And some things you wish you didn’t.
The inspiration to writing this post came from a story which appeared on the Takasago beya web site, and made its way to the sports press. It’s a story about a stolen mawashi. But to appreciate the story in full, you need to know a few things about mawashi.
Mawashi is the one thing that’s absolutely necessary to do sumo. Yes, a dohyo is a good idea, but I’ve seen rikishi practice in public parks, where they merely marked a circle or agreed between themselves where the “dohyo” edges are. But although I’ve seen people trying to demonstrate sumo moves on people wearing jeans and a T-shirt, it’s not really sumo without a mawashi.
Mawashi originate in fundoshi, but has evolved into something that holds one’s belly in and allows solid handholds over time. What is a fundoshi, you ask? It’s a Japanese-style loincloth, like Hakuho is wearing in this video:
Rikishi have two styles of mawashi – for practice and for competition. In Makushita and below, as well as amateur sumo, they use the same mawashi for both. Let’s take a look at practice style.
From the left, we have female amateur wrestler, male amateur wrestler, a rikishi in the lower divisions (Makushita or below), and a sekitori. What are the differences?
In amateur sumo it’s generally allowed to wear something below the mawashi. Women wear a leotard or something similar. Men may wear shorts. The color of the mawashi is generally white, but there are amateur or school wrestlers who wear black, and sometimes school colors, like this guy from Saitama Sakae High:
(Yes, that’s actually Midorifuji vs. Takakeisho)
Whatever the color, those are cotton drill or canvas mawashi.
The lower division rikishi wear black cotton mawashi. Sekitori wear white for practice. So how do you tell a sekitori from an amateur? One thing is the hairdo, of course, but the main status symbol of a sekitori’s practice mawashi is the way the front end is folded. Amateurs and lower division rikishi fold the front end of their mawashi and tuck it into the belt from below, so it creates a kind of triangle. A sekitori, however, rolls the front of the mawashi and tucks it into the top of his belt, creating what I like to call “toilet-paper roll style”.
The only ones who are supposed to wear it like that are sekitori and former sekitori, including oyakata. So if you see somebody wearing a short hairdo and a TP-style white mawashi, he is likely an oyakata.
Grand sumo rikishi, in all divisions, wear nothing under the mawashi. Not shorts, not a G-string, not anything. The only exception is bandaging and taping for injuries.
The white mawashi sekitori wear usually have their shikona written on them in large, clear kanji, courtesy of the heya’s gyoji, if there is one. You can see that on Mitakeumi’s’s mawashi in this photo. I’ve seen Hakuho at times put his tegata (hand mark) on the front of the mawashi instead. Lower ranking rikishi can generally recognize their own mawashi on sight, as no two mawashi wear down quite the same way.
Let’s move on to competition style.
As you can see, the main difference between practice style and competition style for amateurs is that they have tags attached to the front, identifying their team or school etc.
Lower division rikishi wear their practice mawashi, but they also insert a sagari. Sagari is a stiff strip of fabric into which an uneven number of colorful strings are sewn, evenly spaced, such that the strip is tucked into the folds of the mawashi, and only the strings hang down.
In fact, the folds of the mawashi may contain other things than the front tip and the sagari’s top. Many rikishi tuck lucky charms into their competition mawashi to protect against injury or defeat.
Sekitori, on the other hand, wear a whole different mawashi. Here is another status symbol. The competition mawashi, known as “shimekomi”, is made out of satin silk. There is also matching sagari, which is made from the same silk material, where the weaver leaves long loose strands. The strands are braided into thick tufts, and stiffened with glue. That’s why you see them sticking like a bunch of skewers when the sekitori crouches down for the tachiai. To see how this is done, I refer you to an older post of mine: How are sagari stiffened?
The official rules allow shimekomi to be purple or dark blue. But rikishi have been defying this rule ever since color TV has been introduced. The NSK is looking the other way. One color, though, is taboo – white.
A shimekomi is 80cm wide, and weighs about 4.5kg. Women are not allowed to touch a shimekomi or a kesho-mawashi (though unlike mounting dohyo, you can find violations of this rule here and there).
On occasion, you may see a sekitori wearing his shimekomi for practice. This is generally done to “break it in” – to let the body adjust to it and let its creases adjust to the body. On those occasions, it’s tied TP-roll style.
As a matter of fact, a sekitori has a third type of mawashi – the kesho-mawashi. That’s the one with the heavy decorated apron, which he wears during dohyo-iri. And that’s the only type of mawashi which is not worn directly on the body. Rikishi are allowed to wear a fundoshi (see above) under the kesho-mawashi. This is especially important for the two rikishi who accompany a Yokozuna during his dohyo-iri. The Yokozuna kesho-mawashi come in sets of three, and as the attendants may vary, the same mawashi may be worn by different rikishi over time.
So what? You may be saying. It’s not as if they don’t wash the kesho-mawashi between uses…
Ah, no, they don’t.
Mawashi are never washed.
None of the mawashi I mentioned so far is ever washed. That’s a long standing tradition. Not washed. Not rinsed. Not dry-cleaned.
