Okinawan Sumo

Okinawan Sumo, also known as kakuyukai, is a form of the famous Japanese martial art practiced in the southern islands. A cross between Edo Sumo wrestling and judo, the goal of Okinawan Sumo is to toss your opponent on their back.  Unlike Edo Sumo wrestlers, Okinawan Sumo-ka generally wear a heavy gi (a martial arts outfit) tied with a simple white or red cloth belt.

How to Sumo, Okinawan Style

Okinawan Sumo takes place on a sandy patch of ground.  Originally it was practiced on beaches.  The participants start out by looping their hands into their opponents belts.  The right hand goes first inside from below, then the forearm wraps around and the belt is grasped for a secure grip.  The left hand simply holds the opponent’s right side belt from the outside.  Intertwining the hands ensures the arms are protected from flying free and getting broken during falls.

After the arms are secure, both opponents will lean into each other, with a balanced stance and strive for a lower, more stable position.  The referee will call a start to the first round and each will try to throw the other on his or her back.  There are many ways to do this, including a combination of throws, trips, and falls.  Usually competitions are the best 2 out of 3 with an overall 4 minute time limit.  If time expires without a clear winner the back up judges and referee will vote on a winner by raising a white or red flag to match the winner’s belt.

Unlike Edo sumo, there are no boundaries, though the match will be stopped if either of the participants are in danger of running into something or off the sand.  Since many of the techniques involve lifting an opponent to change their center of gravity, it can be a dangerous sport, but all care is usually taken.

Here is one of the classic Okinawan Sumo moves called takanushi.  This is a third grade junior high student on Kume Island during last week’s inter-high sumo competition.  Look intimidating?  That’s what the other students thought too I bet.  Since Okinawa Sumo is all about center of balance, by taking his opponent off his feet, the student was able to completely control the match.  Flexibility is a big part of this sport.

Why Sumo?

Like Edo Sumo, Okinawan Sumo isn’t just done for show.  The act of competition is a form of offering.  For this reason, Okinawan Sumo is often performed during festivals which purpose are for thanking spirits, and/or seeking good fortune in the coming year.  Many mainland Okinawan people know little about Sumo, but it is very popular on the outer islands.  Many Sumo Wrestlers travel to other islands to compete during festivals.  This promotes inter-island communication and friendship.  While not everyone can compete in sumo, even the spectators are drawn together as they enjoy watching.

Students on various small Okinawan islands learn to do Sumo from very young ages, and compete regularly.  This helps promote health and discipline, and gives them a way to participate in the local festivals.

Most Sumo participants can also expect gifts for competing.  Even those who lose generally are given a small thank you gift (usually a towel or small box of laundry soap- Actually comes in handy for cleaning your gi after all those practices in the sand!).  As you go up in the rankings, you can expect larger gifts and trophies too!

This is a trophy I received in 2008.  That was my first year competing, but at that competition there were only eight people.  I didn’t actually win either of my two matches, but I guess I got lucky in the draw.  Since then, I’ve learned a lot about Sumo and have finally won a few matches!


More Things Sumo

One thing you may notice with both Edo and Okinawan sumo is that the participants often throw salt onto match area.  This serves several purposes.  First it is a kind of offering in itself.  The participant does this in hopes of avoiding injury and may also consume a small bit of salt as well.  Salt is also an antiseptic, which is useful after several clashes ^_^.

I’ve had the good luck to live on relatively small islands.  My placements have given me the opportunity to learn and participate in Okinawan sumo.  At first I did not find it very enjoyable, since the sand can easily abrade your skin when practicing for long periods.  After I learned ways to avoid this, and built up my strength, Sumo became much more enjoyable.  More so than the actual competitions (I doubt I’ll ever be a yokozuna [champion]) were the social opportunities that came with practicing.  I meet many more people than I would have at just my work place, and that eventually let to being invited into a moai.  It also allowed me to visit other places for competitions and talk with many people interested in sumo.  I even ended up in the Okinawan Times newspaper after a competition.

If you live in Japan, consider taking up a local sport or club!  Do you have any Sumo stories? Share them in the comments!