from RealClear Books & Culture

The Work of Sumo

Japan’s National Sport Distills Competition to Its Essence

By Oliver Bateman

Sumo — a Japanese word (相撲) that literally means “striking one another” — is a sport that is almost wholly alien to the American experience. I write almost here because the one point of familiarity is that all of the athletes (who average 366 pounds, up from 276 pounds in 1969), like most American football players, are obese, morbidly so in most cases. But everything else is different: it is formal, excessively so, and the record-keeping — which began in earnest in the mid-to-late 19th century — puts the best efforts of the Society for American Baseball Research (the efforts of which are insanely, absurdly good!) to shame.

We Americans and Western Europeans simply have no sport that is an analog for sumo, which has 82 recognized kimarite, or winning techniques, and decides in mere seconds which one resulted in the victory, thanks to the efforts of an eminent judge, usually a former sumo (illegal techniques, such as striking an opponent with a closed fist, hair-pulling, finger-bending, and strangulation, are called kinjite). And setting aside the scandals that plagued the sport in terms of opponents gifting each other wins — a bit of trivia shared widely via the lame, undercooked pop-statistics bestseller Freakonomics — no other combat sport in the entire world has a more carefully ranked hierarchy: six ranked divisions comprising hundreds of athletes, which are further subdivided in the makuuchi, or top division, into the lesser maegashira (ranked in descending numerical order by performance) and then the san’yaku, or champions, who comprise the ranks of komusubisekiwakeōzeki, and most illustrious of all, the yokozuna.

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