In Japan, January marks the start of one of the country's most important sporting seasons -- sumo wrestling.
In Japan, January marks the start of one of the country's most important sporting seasons -- sumo wrestling. For weeks now, sumo stables -- or schools -- have been grooming their top stars to perfection, ready for the contest to begin.
There are six keenly-contested sumo tournaments a year, each fifteen days long. Thousands of fans pay around 15 U.S. dollars (7 pounds sterling) for a seat, while millions more can enjoy two hours of televised sport each day in the comfort of their homes.
Sumo wrestlers are unmistakable in appearance. Most of them are under six feet tall (182 centimetres) ... but weigh in at a mighty 330-350 pounds (149-158 kilograms). Last year's sumo hero, 23-year-old yokozuna or grand champion, Kitanoumi, has thighs the same size as an average man's waist.
Sumo, though, is far more than a sport, it is an art form ... and for participants, a complete way of life. The only way to enter sumo as a professional fighter is through the special sumo schools.
There are only 31 of these in Japan, each one small and highly selective. Amateur training establishments do operate, but their main motive is to bring promising students up to the rigorous standards required by the professional teachers.
Training usually starts from the age of sixteen onwards ... and it is arduous and long. Two-thirds of the new recruits each year drop out because the schedule proves too tough.
It is not only a question of building up fitness, stamina and muscles. Students are subjected to a mammoth weight-gaining diet, find their social lives greatly restricted ... and work ceaselessly to harden their bodies in daily training bouts. In addition, all students must learn the etiquette of the sport, achieve an excellent command of the Japanese language and must study calligraphy. In the six months of the training term, sumo coaches instill into their trainees a complete knowledge of the 48 different techniques of sumo wrestling.
Yet all that effort, all that skill and training can be tossed aside in seconds in the sumo ring.
The sport is highly competitive and highly ritualistic. It dates back at least fifteen hundred years, and was once the favourite spectator sport of emperors. Sumo incorporates elements of religious ceremony and strong traces of the samurai warrior tradition.
Formerly sumo bouts began with up to forty-five minutes of ceremony, as both wrestlers -- clad only in silk loin cloths and belts, their bodies glistening with effort and anticipation -- bow, then glare at each other and stamp the ground in preparation for the fight itself. Television has cut down that ritual time to only four minutes in many tournaments.
The second stage of the pre-fight ritual involves wrestlers scattering salt around the circular sand-covered ring for purification.
The bout itself is often short and explosive, as both fighters release their weight, skill and pent-up energy. The contest is decided when any part of one opponent's body -- apart from his feet -- touches the floor, or he is forced outside the ring.
Sumo wrestling is highly lucrative for those who can come out on top consistently. The winner of each 15-day tournament gets 1 million yen (3,300 U.S. dollars) in prizemon???y, with other awards presented in various skill categories. In addition, the professional sumo wrestler is paid an average monthly salary of 460,000 yen (1,550 U.S. dollars). The masters of the art, the grand champions, or yokozunas, can expect to achieve more. But there have only been 54 yokozunas in the whole of sumo history.
But no matter how highly paid a sumo wrestler is, there is one fact he cannot ignore: the tremendous weight each wrestler carriers around, the arduous training schedule, the explosive bouts, take their toll. The average retirement age for professionals is 35, their average life span very short.
SYNOPSIS: The ancient sport of sumo wrestling -- now the most popular event in Japan, attracting an even bigger following than baseball. Each week, during the sumo season which begins in January, millions of Japanese sit enraptured in front of their televisions as live broadcasts of the sumo tournaments are relayed throughout the country. Thousands more pack the major sumo wrestling stadiums in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka to watch the huge mountains of human flesh pit their skills against each other. And it is now that the small and exclusive sumo schools ... or stables ... bring their young hopefuls up to a peak for the beginning of the sumo season.
There are only thirty-one such schools in Japan. Training usually begins for prospective sumo wrestlers at the age of sixteen. However, the training is so tough and arduous that two-thirds of the new recruits drop out each year. For it is not only a matter of building up fitness, stamina and muscles.
Students are subjected to special mammoth weight-gaining diets in an effort to build up their weight to a staggering three-hundred-and-fifty pounds. Since most sumo wrestlers are under six feet tall, their legs must be strengthened to carry such enormous weight.
Sumo wrestling is as much a Japanese art form as a sport. Each prospective wrestler must learn many aspects of Japanese culture, including a masterful command of Japanese music, language and calligraphy, the complicated form of Japanese writing.
The enormous weight that each wrestler must carry is achieved by eating vast quantities of specially prepared food. However, such a diet does not lend itself to a long life and most sumo wrestlers retire at about thirty-five years of age and their average life span is extremely short.
The sport itself is highly ritualistic. Formerly, sumo bouts began with up to forty-five minutes of ceremony as both contestants, clad only in silk loin cloths and their huge, mountainous bodies glistening, stood in the centre of the ring glaring at each other. They stamped their feet in an effort to intimidate their opponent. The wrestlers would then scatter salt to purify the ring and bring the favour of the gods to the fight. However, because the most popular fights are now televised, this ritual has been cut to about four minutes.
The aim of these young wrestlers is to become yokozunas, or grand masters of the art. For a top sumo wrestler can find the sport highly lucrative. There are six sumo tournaments a year, each lasting for fifteen days. The winner of each tournament can earn more than one million yen in price-money plus many other awards including prizes in the fields of "special skills". In addition, the top sumo wrestlers are paid more than four-hundred-and-sixty-thousand yen a month. But the road to the top is tough and there have been only fifty-four yokozunas in the whole of sumo history, which goes back more than fifteen hundred years.
One such yokozuna is Kitanoumi who, at the age of twenty-three, is the youngest ever grand champion in the history of the sport. He is now acclaimed as one of history's greatest sumo wrestlers.