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Sumo wrestling is a traditional martial art that originated the 9th century and is closely associated with Shinto, the indigenous religion of Japan. The objective of a Sumo bout is simple – the over-sized combatants aim to force their opponents out of the dohyo (ring) or onto the ground using a mixture of slapping, wrestling and shoving. Although wrestlers grasp the mawashi (loincloth ) of their opponents in an attempt to throw them, grasping the opponent’s testicles and squeezing them is frowned upon and is, in fact, a violation of the rules.

The dohyo is considered sacred ground and is blessed by a Shinto priest before every bout. When the wrestlers enter the dohyo they perform an elaborate series of Shinto rituals, starting with a foot-stomping exercise to drive away evil spirits. Foreign visitors to a sumo tournament have been known to panic when stomping starts, mistaking the mild rumblings from the dohyo for the start of an earthquake.

After the foot-stomping, the wrestlers rinse out their mouths with a ladle of chikara mizu, or “power water,” and dry them with paper tissues called chikara gami, or “power paper.” Finally, before a bout begins, the wrestlers toss a handful of salt into the dohyo to purify it. Although as a tactic throwing salt into the eyes of an opponent would certainly give a wrestler an advantage, there is no known case this ever happening.

Once the bout begins, the action can be fast and furious with the wrestlers slapping, shoving and pushing or trying to trip each other. The winner is the wrestler who forces his opponent out of the dohyo or to touch the ground with any part of his body except for the feet. A wrestler who loses his mawashi during a bout is automatically disqualified as the sight of a male sumo wrestler naked from the waist down can be a traumatic experience for those unfortunate to experience it.

The sight of a female sumo wrestler losing her mawashi during a bout, however, has never shocked anyone in Japan. Moreover, totally naked women sumo wrestlers were once revered. In times of drought, for example, naked women wrestled in shrine precincts to provoke the anger of the Gods and cause rain.

In the eighteenth century onna zumo, women’s sumo, took off as a sport in Osaka, where it was popular in the brothel quarter. As well as bouts between women, there were also bouts between women and blind men (men who could see were ineligible as it was considered that they would not be able to concentrate on the sport).

By 1744, women’s sumo bouts featured regularly at the Sensoji Temple in Asakusa, Edo (now Tokyo), and they were immensely popular, especially with the owners of the nearby brothels. In 1926 the authorities eventually prohibited naked female sumo on the presumption that it promoted immorality. Female sumo did, however, manage to survive until after World War II in cabarets and beer halls, where there was no false pretense of modesty.   

In recent years sumo has been beset by scandals that have seriously damaged the reputation for sportsmanship and purity it had long enjoyed. These scandals include match-fixing, betting on baseball and golf as well as other professional sports, and drug taking. One of the top foreign wrestlers, and perhaps the greatest of his generation, Asashoryu, was forced to retire after beating up the former head of a biker gang after an argument in Roppongi. Other foreign wrestlers have been sacked for smoking marijuana.

Whether sumo recovers from the recent scandals or not is uncertain. Younger Japanese do not seem to have the spirit to put up with the rigid discipline of life in a sumo stable. There are also more attractive sporting opportunities for those with athletic ability, including careers in soccer or baseball.

One should not, however, write sumo off. As a sport, it has been around for a very long time, longer than most sports still practiced today. It is culturally ingrained in the Japanese psyche, and it has overcome crises before. Expect it to do so again.

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