Why Is Sumo Wrestling Such a Big Deal?

Quick, name a Japanese sport! Well, you probably said "sumo" because you've already read the headline of this article. But when it comes to the martial arts, sumo is inextricably associated with Japan. But how did it get started, and why is it still so popular? Read on for those answers and more.

A shaky (but violent) start

The first mention of wrestling in a Japanese text was in the Nihon Shoki, one of the oldest books of the region's history, finished in the year 720. Records of fights that roughly resemble today's sumo don't emerge until much later, in the medieval period. Samurai, who often fought each other one-on-one, would learn wrestling techniques to help them in bouts.

sumo - painting.JPGOrganized fights for entertainment purposes, however, didn't come about until the early 1600s. The transition from war to stable peace under the new Tokugawa regime left many samurai unemployed. These masterless samurai (ronin) were bound to their own elite class and were not allowed to find work among the lower classes of merchants, artisans and peasants. Some ronin who found themselves in need of some cash would put on street-corner sumo matches for money. Meanwhile, other samurai fought in shrines or temples to pay for those shrines' renovations.

In certain entertainment districts, known as sakariba, the street fights would get out of hand "“ the violence would escalate beyond the one-on-one combat, and spectators might get involved and cause property damage. As a result, for decades the government tried to get sumo off the streets. Their first attempts in the 1640s were met with little success, but they had a bit more luck in 1661, when the shogunate decreed that even feudal lords (daimyo) were not allowed to hire wrestlers for entertainment. Sumo didn't stop completely, but its practice dropped off precipitously for about 20 years.

Making sumo legit

So, how did a sport that the government once banned turn into a symbol of Japanese culture? The trick that enabled sumo's rise from the ashes was a deft melding of nationalism, organization and the Shinto religion.

The ban on sumo was lifted in 1684 after the government was convinced that the sport emphasized the philosophy and spirit of Shinto, an ancient Japanese religion formed from strands of local beliefs, Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. At this point in the Tokugawa reign, the notion of a unified, national "Japanese" culture was slowly but surely beginning to come into place; this gradual evolution was accompanied by a growing distaste for all things inauthentic and foreign. So, associating sumo with what was widely accepted as the native religion was one hell of a PR stunt. It worked "“ led by ronin Ikazuchi Gondaiyu, promoters negotiated an end to the ban with the shogunate.

gyoji - Eckhard Pecher.JPGThe concessions that promoters like Ikazuchi had to make, however, came in the form of new rules that all fighters would have to observe. These rules are now considered indelible to the sumo legacy. They included the creation of a dohyu, or ring, surrounding the fighting area, and a ban on particularly violent fighting techniques like teeth smashing and eye gouging.

The new regulations also called for the gyoji, or referee, to wear clothes that make the sport seem even more steeped in tradition than it is. The ref's cotton or silk getup is meant to resemble the clothes of a 12th century warrior, and those large wooden fans the gyoji carry (gunbai) are replicas of fans that samurai would use to signal messages to troops. By connecting sumo with religion and Japanese history, its modern organizers instantaneously gave it a sense of heft and importance that propelled the sport forward.

How do you become a hero?

tegata - malnova.JPGOf course, no national sport would be complete without a little healthy idol worship. By the 1780s, you could buy mechanical wind-up toys of the wrestlers on the street, and wrestlers also began to sell tegata, hand prints like the one pictured to the left. The winners in the top division of fighters were well-respected, especially among the lower classes, but a vibrant hierarchy soon developed around them. Around this time, the term "yokozuna" came into play to refer to the very best wrestler, the one all the spectators and other wrestlers were supposed to look up to; the Japan Sumo Association, which is like the NFL of wrestling, officially wrote the yokozuna into the rules in 1909. To get promoted to the elite position of yokozuna, a wrestler must win at least two tournaments in a row. But alongside the pride of being named to such a privileged spot there is also the expectation that the champion will continue winning. If the yokozuna loses too much, he is forced into retirement.

But whether you win or lose is also a big deal to the other sumo wrestlers. At the end of each of the six annual tournaments, those with losing records get demoted and go down in salary; those with winning records move up in the ranks. Even if the title of yokozuna is out of reach, being promoted to the top division, the Makuuchi, is an honor, plus it yields the best pay.

young wrestlers - public domain.JPGConsequently, sumo is taken a lot more serious than, say, the WWE, and not just because it's not staged. These days, wrestlers enter training organizations, known as stables, in their early teens, and stay for the rest of their careers. Working your way up to the top of a stable, and then to the Makuuchi over the course of a successful career, is a marathon effort and a demanding challenge. Even if some of the traditions associated with the bouts were generated inorganically, sumo is grounded in a sense of honor and merit. The modern-day rules were developed over the course of four centuries, but sumo gains a deserved legitimacy from its timeless nature.

