Sports in Japan
One of the oldest sports in Japan is Sumo wrestling, and it is considered Japan’s national sport. Sumo is rooted in Japanese religion and culture. Some sports in Japan are considered traditional favorites, while other spectator sports have caught on in recent years due to western influences and popularity.
Sumo wrestling, the national sport of Japan, is well linked to the Shinto religion and beliefs. In fact, it is believed that Sumo has origins in the Shinto practice of making an offering to the gods (kami), or in merely a desire to entertain the gods. Some of the matches could have been ‘fixed’ in order to have a preset outcome in order to make a worthy offering to the kami. The rituals involved in Sumo used to symbolize thanksgiving to the kami for good harvests. Sumo has retained many of these rituals that began some 1,000 years ago.
For example, the way in which the Sumo wrestler (Rikishi) wears his hair is meant to mimic that of an ancient warrior. The only attire that a Sumo wears is a small silk belt, (mawashi) or loincloth, fastened around their waste and buttocks. Fighting in a sumo ring requires that the wrestler use only bare hands. Once a competitor leaves the ring area with his foot, or allows any part of his body to touch the ground (other than his feet), the competition is over. The rules of Sumo are fairly straightforward and simple. The techniques are many and complex, involving over 80 different ways in which to win a match.
The ring in which the wrestlers compete is called the “dohyo”. The dohyo is elevated for spectator viewing, and it is typically made of clay and covered by a layer of sand. As with any sport, there are rookie and veteran players. When an athlete decides to become a sumo wrestler, they enter a training facility called a stable (heya) and it is there that they are trained in all aspects of sumo. The wrestler is also given a performance name, which may or may not have anything to do with their real name. The name is bestowed upon them by either a family member, or more likely by the ‘stablemaster’ or person training them.
Life as a sumo wrestler is regimented and routine. Life is spent at the training facility, where the sumo wrestler sleeps, eats and trains. Weight gain is a vital part of sumo life; therefore, eating is important part of the sumo’s training regimen. One of the main dishes that sumo eat is called chanko nabe, which a stew consisting of vegetables, meat and fish. In fact, there are no weight classes (as in American wrestling) and a sumo fighter might find himself matched up against a fighter of considerable weight. Wrestlers, upon entering the training stable, are expected to grow their hair out long enough in order to form a topknot, so that they can tie their hair up in the traditional style of sumo, mimicking the Edo samurai.
Sumo wrestlers, who have made it to the top echelon of competition, are called “yokozuna.” This word means “grand champion” in Japanese. The veteran wrestler, once he has achieved this status, cannot lose the title of “grand champion.” However, should a yokozuna fail to perform at a high level, he is expected to retire. Once retired, many of these former competitors go on to participate in the Japanese Sumo Association and are the only individuals permitted to train a new sumo wrestler. Many of the best wrestlers begin to train for the sport in their early 20’s. The outside age of a good sumo wrestler is about 35.
Rankings of sumo wrestlers are determined throughout a one year time period, in which the sumo participates in six tournaments (basho). The tournaments are held at the same time each year, three in Tokyo (January, May and September) as well as one in Osaka in March, another in Nagoya in July and finally one in Fukuoka in November. While Sumo has long been confined to Japan and to Japanese athletes, recent years have seen more and more foreign athletes join the rank of sumo wrestlers.
As with many facets of Japanese life, the sumo competition begins with players throwing salt in the ring (dohyo) in order to purify the ring. Once the ring has been purified, the wrestlers take a stance (shikiri) that allows them to move at a second’s notice. After taking their stance, the sumo each place a fist on the ground of the ring. The placement of their fists on the ground indicates that the match will begin and the referee will indicate the beginning of the match. There are several ways in which to achieve a win in the ring. A sumo may simply push his competitor back until he steps out of the white marked ring with his foot. A sumo can lift his opponent by the mawashi and lift him right up out of the ring. Or, a sumo can use his weight to push his opponent backwards, and then down to the ground out of the ring.
And as with other sports, there are definitely moves that are prohibited or illegal. A sumo may not strike his opponent in the eye, or with a fist (as in a punching motion). It is also prohibited for a sumo to kick his opponent in the chest or stomach. If a sumo does incorporate any of these moves into the competition, he is automatically disqualified and loses the match.
