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If Japan’s place within today’s world is that of a nation firmly in the grip of modernity, then it is perhaps somewhat paradoxical that the ancient sport of sumo wrestling should continue to captivate and inspire the Japanese people. Sumo, Japan’s kokugi, or national sport, has a history spanning more than one thousand years. Whilst there is evidence that precursors of the sport reached Japan from the Asian mainland, the traditions and rituals of today’s professional sumo are inherently Japanese, and most closely reflect Japanese culture of the Edo period (1600-1867).
In the early 1990s, sumo reached a level of popularity in Japan that was perhaps greater than at any other stage in its history. The rise of charismatic Hawaiian competitors such as Akebono and Konishiki coupled with increased media coverage generated greater awareness and appreciation of sumo both in Japan and worldwide. The appeal of the sport, with its fast, exciting bouts against a backdrop of stately, elegant rituals owes much to the insight it affords of Japan’s past, which with the wholesale adaptation of western culture over the past 150 years or so has been steadily, but now increasingly, eroded.
In August 2004, I travelled to Tokyo, the spiritual home of sumo, intent on discovering more about this mysterious world. I made arrangements to visit a sumo heya, or stable and over the course of a week I both photographed and interviewed some of the individuals concerned – wrestlers, hairdressers, and trainers.
The individuals you will see in these photographs are part of the world of sumo for 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. For them, sumo is more than a sport. It is an embodiment of the past that gives meaning to their present. Be it a rikishi (wrestler) or a tokoyama (hairdresser) sumo is a whole experience, a raison dêtre. It is a world that they join at a young age and it is one that they will remain part of for the rest of their lives.