Sumo is the national sport of Japan and its origins go back at least 1,500 years. It probably evolved out of Mongolian, Chinese and Korean wrestling. During the sumo ritual of dohyo-iri a yokozuna, the highest-ranking sumo wrestler will ritually cleanse the dohyo (sumo ring) to exorcise evil, wearing a very heavy hemp rope around his belly.
Hemp’s place in this tradition starts with the highest rank in sumo, the yokozuna. The name literally means “horizontal rope” and comes from the most visible symbol of their rank, the rope or tsuna worn around the waist. The rope is similar to the shimenawa used to mark off sacred areas in Shinto, and like the shimenawa it serves to purify and mark off its content. The rope, which may weigh up to 35 pounds, is not used during the matches themselves, but is worn during the yokozuna’s dohyo-iri ring entrance ceremony. Yokozuna are in many ways the face of sumo, and the way they conduct themselves is highly scrutinized as it is seen as reflecting on the image of sumo as a whole.
Yokozuna Pre-Match Sumo Rituals
A yokozuna’s dohyo-iri is a beautiful ritual to watch, full of colour, ritual, and meaning. Each Yokozuna is dressed in his kesho mawashi and an elaborate braided hemp tsuna. A yokozuna (champion wrestler) comes out with a big rope bow tied to back of his belt and does a set ritual in which he squats, lifts his legs into the air, stamps his feet, lift his hands and glares fiercely.
He is accompanied by a senior Ior referee, and two attendants – the tsuruharain and tachimochi and one of them carries a sword. The rope on the yokozuna’s belt is made of braided hemp and weighs from 25 to 35 pounds and is ornamented in the front with zigzag-shaped strips of paper. This is a familiar religious symbol in Japan. It can be found hanging in Shinto shrines and in the home over the “shelf” of the gods where offering are made at New Year. After entrance, the yokozuna performs a ritual which consists of a clapping of hands to attract the attention of the gods, extending his arms outward with palms up to show that he carries no weapons, and a delicate raising of his leg and foot high on the side and stamping the foot onto the ground to drive out evil from the dohyo. This stamping action is usually accompanied by the audience yelling “Yoh” at the point of the foot hitting the ground.
The choice of hemp for this massive braided hemp rope is no coincidence. The reason for it is hemp’s association with purity, with driving out evil spirits.