|A job well done should be the reward in itself, but let's be honest. Who doesn't like feeling appreciated, revered or respected? If you're a sumo wrestler in Japan, the awe and admiration follows you wherever you go. Here in the States, however, we have yet to reach the same level of reverence, due to the simple fact that those lumbering giants are still a mystery to many of us.
Sumo wrestling is a highly specialized form of martial arts dating back to the earliest histories of Japan. It originated as a ritualistic ceremony performed as a prayer for a good harvest in the coming year, then became a way avert battles between feuding warlords. Sumo wrestlers were sent to fight one another and the only way to win was to kill the opposing wrestler. The first set of rules and customs were introduced during the Edo period, since it had evolved into a spectator sport by then, and it eventually lead the way to the modern form of sumo wrestling in which heavy men push, grapple, pull or throw each other out of a ring to be victorious.
For aspiring wrestlers, there are currently more than 28 sumo training stables (called sumobeya) in Japan run by retired champions. Students enter at the age of 15 and are required to train rigorously and follow strict traditions that dictate their daily lives, including when to eat and how to dress in public. New recruits must rise early for training and are assigned house chores in a hierarchy system that also applies to bathing and eating. Any wrestler found breaking the rules can be fined or suspended. Because new recruits are given the lowliest of jobs, the dropout rate at this stage is high.
All wrestlers, regardless of rank, take on wrestling names often given to them by their trainers and it is during training when they work to achieve their most notable feature: their weight. Most sumo wrestlers weigh between 287lbs to 441lbs, at an average height of 5' 10. In order to sustain their weight, sumo wrestlers are required to skip breakfast and eat a large lunch consisting of the traditional sumo high-protein stew called chanko nabe. The dish contains various fish, meat and vegetables and is usually eaten with rice and washed down with beer. An afternoon nap is also required, since it helps the wrestlers put on weight more effectively.
Sumo wrestlers train and compete barefoot and naked, except for a fringed loin covering and thick silk belt, and are required to have the traditional topknot hairstyle. Outside the ring, they're immediately identifiable by their yukata (thin cotton robe) and geta (wooden sandals), although much of their type and quality of dress depends on their rank. The monthly salary earned by a sumo wrestler is also dictated by his rank. As of 2006, the lowest ranked wrestler (juryos) earned approximately $9,000, while the highest ranked (yokozuna) received $24,500 a month. Trainees are not paid, but are given a small allowance. Wrestlers also receive additional bonuses six times a year during every tournament, as well as competition bonuses. The amounts received are based on career cumulative performance to date. More championships and victories translate to larger raises.
While professional sumo wrestling is practiced exclusively in Japan, other nationalities are allowed to participate. As of July 2007, there were 19 foreigners in the top two divisions, although a 2002 ruling by the Japan Sumo Association limits one foreign born wrestler per stable. Sumo has also become an amateur sport in Japan where the most successful amateurs from open amateur tournaments are allowed to enter professional sumo at third division instead of the bottom. These tournaments are divided into weight classes: lightweight (up to 187 lbs), middle weight (up to 253 lbs), heavy weight (253 lbs and up), and open weight (unrestricted). Although tradition continues to restrict women from entering sumo wrestling professionally, amateur tournaments have a more relaxed policy and include competitions for female wrestlers as well. Currently, there is a movement to have sumo wrestling recognized as an Olympic sport.
There are amateur Sumo clubs in the States and in Europe as well, although it's quite possible sumo wrestling will never reach the same level of popularity it enjoys in Japan. While it's true these athletes don't put their bodies out there the way football players do or display the speed and agility required of basketball players, they share the same qualities. All athletes make sacrifices and train hard in order to attain the dream of being the best in their sport. What that sport may be doesn't take away from their achievements, and that is why we're hailing sumo wrestlers.
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