To this day, sumo wrestling is strictly a male sport. In the past, females have attempted to adopt their own sumo association and began to create female sumo groups. However, Japan has officially decried this action, and has forbidden women to perform sumo in any capacity other than as amateurs. A woman cannot even come near the sumo ring, let alone participate in professional sumo. It is said that a woman’s presence in the ring would offend the Shinto gods.
While Sumo wrestling may be the traditional and national sport of Japan, other sports are definitely growing in popularity among the Japanese people. One of the newcomers to the Japanese sporting scene is Ice Hockey. While long considered a western (North American/Russian) sport, Ice Hockey has grown in popularity since the mid 1960’s. Hockey is still considered a ‘minor’ sport in Japan by comparison with sumo, for example.
One of the main differences between ice hockey in Japan, and hockey in North America, is that Japanese ice hockey teams are owned by professional companies and thus represented as such. While American hockey teams “belong” to a city (such as the Detroit Red Wings), professional teams in Japan are named for the company to which they belong.
The Japan Ice Hockey League is the governing body of the sport in Japan. Japan was the first Asian nation to become a part of the International Ice Hockey Federation. Since its inception in the 1960’s hockey was a professional sport in Japan that flourished. However, with difficult economic times, hockey found it almost impossible to survive in Japan. Organizers felt that the only way for hockey to survive in Asia, was for Japan, China and South Korean teams to band together to form one federation of Asian hockey teams. Today, hockey is still considered a minor professional sport, rivaled by bigger crowd pleasers such as figure skating, baseball and soccer.
As a spectator sport, baseball is vastly more popular than ice hockey in Japan. There are twelve professional baseball teams, and countless amateur teams. Baseball has been around in Japan since about 1872 or 1873, when Horace Wilson introduced it at the Kaisei School in Tokyo (now Tokyo University). The first actual baseball team was organized by Hiroshi Hiraoka who had traveled to the United States in 1878 to study engineering. When he returned, he and his co-workers from the national railway formed the Shimbashi Athletic Club. Hiroshi is now considered the ‘father’ of Japanese baseball. His team would dominate the Japanese baseball clubs for years. In fact, for the next two decades, this team would play and defeat opposing American teams, which increased the popularity of the sport among spectators.
Around 1934, American professional players came to Japan for an All-star game. When the Japanese All-star team was selected from semi-professional players, the first Japanese professional team was formed. It was called the Nihon Baseball Club, and subsequently seven baseball teams followed. While the games with American ball clubs helped the foundation of baseball’s popularity in Japan in the early part of the 20th century, it was really the development of collegiate baseball play that cemented the sport as a national favorite.
Today, Japan’s baseball league is the Nippon professional baseball, is split into two divisions the Pacific League and the Central League, much like American ball.
While baseball and sumo wrestling may be the spectator and male dominated sports in Japan, gymnastics and figure skating may well be sports that provides the country with the most pride. In looking at the rankings of teams from across the world, you will find that the country of Japan dominated the sport of gymnastics from 1960 to 1978 in both the Olympics and the World Championships. The Japanese men’s team ranked first in both of these competitions for those 18 years. Meanwhile, during the last century, the women’s gymnastics team held to placing in the top 10 during that same time period for both the Olympics and World Championships.
In 1930, the All Japan Gymnastics Association was formed in Japan. The sport of gymnastics has been included at the Olympics since 1896, when only men were allowed to compete in the sport. Women began to compete in gymnastics at the Olympics starting in 1928. Japan is the second all-time leader in the sport of gymnastics in the Olympics with 28 gold medals and 90 medals overall. Japan is second, only to Russia in this sport.
Figure skating has also provided a source of pride for the Japanese nation, as all four current reigning World Champions are from Japan. Figure skating is well attended as a sport in Japan. The past decade has provided Japan with a number of high profile and successful skaters, giving rise to the broadcast of the sport in Japanese television. With skaters such as Midori Ito and Yuka Sato in the early 1990’s, and in the last several years Miki Ando, the sport in Japan is as popular as ever.