OSAKA – Perhaps no other sport is pursued as religiously as sumo wrestling. Before a match, referees (who double as Shinto priests) purify the seaweed, salt, and sake. Wrestlers wash their faces, mouths, and armpits before entering the dohyo (ring), on whose sacred sand neither shoes nor women may tread. Before a match starts, the two contestants raise their hands to show that they are not hiding weapons in the folds of their loincloth-like belt.
The elders of the Japan Sumo Association (JSA), the retired wrestlers who govern the sport, see themselves less as administrators than as guardians of a holy tradition. They promote wrestlers to the highest ranks not just on brute merit, but according to how much hinkaku (dignity) they are judged to possess.