Accounts of sumo bouts (basho) are related in Japan’s oldest annals of history dating back around 2000 years when it was a Shinto rite connected with praying for a good harvest. By the Edo period, sumo had developed into a spectator sport, and really hit its stride in the post-World War II period when basho started to be televised. The old religious trappings remain, though: the gyōji (referee) wears robes similar to those of a Shinto priest and above the dohyō hangs a thatched roof like those found at shrines.
Sumo players are ranked according to the number of wins they have had, the top-ranking wrestler being called the yokozuna, and the next rank down ōzeki. In a neat reversal of Japan’s appropriation of baseball and export of professional players to the US league, several of sumo’s most revered stars of recent years were born abroad, including Konishiki (aka the “dump truck”) and Akebono, who both hail from Hawaii, Musashimaru from American Samoa and Asashoryu, the first Mongolian-born fighter to reach the rank of yokozuna.
Even though he is one of the most successful yokuzuna ever, Asashoryu battled with sumo’s strict code of conduct throughout his career and was forced into early retirement in 2010 after punching a man outside a Tokyo nightclub. This and other un-sumo-like behaviour, such as wrestlers being found in possession of pot and being involved in illegal gambling, has tarnished the sport, the popularity of which has plummeted over recent years, particularly among young Japanese. The sport‘s saviour may just be its current crop of overseas stars such as the Estonian-born ōzeki Baruto and the Bulgarian Kotooshu who was the first European-born wrestler to win the Emperor’s Cup in 2008. Tall and relatively light for a sumo player, the ōzeki has been dubbed the David Beckham of sumo.