One of the sports that is synonymous with Japanese culture is sumo wrestling. The sport is world famous and has fans globally. Just a few weeks ago, singer Paul McCartney was spotted casually walking into the sumo arena to enjoy a few bouts.
Sumo is an interesting sport; it is only practiced professionally in Japan. Bouts often last seconds, and it is deeply ingrained in tradition and rituals. Women are still not allowed to set foot into the ring.
A basic rule of sumo is that the loser is the first person to be pushed out of the ring or touch the floor with any other part of the body than the soles of his feet. There are other ways to lose including (interestingly) if a wrestler’s belt (called a mawashi) comes completely undone.
When I first saw sumo as a child in England (it was broadcast on TV there), I couldn’t understand the appeal. Here was a sport in which nothing seemed to happen, and was over so quickly it seemed that it would be impossible to enjoy as a spectator. It wasn’t until I came to Japan that I began to appreciate the intricacies of the sport.
One of my friends explained to me the importance of the rituals: the throwing of salt in the ring to purify it, the spreading of your arms to show you have no weapons. All of this is to build the crowd’s expectation and excitement to its max. Then, when the two giants crouch down and face up, the explosion of power is like a massive thunder crack. Then, it is over: as a wrestler, all your preparation, harsh regimented training and sacrifice is defined in few moments of power and skill.
It has often been said that sumo represents the concepts of Zen, where training, discipline and sacrifice are consummated in a few moments of perfection.
Even more interestingly, sumo was banned by General McArthur for a short time, until he realised that its concepts and rules were important to Japanese society. Whilst other sports now just seem to be about winning, here is a sport where respect for others and self-discipline are as highly regarded as skill. In order to get promoted, you have to remember that you are no better than anyone else.