Sometimes members of our community are surprised to hear sumo referred to as a martial art. It certainly doesn’t seem to fit in with karate, judo, aikido and the like. Sumo is still largely an unknown entity in the United States. Our exposure to it has been limited to occasional snippets on the news played to amuse audiences until they mutter, “Oh, what a bizarre sport this is, fat guys in diapers pushing each other around.”
In reality, sumo is centuries older than any other fighting art in Japan, and its traditions have influenced all the combat systems from that nation. Often the practitioners of those styles are completely ignorant of where those traditions originated.
Big in Japan
It’s too bad more Westerners don’t have a practical knowledge of sumo’s techniques and a deeper understanding of its spirit. In Japan, where sumo was until recently as popular as baseball, many young martial artists have a background in or at least some familiarity with the art. They’ve probably grappled informally or in school contests, and they know some of the techniques. That can give them a terrific advantage when they begin training in other forms of budo, or the warrior ways.
Young Japanese also benefit from having sumotori (sumo competitors) as role models. Despite the allegations of bout-fixing that have surfaced in the sumo world, the manner in which the wrestlers generally conduct themselves — especially during competitions — is one from which martial artists everywhere can learn a lot.
The professional sumo calendar in Japan includes six tournaments a year. With each one lasting 15 days, athletes have 90 days of competition every year. Few professional sports demand that much from their participants.
For the sumotori, competition is very much like a battle in that you can’t just stay home if you don’t feel well. If you sit out a tournament — even if you have a broken arm — you’ll be demoted. You can apply to have a board of coaches review your claim, but even if they grant an appeal, you must enter the next tournament no matter your condition, or you risk losing your professional standing. That’s why a sumotori has to be in extremely bad shape before he’ll agree to go before the injury board.
There are many stories about sumotori who have competed under the most dire circumstances. For example, days before the September 1956 tournament, the 4-year-old son of then-grand champion Wakanohana Kanji I was scalded to death in an accident. Most fans expected the wrestler to sit out the competition, but he didn’t. In the opening ceremony, he wore Buddhist prayer beads in remembrance of his son and went on to have a remarkable record of 12 consecutive wins. Just before the last day of the event, however, he came down with a high fever and was forced to withdraw. Good as his record was for that tournament, the Sumo Association refused to go easy on him and decided that he hadn’t compiled enough victories to be declared a yokozuna (grand champion). He was forced to compete in two more tournaments before he would win that honor.
In 1989 one of the most outstanding champions of that decade, Chiyonofuji Mitsugu, competed in and won a playoff on the last day of a tournament despite the fact that his daughter had just died of sudden infant death syndrome.
Inspiration for All
Stories abound in the sporting world about athletes who have persevered under similarly trying circumstances. Still, there’s something unique about the sumotori’s challenge. He must go into the ring alone in front of millions of fans. If he fails, he can’t shift the blame onto other members of the team. He must deal with not only the stresses of competition but the anxieties of combat, as well. Being distracted by a personal problem — a fight with his wife, the death of a loved one or an illness — can mean more than just a loss. It’s a good way to get seriously hurt. Like a samurai preparing for battle, the sumotori must put aside those feelings and control his natural tendency to want to crawl back into bed when he’s ill. He must tough it out.
I’m not a warrior. I haven’t participated in combat, and the fighting arts in which I have competed are nowhere near the level of professional sumo. Still, there are times when I must go out and take care of my responsibilities even though I don’t really want to. Occasionally I have to perform, just as you do, under circumstances that render me far below my best level. In those situations, I try to find inspiration in the sumotori. They’ve toughed it out in tough times. So can I, and so can you.
Dave Lowry who has trained extensively in the Japanese and Okinawan arts. He started writing Karate Way in 1986. His books are available for purchase here.