Sumo ABC (39) / Cushy jobs? The length of sumo tourneys have changed over time

The Yomiuri Shimbun

An aerial photo of the former Ryogoku Kokugikan taken in 1982

By Shuji Miki / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Writer“A lucky man who needs 20 days to live through a year.” This senryu short verse popular in the Edo era (1603-1867) describes the life of sumo wrestlers.

The length of sumo tournaments has changed with the times. In 1833, Ekoin temple in the Ryogoku area of Edo (present-day Tokyo) was set as the venue for tournaments. Beneath blues skies on the grounds of the temple, 10-day tournaments were held twice each year in spring and winter.

The opening senryu captures the public’s envy toward sumo wrestlers, who were believed to have earned a living from working just 20 days a year.

However, the reality was not so straightforward. Popular wrestlers at that time were usually hired by daimyo feudal lords, whose honor was tied to how well they performed at tournaments.

The wrestlers obviously had to work more than 20 days to earn a living. Besides wrestling, they also served as bodyguards for their masters and took part in trips to other parts of Edo. There were certainly difficult aspects to their job.

Tournaments were held outdoors until the former Ryogoku Kokugikan opened in 1909. Up until then, bouts were canceled in the event of rain — banzuke rankings at the time are said to have carried a text stating that a tournament would be held “over a total of 10 days on sunny days.” According to Japan Sumo Association records, one tournament ended after just five days because of abnormal weather, while another 10-day tournament was stretched to 24 days.

After the opening of the former Ryogoku Kokugikan made weather irrelevant, tournaments began to get longer. They were extended to 11 days in 1923.

The two existing sumo associations — in Tokyo and Osaka — merged in 1927. That same year, two tournaments in places other than Tokyo were added to the calendar.

Various changes have taken place since. Regional tournaments were abolished and then revived, and two more days were added to the length of tournaments.

A shift to the current 15-day format was completed in 1949. Since 1958, six tournaments have been held annually — three in Tokyo and one each in Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka.

The sport has become more popular in recent years, and sumo wrestlers now spend 70 days just on regional tours. When added to the 90 days they spend competing in tournaments, the total amount of time they engage in sumo events adds up to nearly half a year.

There is a smoldering discontent among wrestlers over the current situation, with some complaining they do not have time to completely recover from injuries because of the packed schedule. Are they just whining, or should we take their complaints seriously?

— Miki is a sumo expert.

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