Table Speech

“Sumo Ring, a Sanctuary”

May 10, 2006

Ms. Makiko Uchidate,
A member of Yokozuna Promotion Council of the Japan Sumo Association

 Three years ago, I entered a graduate school of Tohoku University and majored in the study of religion. My research theme was “Deliberation on Sumo Rings, a sanctuary from a standpoint of the Science of Religion”.

 From sometime in 2000, calls have been mounting for the Sumo Association to allow females come up on the Sumo Ring, but I myself believe that it is not at all necessary for women to do so.

 This is quite different from sexual discrimination. What I want to think about at this moment is the existence of traditional culture, religions, folklore events, traditional performing arts, or festivals. If boys are allowed to join in a festival exclusively planned for girls in Okinawa, for instance (there is one also in Shiga Prefecture), such festival cannot remain anymore in the context of its original purpose. There should be respect for traditional cultures which either males or females alone are responsible for.

 The danger is the shallowness of attempting to apply a word of “global standard” to the things, which are native. There is no one in England, France, or China who would do such a foolish thing as to try to fit a global standard into what is forming the basis of his or her race or what is native. It is hard to explain why women cannot go on the Sumo Ring. Lack of talk will invite some misunderstandings. So, I would want to explain only why the Ring is a sanctuary.

 Sanctuary means a region surrounded by boundary lines. The Sumo Ring is a circle with a diameter of 455cm, surrounded by 20 Tawaras (bales of straw) connected with each other. A boundary line is a device to divide the sacred region from the secular region. A concept of a boundary line exists all over the world. Boundary lines are classified to architectural boundary lines and device-like boundary lines. The Great Wall of China or western castle walls in the middle ages are architectural boundary lines, which divide inside and outside in boxed regions. People cannot easily jump in it or out of it.

 Existing most in Japan are device-like boundary lines, which can easily be jumped over or stayed away from, such as a stone indicating a boundary line for females. It is just a stone physically, but it is the one, which a female is not allowed to go beyond. A short split curtain of a backstage is a boundary line for actors and audiences. A Japanese fan placed in front of a Geisha girl when she bows is a boundary line dividing professional from amateur.

 There are symbolic boundary lines in Japan. There is no visible line, but there is a line, which everyone knows each other that it connects a certain region. When a Sumo wrestler goes up to the Ring, he cuts the air. This is an action deriving from a kind of ritual for the sumo wrestler to grab grass and clean his hands with it in order to clean his own body before fighting sumo wrestling outdoors. The meanings of these boundary lines are hard to understand unless people have a “mental demarcation” in themselves. One architectural academian said that only a person who has a mental boundary line from which he thinks he should not jump over understands boundary lines existing in Japan, and that all Japanese people in the past understood them. This indicates the high cultural level of people in Japan, I think.

 There is a religious belief that God will come down to a place if four pillars are built and the upper parts of them are connected with a straw rope.

 There used to be four pillars on the Sumo Ring that is deemed to be a sanctuary. Each pillar was wrapped with blue, red, black, and white cloth. Blue symbolizes spring or an azure dragon, red symbolizes summer or a red bird of summer, white means autumn or a white tiger, and black means winter or a black warrior. From 1952, the pillars were changed to tassels knotted with “Gohei” (white paper). Such Gohei are believed to harbor God in one day before the first day of a Grand Sumo Tournament when the Dohyo (sumo ring) festival was celebrated.

 On the last day of a Grand Sumo Tournament, a young “yobidashi”(caller) carrying sacred sake (Japanese wine), and a young gyoji (referee) called a barefoot gyoji, stand at the center of the Sumo Ring. After the tejime (hand start) ritual is finished, a new apprentice (for sumo wrestler) will throw a gyoji carrying Gohei into the air. This is a ceremony for seeing God off. By seeing such a simple practice, it is clear that Sumo Wrestling is not a type of sport suitable for the Olympic Games. Wordings of “good spirit, technique, and body” are used in the Sumo world. These were originally “good spirit, energy, and body”. Almost before one realizes it, they were changed to the present wordings, and some persons are even lamenting that Sumo has turned into just a regular sport. At any rate, I believe that the Sumo Ring, a sanctuary, and Sumo’s tradition is the culture to be protected.