(Photos licensed under Creative Commons and public domain: top photo by Yves Picq; gyoji photo by Eckhard Pecher; tegata photo by Wikipedia user Malnova).

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These Sparrows Have Been Singing the Same Songs for 1500 Years
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Swamp sparrows are creatures of habit—so much so that they’ve been chirping out the same few tunes for more than 1500 years, Science magazine reports.

These findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, resulted from an analysis of the songs of 615 adult male swamp sparrows found in six different areas of the northeastern U.S. Researchers learned that young swamp sparrows pick up these songs from the adults around them and are able to mimic the notes with astounding accuracy.

Here’s what one of their songs sounds like:

“We were able to show that swamp sparrows very rarely make mistakes when they learn their songs, and they don't just learn songs at random; they pick up commoner songs rather than rarer songs,” Robert Lachlan, a biologist at London’s Queen Mary University and the study’s lead author, tells National Geographic.

Put differently, the birds don’t mimic every song their elders crank out. Instead, they memorize the ones they hear most often, and scientists say this form of “conformist bias” was previously thought to be a uniquely human behavior.

Using acoustic analysis software, researchers broke down each individual note of the sparrows’ songs—160 different syllables in total—and discovered that only 2 percent of sparrows deviated from the norm. They then used a statistical method to determine how the songs would have evolved over time. With recordings from 2009 and the 1970s, they were able to estimate that the oldest swamp sparrow songs date back 1537 years on average.

The swamp sparrow’s dedication to accuracy sets the species apart from other songbirds, according to researchers. “Among songbirds, it is clear that some species of birds learn precisely, such as swamp sparrows, while others rarely learn all parts of a demonstrator’s song precisely,” they write.

According to the Audubon Guide to North American Birds, swamp sparrows are similar to other sparrows, like the Lincoln’s sparrow, song sparrow, and chipping sparrow. They’re frequently found in marshes throughout the Northeast and Midwest, as well as much of Canada. They’re known for their piercing call notes and may respond to birders who make loud squeaking sounds in their habitat.

[h/t Science magazine]

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18 Smart Products To Help You Kick Off Summer
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Whether you’re trying to spiff up your backyard barbeque or cultivate your green thumb, these summertime gadgets will help you celebrate the season from solstice to the dog days.

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Rosé Wine Glass
Amazon

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Nerf SurgeFire
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American flag spatula
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: O say can you see by your grill’s charcoal light / Meats so proudly we cooked ... with a star spangled spatula. Depending on the specific model, these all-American grilling tools (designed in New Jersey and made in Chicago) are made of a combination of walnut and stainless steel or nylon. As an added bonus: 5 percent of the proceeds go to the Penn Abramson Cancer Center.

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MLB San Diego Padres Hot Dog BBQ Brander
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7. UNA GRILL; $139

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MoMA Shop

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Why It’s Cool: Made of steel and finished with a non-stick coating, this grilling tool flips four burgers at once and maintains perfect burger proportions to guarantee nobody stays hungry for long.

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Amazon

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Bendy Straw Inflatable Pool Float
Amazon

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Cuisinart GR-150 Griddler Deluxe
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: If you’re looking for some serious panini power, this griddler offers up a versatile lineup of six cooking options in one. And with dual-zone functions you can sling burgers while searing filets and sautéeing vegetables all at the same time.

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Why It’s Cool: With its old-timey design, dual cone shelf, and endless flavor options, this snow cone maker is guaranteed create a cool treat.

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Why It’s Cool: While meat-lovers will inevitably scarf down a lot of hot dogs this summer, vegetarians who happen to love another kind of dog will be smitten with these stainless steel, Dachshund-shaped corn on the cob prongs. They’re a fun spin on a summer grilling favorite.

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Ice Cream Sandwich Maker
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15. UE WONDERBOOM; $68

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Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Besides delicious food and great company, some memorable tunes are required for the quintessential barbeque. This portable bluetooth speaker offers up some booming sound in a small package, and with a battery power of 10 hours on a single charge you can keep the party going all night.

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16. ROLLORS GAME; $38

Rollors Backyard Game
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: When you’re sick of bocce, hate horseshoes, and you’re over cornhole, you might want to take up “rollors,” a family-friendly game that combines your favorite traditional backyard festivities into one game for people of all ages.

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Why It’s Cool: Rest easy knowing that this 100 percent hand-woven and hand-dyed cotton hammock contributes to artisan job-creation in Thailand.

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Emergency Survival Tent Outdoors
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Compact, convenient, and durable, the VSSL Shelter can come in handy when things don’t go quite as planned. The device—which features a lightweight emergency shelter all within the handle of a compact, weather-resistant aluminum LED flashlight—is designed to keep you safe under the worst conditions.

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