In all likelihood there is no sport in the world that is practiced with religious veneration as sumo. Actually, in Japan, it isn’t even considered a sport. Japan Sumo Association’s elders, the retired wrestlers who once abandoned the dohyo (ring) run the entire circuit, do not consider themselves administrators at all, but custodians of a holy tradition.
During their career sumo wrestlers are organized into various levels: amateurs are divided into jonokuchi, jonidan, sandanme, makushita, juryo, makuuchi; professionals in juryo (kind of sumo’s second division) and makunouchi, in turn divided into maegashira (which consists of 16 levels) and sanyaku, or the great champions. It is within this very small elite that there are the warriors among the warriors: komusubi, sekiwake, ozeki and yokozuna. This last is the champion of the champions , the one who wears a heavy knotted rope called tsuna anytime he steps on the dohyo. The yokozuna is the only one who can never retreat from his rank and only abandons it after retirement (intai). In the obsessively hierarchical organization of Japanese society reaching such a level means being considered a kami, a deity on Earth. In fact, in addition to the ability to excel in the use of brute force, promotions or relegations of a wrestler are determined by the elders according to the dignity (hinkaku) glimpsed in a wrestler’s soul.
It is therefore easy to understand why the interweaving of sumo, tradition and religion is difficult to cut short. But for further clarity, there is also a set of intense rituals derived from Shintoism to be considered. These rituals create a big picture around every 60 second match. Before a tournament, a hole is dug in the center of the dohyo and filled with walnuts, squids, algae and sake purified from the gyoji, the referees rised as shinto priests. The hole is closed and when a wrestler get on the dohyo, he turns to the public, claps his hands as if in front of a sanctuary and performs the shiko, the typical cartoon movement we all know that consists of remaining in balance on one leg while the other remains lying upward. All this to ward off the evil spirits symbolically enclosed in the hole.
Then, leaving the competition area towards the respective “corners” each wrestler is offered a ladle of water (chikara mizu, water of power) to rinse his mouth, and then a small paper towel (chikara gami, paper of power) to dry his lips.
Back in the dohyo, they squat in front of each other, clap their hands again and open them completely to show their opponent that they have no weapons hidden. Above all oh this, the ritual that involves the launch of salt on the sand of the ring, the last gesture of environment purification. From that moment on, dohyo can no longer be trampled underfoot by women. This has repeatedly unleashed the wrath of feminist movements and provoked endless accusations of sexism towards a sport already perpetually mashed by scandals. Behind dohyos, as well known, yakuza’s long hand has always been hidden.
Sumo has evolved over the centuries as a peripheral form of entertainment in which wrestlers, trainers and promoters depended on local gangs to ensure audience and facilities. Recently, of course, balance has changed, with the Japan Sumo Association taking care of the organization and the economic revenues guaranteed selling tickets and TV rights. However, traditional sumo cannot survive without contribution of “respectable” patrons, who are disappearing after the burst of the 1990 bubble. In the last twenty years, then, patrons have gradually been replaced by a class of new Japanese oligarchs, become frighteningly rich in dubious circumstances, and therefore associated with yakuza clans. It’s no coincidence that thanks to the importance of the media, the godfathers are showing themselves with audacity on live TV while attending sumo tournaments from the very first places of the most famous arenas, such as Ryogoku Kokugikan in Tokyo.
As one of the temples of sumo, onnazumo (sumo’s female versions) is strictly forbidden in it. This congenital inequality of treatment has given rise to tragic situations: last April the mayor of Maizuru ‘s mayor sat on the ground while making an inaugural speech within the dohyo and when some women tried to help him, the referee ordered them to leave the ring quickly, before he repeated the salt throw to purify the ring again. Japan Sumo Association hastened to condemn this gesture, although Oguruma, JSA chief, has dismissed discrimination issues by saying: “Secular traditions cannot be changed in an hour”.
But what does this discrimination come from? In principle it is related to blood. Sumo is a martial art without abrasions in wrestlers, otherwise the dohyo would be desecrated by the spillage of blood. Women, being subject to periods, are therefore considered impure by nature. However, this disparity between sexes is already inscribed in Kojiki, the oldest Japanese fiction text that has reached us and the first reference of Shintoism. In Kojiki it is said that when Izanagi and Izanami descended on a shapeless mass of water that was the Earth, they erected a Palace and joined in marriage to start populating it. During conception Izanami said, “What a young lovable man,” while Izanagi replied, “What a beautiful maiden. Soon Izanami discovered she was pregnant, but she gave birth to a weak and boneless child, who was abandoned at sea on a cane boat. Going up before the gods on the Floating Bridge of Heaven to ask for explanations, they were admonished: “You must repeat the wedding ceremony once again, but the man must speak first!” From their “correct” union divinities were born, who started creating the eight large islands of the divine land of Yamato.
Although religious practices are a bit in crisis even in the modern Rising Sun, the consideration of Shintoism as a practice annexed to the very nature of community life provides for a respect for tradition sometimes unquestionable, as in the case of sumo. In this sense, sport has the function of veneration of the ancestors, not only as a matter of faith but also as a recognition of the presence of the ancestors in every descendant’s cell. In the face of progressive demands, it is easier for sumo to fall apart as it is, ostracized by public opinion (especially the foreign one), than to renounce those precepts that have made it mythological.