REUTERS - Japan’s ancient sport of sumo faces an uncertain future as it grapples with a match-fixing scandal that some have called th
e “darkest chapter” in a 1,500-year history steeped in ritual and ceremony.
Here are some facts about the traditional sport:
Sumo’s history stretches back about 1,500 years, with roots in a religious ritual conducted in Shinto shrines along with prayers for abundant harvests. The early sport was rougher than its modern version, involving boxing and wrestling elements.
Professional sumo groups began to appear in the early 17th century.
Popularly regarded as Japan’s national sport, sumo pits two giant wrestlers, clad only in loinclothes, against each other in a test of brawn and skill inside a ring floored with clay and edged with straw bales.
Victory is achieved when one wrestler either pushes his opponent out of the ring (dohyo), or topples him.
Wrestlers can use their grip on their opponent’s loincloth (mawashi), made from 10 yards (9.1 metres) of heavy silk and wrapped around their belly four to seven times, as leverage to throw or lift.
Tradition forbids women from entering the ring on grounds that their presence would defile the sacred space.
Each bout commences with purifying rituals in which the wrestlers — their long, oiled hair done up in stylised knots — rinse their mouths with water and toss salt in the air.
Opponents can spend several minutes squaring off, squatting with fists touching the ground, scowling and stamping, but a match itself can be over in seconds.
Hearty eating is an important element of being a sumo wrestler and most of those in the top class weigh 150 kg (330 lbs) or more.
Traditional meals include “chankonabe”, a stew of vegetables, meat and fish. The current grand champion, or “yokozuna”, Hakuho, is 192 cm (6’4”) tall and tips the scales at 153 kg.
There are no separate weight classes, so relatively lightweight wrestlers compete against heavier rivals.
Nearly 700 wrestlers are registered with the Japan Sumo Association (JSA), the sport’s governing body. Divided broadly into nine ranks, wrestlers are promoted or demoted depending on their performance during the year’s six grand tournaments.
The sumo world is strictly hierarchical. Wrestlers belong to one of around 50 stables and salaries and status depend on their rank. Only those in the top five classes can marry and receive regular salaries — for instance, a yokozuna makes 2.8 million yen ($34,000) per month.
The number of foreign-born wrestlers, especially in the top classes, has risen in recent years as fewer Japanese are attracted to the sport and its harsh conditions, including tough training and being forced to live a communal lifestyle with little privacy.
The pioneer was American Jesse Kuhaulua, who entered the sumo world in 1964 and fought under the name Takamiyama, opening the way for fellow Hawaiians in a wave of foreigners in the 1980s.
Out of the 680 wrestlers who took part in a grand tournament in January, more than 50 were from abroad, including 32 from Mongolia.
The last time a Japanese wrestler achieved the rank of yokozuna was in 1998. Current grand champion Hakuho is Mongolian, and 19 of the 42 top-ranked wrestlers are foreign-born.
The JSA, which has an annual budget of around 11 billion yen, obtains its main chunk of income from sales of sumo tournament tickets and TV rights to public broadcaster NHK, estimated to be around 3 billion yen per year, according to the Asahi newspaper.
As a public interest group, the JSA enjoys a lower tax rate, but the government has threatened to take away this status.
Sumo’s popularity has declined over the years as other professional sports such as soccer attracted fans and the number of Japan-born stars declined. Not only has the sport’s fan base shrunk, but the number of professional wrestlers has fallen from around 800 a decade ago to about 700 at present.
The sport has been hit by a series of scandals.
In 2009, a former sumo stable head was sentenced to six years in prison after a 17-year-old trainee wrestler died from hazing. A number of wrestlers have been kicked out of the sport for possessing marijuana in recent years.
Former yokozuna Asashoryu, a Mongolian, quit last year following accusations that he had broken a man’s nose in a drunken brawl outside a Tokyo nightclub.
Doubts of bout-fixing have surfaced before, too. In 2000, a former wrestler said he took part in match-fixing and that many top stars had also paid opponents to throw matches.
(Sources: Japan Sumo Association; Reuters; Japan: An Illustrated Encyclopedia by Kodansha, Secrets of Sumo by Ichiro Nitta; Asahi newspaper)
Reporting by Yoko Kubota and Saika Takano; Editing by Daniel Magnowski