In his series “Sumo School” photojournalist Daniel Ali uncovers the private world of young Japanese sumos in training, offering rare insight into the lives of the boys dedicating their life to the ancestral sport.
As the rhythmical slaps of flesh on flesh rebound around the small cool room, the sudden bouts of violence seem at odds with the serenity and calmness that surrounds the dohyō (還暦土俵入り). Light streams through the windows, dancing across the floor as the young sumos cluster outside the ring. Quietly jostling and limbering up these boys begin their journey through the tradition, culture and ritual of the hallowed sport of sumo.
Ancient Japanese Quote
Before there was the nation of Japan, there was sumo.
The First Warriors
Sumo is a sport cloaked in spirituality and often guarded to the interest of international press or outsiders. With a history that spans beyond two millennia sumo was originally part of religious ceremonies performed to entertain the imperial family. The seemingly simple aim to push the opponent out of the roughly 5 meter clay ring. As the sport grew in popularity sumo evolved as a business and the “rikishi” stables as training grounds for young wrestlers in search of glory and wealth. Deeply connected to the countries ancestral Shinto values and an unofficial national sport ,champions, or “yokozuna”, become local legends, celebrities and national icons.
For the young men of Kaiyo High School sumo embodies the ultimate Japanese virtues: dignity, honor, discipline, and strength. In Japanese legend “before there was the nation of Japan, there was sumo” and for these boys the choice to dedicate themselves to the ancient sport is full of pride and commitment.
The Land of the Rising Sun
Awkward and chubby the teenage wrestlers stir, batting away sleep in the early morning to stumble to the heya ( sumo training quarters (部屋)). Here the sacred ring is ritualistically swept with branches and ‘purified’ with salt before training can commence. On no breakfast and the longing grumbles of stomachs the day ahead involves intensive training. The boys buffet off each other in the ring or practice bone crushing charges into a traditional ‘teppo’, a foot wide tree trunk.
The Kaiyo High School, where Ali shot these young sumos, is nestled within an old fishing town in the Igatta province. Applicants are picked for their academic achievements and the young sumos are not given a free pass. Alongside their studies sumo training, dining and rituals are considered a time consuming extracurricular. The young warriors share their studies, mealtimes and even sleep in separate accommodations together. Although they practice one on one combat they act as one team, with neither disappointment in loss or smugness in victory. For the smaller boys training can consist of repetitive thwacks into the cold clay floor as they practice against the bigger boys, but as Ali recalls “they’re very much there for each other. I didn’t see any pressure to not cry and ‘man up’’’.
Once they reach 17 these young recruits can be selected to join the prestigious rikishi training stables continuing as amateur fighters before the revered status of yokozuna. These national figures have legions of fans, drivers, vast wealth and celebrity. In the past 300 years, roughly 60 rikishi have been bestowed this honour.
Despite the physicality of the sport, the brutal practice, strict hierarchy and ceremony many of the boys admit the eating schedule is the most arduous part of their training. Large evening meals slow the metabolism and “the kids will be sat there at least an hour, two hours after everyone had finished eating dinner” says Ali. Although the traditional notions of bulky sumos are being challenged there is still an emphasis on weight providing power and stability within the ring.
Despite traditional values more recently sumo has faced scandal and controversy; with champions facing accusations of match fixing, alcohol fuelled attacks, the sexism of the sport and decreasing numbers of Japanese recruits. Alongside modern opprobriums traditionally wrestlers have been encouraged to be heavy, adhering to strict diets to reach the daily requiset of 8,000 to 10,000 calories to reach ultimate fighting weight. Brutal training schedules, daily batterings and the associated health risks the physique and life of a sumo wrestler has become less appealing to many.
Although for some the light on sumo has dimmed these young sumos represent it’s future, full of pride and willingness for the long road before them sumo is a part of their future as well as connecting to their past.
Daniel Ali, Photographer
What surprised me the most was the serenity, the calmness and the control.
The Future of Sumo
Sumo remains intensely traditional, every aspect of the sport and spectacle displaying deeper symbolic meaning. Wreathed in ritual and a manifestation of the past and present culture sumo is not the aggressive and humourous stereotype often depicted. As Ali recalls “It’s gritty, smelly, fast paced, violent, aggressive and everything else you would expect from such a place, but overall what surprised me the most was the serenity, the calmness and the control”. These young wrestlers display courage, dedication and commitment not only to making their parents proud but to continuing the Japanese culture.