ground. This is believed to keep evil spirits away. Sumo fighters are not required to be Shinto. But the influence of Shinto still surrounds Sumo.

Voice 2

Sumo is still popular in Japan today. But some people criticize the sport. This is for several reasons. First, only a limited number of foreigners may compete. Also, no women are permitted to be Sumo. Another problem is the long term health effects of the Sumo life. When a Sumo retires, he becomes much less active. This can lead to problems such as knee and back pain, high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart problems. Most Japanese men live until they are eighty years old. But most Sumo live less than sixty years.

Voice 1

Another serious criticism of Sumo is corruption. That is, the winner of a fight is chosen before the fight begins. Because the rankings are so important, some Sumo are willing to exchange money for losing a fight. This may permit a lower ranked Sumo to move up the banzuke.

Voice 2

And finally, people are concerned about hazing. Hazing is when lower ranked Sumo are treated badly by higher ranked Sumo. In 2008, the leader of a stable and three Sumo were arrested over the death of a young Sumo. The leader of the stable had told the men to beat the boy. Even the leader had broken a bottle on the boy’s head. This was an extreme case. But in the world of Sumo, training methods are often kept secret.

Voice 1

To people outside of Japan, Sumo may seem like a simple competition between two fighters. But it is a complex sport, full of tradition, language, and ceremony. It also has its problems. But it is an important part of the cultural history and social identity of Japan.

Voice 2

The writer and producer of this program was Adam Navis. The voices you heard were from the United States. Computer users can hear our programs, read our scripts, and see our word list on our website at www.radioenglish.net. This program is called “Sumo Wrestling: Japan’s National Sport.”

Voice 1

If you have a comment or question for Spotlight you can email us. Our email address is radio@english.net. We hope you can join us again for the next Spotlight program. Thank you for listening. Goodbye!

Question:

Have you ever seen Sumo Wrestling? Is there a sport that represents your culture? Write your answer in the comments below.

Join the discussion

3 comments
  • Answering your questions I say, that I have seen some Sumo Wrestling videos and for me is interesting because it’s a sport similar to Lucha Libre in South America, but with heavy contenders. This sport doesn’t represent our latin culture.

  • As for me, I don’t really watch this wrestling but I do enjoy it when I see types of this wrestling. The reason to enjoy myself is fat guys when the fight starts.

  • If I have seen Sumo Wrestling, only on TV, I find this sport interesting although I do not share it because it seems a bit aggressive.
    A sport that represents my culture is the traditional games that are performed as; bagged, hopscotch, tops, etc.

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