A Great Spirit Needs a Great (big) Body: The Career Path of a Sumo Wrestler

Not many sports can boast a multi-century history, steeped in tradition, religion and culture. Sumo’s origins are deep rooted in the centuries old Shinto religion, its spiritual ancestor being a ceremonial dance that symbolized a human’s fight with a Kami (Shinto deity). Later on the sport developed into a spectator sport and remains so today. With the glory and prestige of a professional Sumo wrestler comes a strictly regimented life that not only develops body and technique, but also spirit and mind. This is the path to becoming a warrior of the dohyō.


“I’ve got a handsome beer-belly and an ample ba-donka-donk, maybe I could be a professional athlete!” Being fat isn’t a prerequisite for becoming a Sumo wrestler. Even though the wrestlers seem obese, they follow a strict training regiment, which also includes doing the splits. Can you do the splits Chubby? Oh, wow, well color me surprised I guess you can.

Most Sumo stables (training facilities) will turn away athletes which seem sedentary or just plain obese. Also if you want to become a champion of the sport in Japan you’ll need another ehm….accoutrement. A penis. Both the American Sumo association USASUMO and the International Sumo Association allow women to participate. However, because of Japanese Sumo traditions based on Shinto, women are not even allowed in the dohyō (the ring).

No Problem with Authority

If you weren’t paying attention let me reiterate. Sumo wrestlers lead a very strictly regimented life. Beyond that the training has a very severe hierarchy. Younger wrestlers are always behind veteran wrestlers during meals and baths, yet first when it comes to training and chores. During your ascension through the ranks of Rikishi (wrestler), you will cook meals for the older competitors but eat after them. And before you do that you will have to wait for them to bathe after a grueling day of training.

The younger sumo wrestlers are also in charge of cleaning the sumobeya (the training stable). You will have to dress in traditional Japanese clothing, and when you are training, you will need to wear the Mawashi, a heavy and complexly tied loincloth.

For the first years of your sumo career, you will basically be an oversized maid. Oh and as a reward for all your hard work and self-deprecation? Hazing which involves vigorous beatings and repeated training.

Early Retirement

I don’t think anyone would disagree with me if I stated that most professional athletes have an expiration date. They engage in intense training, intense competition and unfortunately as the body degrades with age, these tasks become harder and harder. Well, except golf. Oh, and bowling…competitive darts too maybe? Although the demands of most sports force professional athletes to retire in their late thirties and at the top end their late forties, sumo wrestlers have a very, very short career of usually a decade.

The reason that they only last a decade is because they usually start at around 15 or 16, making them at most around their mid twenties when they retire.  Retirement comes with a slew of other problems though. You can retire from the sport, but your ample girth doesn’t exactly melt away, putting many sumo wrestlers at risk of heart conditions, diabetes and joint problems.

On top of everything else a retired sumo wrestler after living a very structured life with all decisions being mandated for them, they must find a way to assimilate back into normal society. Many retired sumo wrestlers choose to open restaurants (which they are very adept at after years of cooking for the senior wrestlers) others use their celebrity status to graduate into the entertainment industry.

Mental Component

The retired sumo wrestler turned hip-hop artist and children’s entertainer Konishiki Yasokichi speaks in his interview with Reed Young about enduring his upper personal limits of pain during his sumo training. And although the training takes place with other wrestlers the greatest struggle is with one’s self to overcome obstacles, pain and the vigorous training.

Beyond that once the Rikishi retires and must assimilate into normal society, the struggle becomes much more evident, as they try to lose weight, make their own decision and find a new means of making a living. Much like a career military individual these combatants must start learning how to do everything on their own even though from an early age every single decision was made for them.

Waning Popularity

Although the sport has been almost synonymous with Japan, after a slew of scandals and match fixing controversies, the sport has lost steam. The average age of Sumo fans is 50 with the younger generations opting for much more global (and some might argue more inclusive) sports of baseball and basketball. With loose affiliations between the sport and Yakuza (Japanese organized crime organizations) the mud slings far and sticks to the image of the sport. This came to light when two whistleblowers mysteriously died on the same day. Finally traditional hazing ended with the death of a 17 year old wrestler resulting in his trainer being sent to prison for 6 years.

All these incidents have resulted in diminished and sluggish recruitment of young Japanese Sumo Wrestlers. Is this an indication of the future of the sport? Probably not, as football (or soccer for my American brethren) hasn’t stopped after the charging of FIFA officials just a few days ago.

The Gaijin

In recent years Sumo has seen an increase of Gaijin wrestlers (gaijin is a word used for foreigners in Japanese). This has shaken the traditionalist sport to its core with foreigners grabbing up titles from the Japanese training stables. The often dishonorable or disrespectful actions of these fighters has just reinforced the xenophobia that was already rampant in the sport. Hopefully, the sport will see a future that keeps traditions but is also inclusive of other people.

Do you have any other insights into the world of sumo? Let me know in the comment section below.