Are sumo wrestlers fat and sexy?

Sumo is a unique sport in that wrestlers have substantial incentives to become bigger and heavier, rather than reduce fat, as there are no weight classes like wrestling or other martial arts. It’s also unique because sumo is played with almost no clothes on. It is as if their fat, naked body was something people sought and admired as part of the entertainment. In contrast to boxing or MMA in which fighters often show off their low body fat frame, sumo send a very different message. Why is that?

Sumo established its form as an entertainment sport during Edo period (1603-1868). In its inception, it was by far the largest sport events people had, and it was enthusiastically supported by rowdy men who often got violent at the venue. For that reason, and maybe among other factors, women weren’t allowed to go see sumo. But still, the wrestlers (called rikishi) were wildly popular among them.

Ukiyo-e, in the absence of photography, was used to portray “cool” rikishi – who look large and fat –  for wide circulation, and it’s likely that many people bought it as they couldn’t go see them in real action. One of the most legendary rikishi during Edo era was named Raiden, who was said to be 197 cm tall and 169kg. There also used to be “pin-up rikishi” back then, who appeared on the ring just show off their tall, large, fat body when the organizer couldn’t secure enough good fighters.

Sumo ukiyo-e from 1849. Rikishi look substantially larger than other people. 

But it’s a bit doubtful if the rikishi were actually as big as they were portrayed in ukiyo-e, or as it’s been believed. The average Japanese male in Raiden’s era was about 155 cm (only a bit higher than 5 foot), which reflects poor nutritional condition they faced. Was it possible to have so many tall/fat guys back then?

Indeed, according to Japanese sport magazine “Number,” rikishi weren’t as big and fat as they are today 100 years ago. The average weight of top rikishi in 2018: 164.0kg (362 lbs). 1968: 130.6kg (287 lbs). 1918: 102.9kg (225 lbs). The average NFL player today are actually heavier than the rikishi 100 years ago, as he weighs 246 lbs. Although NFL players should be significantly taller, it will give you some idea: it’s safe to say that sumo wrestlers weren’t traditionally big and fat as we picture today.

Then a questions arises: why on Earth ukiyo-e exaggerated the size of rikishi so much? 

The only explanation I can think of is that it made them look more attractive and sexier. People loved big, substantial and chunky bodies. While it sounds counter-intuitive, it makes sense if you remember what kind of society they lived in.

As it was before the Industrial Revolution, the only power source people had was pretty much themselves (or other animals, or maybe some water power). Bigger body meant more power, which meant more productivity, which must have meant more success. The society also grappled with all kinds of natural threats such as fire, storms, floods, earthquakes or famines. Large, hefty body mass must have given people sense of stability and security, when they were surrounded by many uncertain elements that were beyond their control. It also meant status, as being fat meant that they had access to a lot of food. Rikishi ukiyo-e must have been a fantasy for people, or a symbol of what they wanted: tangible power, stability, reliability, durability and access to a lot of good quality food (wealth). Rikishi must have represented a kind of person you wanted to lean on.   

I felt the same way when I saw Polynesian dance shows in Hawaii, which featured rather substantial dancers that performed different kinds of war dances. If you lived on a small island, you could have felt vulnerable when large storms or earthquakes hit, or when you saw battleships on the horizon as there was nowhere to escape, other than imminently dangerous open sea. Substantial, stable and reliable body must have meant a lot to people back then both materially and emotionally. 

Sumo is one of the few sports that still adhere to the philosophy and aesthetics established centuries ago, which are very different from modern sports. It reminds us of the meaning of having bulky body, rather than low-fat, slender ones which modern people enthusiastically admire. It must have been one of the few ways for people to feel powerful and secure.