Sumo: Is it all about Fat Guys?

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SumoSports are important in all cultures. For most of the world football (called soccer in the U.S.) is king. Many cultures, however, have their own national pastimes. The Japanese, for example, are crazy about sumo wrestling.

Fat Guys in Diapers

My wife and I spent two years living on the northern island of Hokkaido in Japan. When we arrived, we had the typical attitude of Americans toward sumo wrestling: it’s a bunch of fat guys in diapers pushing each other. How wrong we were!

Not knowing a lot of people, we spent a lot of time in our tiny apartment. As part of our language learning, we regularly watched Japanese television. You can’t watch Japanese television for very long without seeing sumo. After all, there are six 15-day tournaments every year!

A Changed Stereotype

The stereotype of sumo wrestlers as fat guys who can barely move is completely wrong. Although sekitori (upper division wrestlers) are often huge men, they are immensely strong and nimble.

The goal of the match is to force your opponent out of the 15-diameter ring or to make him touch something other than the sole of his foot to the dirt. There are a variety of techniques to do this. Some men who are extremely large attempt to just grab, immobilize and slowly push the opponent out of the ring. Smaller men try head slaps or quick rotating movements to trip up the opposition. Still others use throws to put the challenger on the ground.

Each sekitori has one match per day during the 15-day tournament. The wrestler with the best record wins. There is a strict ranking system through which wrestlers can move as they win matches. The successful wrestler moves up through six divisions to the highest makuuchi division. If a wrestler can win two tournaments in a row in the top division, he can be considered for the highest rank of yokozuna. This is an incredibly difficult thing to do: only 71 wrestlers since 1900 have attained this rank.

As the days of each tournament progress, the tension mounts as wrestlers move closer to records that will secure their advancement in rank. Of course, everyone has a favorite wrestler, and water cooler talk is all about this or that wrestler’s chances to move up.

Sumo Champion = Japanese Rock Star

If there is a reigning yokozuna, he is treated like a rock star. During our stay, Chiyonofuji, who was extremely muscular and good looking, was the darling of the nation. He won 31 tournaments during his career through a diverse arsenal of techniques including skillful judo throws. He became the yokozuna with the most match wins in history: 1045.

Sumo not only has a huge number of stats like baseball but also has a tournament structure that leads to highly suspenseful competitions. There is nothing quite like the 15th day of a tournament with two or three wrestlers having the possibility of winning out.

By the end of our stay in Japan, we were sumo junkies. Don’t prejudge the traditional sports of other countries. You might just end up loving them.


Do you have knowledge of an unusual national sport? Share a bit below!


Image Credit: Edward Dalmulder on Flickr, Creative Commons

Dale DePalatis

Dale DePalatis

Editor & Interculturalist at CultureWeave
The husband of the principal founder of CultureWeave, Dale is a high school teacher of English with an M.A. in English Literature from Stanford University. With a passion for language learning (including Italian, German, and Japanese), he loves the way the brain expands when studying overseas and experiencing new cultures. He also loves reading, traveling, running, and enjoying meaningful conversations about life’s deep questions.
Dale DePalatis
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The husband of the principal founder of CultureWeave, Dale is a high school teacher of English with an M.A. in English Literature from Stanford University. With a passion for language learning (including Italian, German, and Japanese), he loves the way the brain expands when studying overseas and experiencing new cultures. He also loves reading, traveling, running, and enjoying meaningful conversations about life’s deep questions.