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Why Is Sumo Wrestling Such a Big Deal?

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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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The Elements
9 Diamond-Like Facts About Carbon
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How well do you know the periodic table? Our series The Elements explores the fundamental building blocks of the observable universe—and their relevance to your life—one by one.
 
 
It can be glittering and hard. It can be soft and flaky. It can look like a soccer ball. Carbon is the backbone of every living thing—and yet it just might cause the end of life on Earth as we know it. How can a lump of coal and a shining diamond be composed of the same material? Here are eight things you probably didn't know about carbon.

1. IT'S THE "DUCT TAPE OF LIFE."

It's in every living thing, and in quite a few dead ones. "Water may be the solvent of the universe," writes Natalie Angier in her classic introduction to science, The Canon, "but carbon is the duct tape of life." Not only is carbon duct tape, it's one hell of a duct tape. It binds atoms to one another, forming humans, animals, plants and rocks. If we play around with it, we can coax it into plastics, paints, and all kinds of chemicals.

2. IT'S ONE OF THE MOST ABUNDANT ELEMENTS IN THE UNIVERSE.

It sits right at the top of the periodic table, wedged in between boron and nitrogen. Atomic number 6, chemical sign C. Six protons, six neutrons, six electrons. It is the fourth most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen, helium, and oxygen, and 15th in the Earth's crust. While its older cousins hydrogen and helium are believed to have been formed during the tumult of the Big Bang, carbon is thought to stem from a buildup of alpha particles in supernova explosions, a process called supernova nucleosynthesis.

3. IT'S NAMED AFTER COAL.

While humans have known carbon as coal and—after burning—soot for thousands of years, it was Antoine Lavoisier who, in 1772, showed that it was in fact a unique chemical entity. Lavoisier used an instrument that focused the Sun's rays using lenses which had a diameter of about four feet. He used the apparatus, called a solar furnace, to burn a diamond in a glass jar. By analyzing the residue found in the jar, he was able to show that diamond was comprised solely of carbon. Lavoisier first listed it as an element in his textbook Traité Élémentaire de Chimie, published in 1789. The name carbon derives from the French charbon, or coal.

4. IT LOVES TO BOND.

It can form four bonds, which it does with many other elements, creating hundreds of thousands of compounds, some of which we use daily. (Plastics! Drugs! Gasoline!) More importantly, those bonds are both strong and flexible.

5. NEARLY 20 PERCENT OF YOUR BODY IS CARBON.

May Nyman, a professor of inorganic chemistry at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon tells Mental Floss that carbon has an almost unbelievable range. "It makes up all life forms, and in the number of substances it makes, the fats, the sugars, there is a huge diversity," she says. It forms chains and rings, in a process chemists call catenation. Every living thing is built on a backbone of carbon (with nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, and other elements). So animals, plants, every living cell, and of course humans are a product of catenation. Our bodies are 18.5 percent carbon, by weight.

And yet it can be inorganic as well, Nyman says. It teams up with oxygen and other substances to form large parts of the inanimate world, like rocks and minerals.

6. WE DISCOVERED TWO NEW FORMS OF IT ONLY RECENTLY.

Carbon is found in four major forms: graphite, diamonds, fullerenes, and graphene. "Structure controls carbon's properties," says Nyman.  Graphite ("the writing stone") is made up of loosely connected sheets of carbon formed like chicken wire. Penciling something in actually is just scratching layers of graphite onto paper. Diamonds, in contrast, are linked three-dimensionally. These exceptionally strong bonds can only be broken by a huge amount of energy. Because diamonds have many of these bonds, it makes them the hardest substance on Earth.

Fullerenes were discovered in 1985 when a group of scientists blasted graphite with a laser and the resulting carbon gas condensed to previously unknown spherical molecules with 60 and 70 atoms. They were named in honor of Buckminster Fuller, the eccentric inventor who famously created geodesic domes with this soccer ball–like composition. Robert Curl, Harold Kroto, and Richard Smalley won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering this new form of carbon.

The youngest member of the carbon family is graphene, found by chance in 2004 by Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov in an impromptu research jam. The scientists used scotch tape—yes, really—to lift carbon sheets one atom thick from a lump of graphite. The new material is extremely thin and strong. The result: the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010.

