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Americans curious about Japanese culture and history should consider sumo a rich arena to study and experience. If you spend enough time in Japan, you simply must attend a tournament.

The massive, powerful participants exist among the rest of the population in 2003, and they too have their modern viewpoints of Japan and the world, but their vocations stem from another time, indeed, from a time more than 1,000 years ago.

The Japanese started keeping written histories in the 8th century, according to “Grand Sumo: The Living Sport and Tradition” by Lora Sharnoff. So it is impossible to know how much earlier sumo may have existed. Ancient wall paintings indicate sumo may have existed in prehistoric times, performed primarily as an agricultural ritual to pray for a good harvest.

The first written mention of sumo is in “Kojiki,” a book written in the year 712. The English translation of the title is “Records of Ancient Matter.” The text conveys a legend claiming that possession of the Japanese islands was determined by a sumo match.

If the story is at all close to factual, sumo might be more than 2,500 years old. The “gods” Takemikazuchi and Takeminakata fought along the coast of the Sea of Japan until Takeminakata was finally beaten, clearing the way for Takemikazuchi to rule Japan and begin the imperial family line from which the present emperor traces his ancestry.

A fight to the death is described in records of a sumo match held in 23 BC. The emperor Suinin wanted to see a match between Taima no Kehaya, known as a bombastic bully, and a potter from Izumo named Sukune. After grappling for some time, Kehaya was killed as a result of powerful kicks to his torso by Sukune, who came to be considered the “father of sumo.”

From the earliest writings about sumo to the present, the sport emerges as a distinct element of Japanese sports history and culture. It was during the Edo Period (1603-1867) that an actual ranking system was developed, and in 1761, Sharnoff’s history reports, the name of the sumo organization was changed from kanjin-zumo to kanjin-ozumo, which was the first time the professional level of the sport was called Grand Sumo. The professional sumo organizations in Tokyo and Osaka merged in 1927 to become the current Sumo Kyokai.

Present-day sumo wrestlers honor the sport’s history and traditions in many ways, from wearing mawashi (the thick belts wrapped around participants) to tossing salt in the dohyo (ring) to honor spirits and discourage injuries. The rikishi belong to heyas (teams) and live communally in a lifestyle that has evolved through centuries and is completely dedicated to the sport. It is a way of life as much as a sport, and some professional sumo wrestlers serve as roles models in Japan.

Aside from the incredible power and unanticipated agility demonstrated by these rishiki (literally, “strong man” — generic for sumo wrestler), symbolic articles and mannerisms abound as indicators of the tradition and religious significance embedded in this centuries-old sport.

Petty Officer 1st Class Todd Collins became a diehard fan of sumo as soon as he stepped off the airplane that brought he and his family to Japan about two years ago.

“When we arrived at the international airport in Osaka, I walked in and a sumo tournament was on the airport television. I was hooked from that moment on,” he said.

Each year the grand sumo governing body, the Sumo Kyokai, sponsor the hon-basho (any of six official tourneys) held in each odd-numbered month. Only these six contests count in the official scores used to rank the rikishi.

Collins, 38, works in Sasebo’s security department in the vehicle registration office, and is a lifelong college football fan, always rooting for the Clemson Tigers. Even though football players and rishiki tend to be big guys, he said, sumo competitors have distinct and unique qualities.

“There is the pure sport of it … the brawn. But what I really like is all the meaning, in the cultural and traditional sense, of all the things that are going on during the basho (tournament),” he explained.

“For example, the rooflike structure that hangs from the ceiling right over the dohyo (ring) … ever notice the four big tassels that hang from each corner? Each one represents a season of the year, and is tied closely to the Shinto religion.

“Ever watched them lean to one side, then the other, and lift their legs and pound their feet? That movement (called shiko) symbolizes them trying to get the attention of the spirits. When they throw salt in the dohyo, they are trying to purify the competition area,” he said. “Everything about what they do is centuries and centuries old, and that’s what I find interesting,” Collins said. And if foreign-born rishiki enter the system, learn all the cultural nuances and practice them with respect, so be it, he added.

A new fan might observe that after a rishiki wins a bout, he walks back to his side of the dohyo, assumes a squatting position, and is handed kensho-kin, or money given to winners in envelopes.

Each sponsor pays about $500 to have a banner paraded around the ring with the company name on it. The wrestler is given about 25,000 yen in cash (about $208) after the bout. The Sumo Kyokai holds 30,000 yen (about $250) to pay taxes, and 5,000 yen (about $42) is used to pay for making the banner.

Collins and his wife Lorie, an English teacher at a local school near Sasebo Naval Base, enjoy the sport so much that they purchased a masu-seki (box seat with space for four) last November for the Fall Tournament, held each year at the Fukuoka International Center.

“The seats were a little far away, but it was great. For this coming year, I’m going to buy a box much closer, and it’s going to be worth it,” he said. In November 1996, while on tour competing in the Fukuoka tourney, intai-zumo (retired) yokozuna Akebono (Hawaii-born Chad Rowan) decided to visit a friend who lived at Sasebo Naval Base’s Hario Housing Village. While on base, he mingled with sumo enthusiasts in the base community, including Dan Carey, a departmental director with the Morale, Welfare and Recreation department.

“While he was here, he took pictures with people at the Harbor View Club, and that’s when I got my photo with him,” Carey recalled. “Then a couple of years ago, a friend who knew I enjoyed sumo bought a print of Akebono’s hand for me.” Proudly showing the handprint recently, he compared it to his own hand, and Akebono’s is about twice as large.

Collins said he often talks about grand sumo with his Japanese coworkers. “They are interested in it, but they don’t seem to be as interested in it as I am. What they seem drawn to is the athletic aspects of the event,” he noted. “It’s the cultural elements that attract me, and attracts other non-Japanese. But for the Japanese,” he said, “they’ve been there, done that.”

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