Devotees of the traditional Japanese sport of sumo wrestling are celebrating winning back the coveted Emperor’s Cup crown. Native Japanese sumo wrestler Kotoshogiku won the Emperor’s Cup last weekend – and with it Japan’s pride was restored after a decade of foreign domination.
Sumo wrestling is an ancient sport which has been a key part of Japanese culture for many centuries. Two wrestlers compete in a ring (dohyo), to win the match, known as a bout, by either one combatant forcing his opponent out of the ring, or one of the two titans touches the ground with a body part other than his feet.
Sumo wrestling began life as part of courtly and religious rituals in Imperial Japan. Later on, small tournaments and displays were often staged for charitable reasons, such as raising funds for bridge repair. It was not until the Edo period of the early 17th century, that sumo wrestling became a truly competitive and organised sport, with even a god, Nomi no Sukune, dedicated to it. Since 1925, with the foundation of the Japan Sumo Organisation, the sport has become professionalised.
The first non-Japanese victor of a sumo competition appeared in 1972, when the Hawaiian Jesse Kuhaulua, known professionally as Takamiyama, won the tournament in Nagoya. Since that fateful day, the traditional Japanese art of sumo has been, against all odds, taken over by a raft of foreign winners. Each season, six tournaments (honbasho) are held in Japan, with three taking place in Tokyo, and one in each of the cities of Osaka, Nagoya, and Fukuoka. For the past few decades, to the surprise and perhaps horror of traditional Japanese sumo enthusiasts, foreign competitors have reigned supreme.
Mongolians have dominated the sport, interspersed with wins by Estonians and Bulgarians. With Kotoshogiku’s victory, the sport which embodies the very spirit of Japanese shinto patriotism returns the crown to its spiritual home.
Sumo, though a traditional sport, does not exactly have a squeaky-clean image. There is a lot of money in sumo wrestling, with high-profile firms and individuals sponsoring tournaments. Japanese food giant Nagatanien Co. is a regular sponsor, and even Paul McCartney sponsored a bout in 2013 in order to promote his then album ‘New’. Allegations of match-fixing have dogged the sport for years, and this came to a head in 2011, when following an investigation, twenty-three sumo wrestlers were expelled from the sport. Perhaps the return of sumo’s ultimate prize, the Emperor’s Cup, will reinvigorate the image of Japan’s most honoured sport.