7. DIAMONDS AREN'T CALLED "ICE" BECAUSE OF THEIR APPEARANCE.

Diamonds are called "ice" because their ability to transport heat makes them cool to the touch—not because of their look. This makes them ideal for use as heat sinks in microchips. (Synthethic diamonds are mostly used.) Again, diamonds' three-dimensional lattice structure comes into play. Heat is turned into lattice vibrations, which are responsible for diamonds' very high thermal conductivity.

8. IT HELPS US DETERMINE THE AGE OF ARTIFACTS—AND PROVE SOME OF THEM FAKE.

American scientist Willard F. Libby won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1960 for developing a method for dating relics by analyzing the amount of a radioactive subspecies of carbon contained in them. Radiocarbon or C14 dating measures the decay of a radioactive form of carbon, C14, that accumulates in living things. It can be used for objects that are as much as 50,000 years old. Carbon dating help determine the age of Ötzi the Iceman, a 5300-year-old corpse found frozen in the Alps. It also established that Lancelot's Round Table in Winchester Cathedral was made hundreds of years after the supposed Arthurian Age.

9. TOO MUCH OF IT IS CHANGING OUR WORLD.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is an important part of a gaseous blanket that is wrapped around our planet, making it warm enough to sustain life. But burning fossil fuels—which are built on a carbon backbone—releases more carbon dioxide, which is directly linked to global warming. A number of ways to remove and store carbon dioxide have been proposed, including bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, which involves planting large stands of trees, harvesting and burning them to create electricity, and capturing the CO2 created in the process and storing it underground. Yet another approach that is being discussed is to artificially make oceans more alkaline in order to let them to bind more CO2. Forests are natural carbon sinks, because trees capture CO2 during photosynthesis, but human activity in these forests counteracts and surpasses whatever CO2 capture gains we might get. In short, we don't have a solution yet to the overabundance of C02 we've created in the atmosphere.

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Big Questions
Why Don't We Eat Turkey Tails?
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Turkey sandwiches. Turkey soup. Roasted turkey. This year, Americans will consume roughly 245 million birds, with 46 million being prepared and presented on Thanksgiving. What we don’t eat will be repurposed into leftovers.

But there’s one part of the turkey that virtually no family will have on their table: the tail.

Despite our country’s obsession with fattening, dissecting, and searing turkeys, we almost inevitably pass up the fat-infused rear portion. According to Michael Carolan, professor of sociology and associate dean for research at the College for Liberal Arts at Colorado State University, that may have something to do with how Americans have traditionally perceived turkeys. Consumption was rare prior to World War II. When the birds were readily available, there was no demand for the tail because it had never been offered in the first place.

"Tails did and do not fit into what has become our culinary fascination with white meat," Carolan tells Mental Floss. "But also from a marketing [and] processor standpoint, if the consumer was just going to throw the tail away, or will not miss it if it was omitted, [suppliers] saw an opportunity to make additional money."

Indeed, the fact that Americans didn't have a taste for tail didn't prevent the poultry industry from moving on. Tails were being routed to Pacific Island consumers in the 1950s. Rich in protein and fat—a turkey tail is really a gland that produces oil used for grooming—suppliers were able to make use of the unwanted portion. And once consumers were exposed to it, they couldn't get enough.

“By 2007,” according to Carolan, “the average Samoan was consuming more than 44 pounds of turkey tails every year.” Perhaps not coincidentally, Samoans also have alarmingly high obesity rates of 75 percent. In an effort to stave off contributing factors, importing tails to the Islands was banned from 2007 until 2013, when it was argued that doing so violated World Trade Organization rules.

With tradition going hand-in-hand with commerce, poultry suppliers don’t really have a reason to try and change domestic consumer appetites for the tails. In preparing his research into the missing treat, Carolan says he had to search high and low before finally finding a source of tails at a Whole Foods that was about to discard them. "[You] can't expect the food to be accepted if people can't even find the piece!"

Unless the meat industry mounts a major campaign to shift American tastes, Thanksgiving will once again be filled with turkeys missing one of their juicier body parts.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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