Those of you who watched the movie “A Normal Life” may raise their hands in objection. “But I saw Kyokutaisei in that movie washing mawashi”. No, as a matter of fact you haven’t. Go watch it again. He is only using the dryers, never the washers. Now let’s give a thought to the anonymous person who had to put his freshly washed laundry into that dryer after him. You’re welcome.
As a matter of fact, there are two occasions on which a mawashi may be washed. One is prior to the first use. The other is when the shisho – the stablemaster – dies.
So how are they cleaned? If a kesho-mawashi or a shimekomi is stained, stain-removers and/or damp cloth are used to remove the stains. Practice mawashi, which are made of coarse material, may gather a lot of mud. In that case, the rikishi may lay them flat and apply a deck brush to remove the caked mud. But that’s about it. If the stench becomes unbearable, since a mawashi is not very expensive, they may dispose of it and get a new one. You see sekitori do that more often than low-division rikishi.
Where do mawashi come from?
Rikishi can buy mawashi from the NSK. Yes, you read right. They buy them from their employer. The NSK keeps 100m rolls of mawashi cloth, which is 46cm wide, ready to dispense. A black low-division mawashi costs ¥800, and a white sekitori mawashi costs ¥950.
A shimekomi is a different story. Its price is in the range of ¥1,000,000. The money usually comes from supporters, same as kesho-mawashi. Most shimekomi are made by the same artisan, Mr. Nakagawa from Nagahama city, Shiga prefecture.
Yes, it’s a manual loom. Two men take turns at the loom in order to complete it in about 10 days. The busiest time is when new Juryo promotees are announced. They have to have the shimekomi ready in about a month, so basically his shop can’t handle more than three new promotees on the same banzuke.
If you ever wondered about the gold stripes that show up on some shimekomi, it’s his artisan’s mark. It’s not always visible.
How does one wear a mawashi?
Before you can wear it, it has to be properly folded. While a shimekomi is relatively soft silk, a practice mawashi is very similar to the fabric fire hoses are made of. First, you fold it in half, leaving 1cm at one edge, to allow for the width of the next fold. Then you create the crease, using the Sumo world’s equivalent of the Swiss Army knife – beer bottles.
It is then folded once more, creating 4 layers. Most of the length of the mawashi will remain 4-layered. However, the part that covers the family jewels is opened up, so it’s only two layers, and the part that goes between the buttocks is folded again into 8 layers. The 4-layered mawashi is rolled like a hose, flattened, and bound tightly with strings. Then a heavy item is placed on top, and you wait a night. You then need to crease the nether part and the part used for the tie on the back, and you are good to go.
Edit: here is a wonderful video from the NSK’s official YouTube channel, showing how a sekitori’s practice mawashi is prepared for its first use.
- Boiling: 30 minutes each side. It can be up to 3 hours total, depending on how soft the sekitori likes his mawashi.
- Compressing: 3 days.
So how do you wear it? You need assistance. And assistance with muscles, at that. Here is a beginner who found assistance in the form of Shikihide oyakata.
The difference between that and the sekitori way is that sekitori leave a longer part at the front, and where Shikihide tucked it sideways under the final layer, they leave it dangling, roll it up and tuck it in. This part is not in any danger of coming loose, being threaded through the layers like that, but the back side is entirely dependent on the strength of the tie. If it comes loose in mid-bout, you better hope your gyoji has the strength to fix it properly.
As a rule, professional rikishi take care to do their number 2 and wash the corresponding output port before they wear their mawashi. Then it’s time for practice. And then they take a bath and hang their mawashi out to dry, as you can see in the photo at the top of this article.
So what’s the story of the stolen mawashi?
So now that you know more or less all I know about mawashi, perhaps you’ll be as amazed as I was when I read this story.
A few weeks ago a worried passer-by knocked on the door at Takasago beya. He has witnessed a theft. Somebody has stolen one of the mawashi hanging out to dry on the heya’s outer fence.
The rikishi went out to investigate, and indeed, one mawashi was missing – Terasawa’s. Terasawa is one of Asanoyama’s tsukebito.
As it turns out, Takasago beya has surveillance cameras. The okamisan allowed the rikishi to check the footage, and indeed, the heist was recorded. A few minutes before 2PM, someone came in in a minivan, popped out, grabbed the mawashi, popped back into his minivan and disappeared.
The police was informed, but they could not find the lost mawashi. This was in the middle of honbasho, and Terasawa had to go and buy a new mawashi. The okamisan was generous enough to cover the expense.
Terasawa said he’ll miss the mawashi, which he has used ever since he joined the heya in 2018. But as it turns out, the mawashi itself was not the greatest loss. This being in the middle of honbasho, he had a lucky charm tucked into it. That lucky charm contained the cremated remains of a pet rabbit named Raruki, which he had when he was a kid. He used to have Raruki with him in his competitions since middle school.
Why would anyone stage a heist to steal a used mawashi? Not one belonging to anybody famous. Not an expensive shimekomi. Not a passer-by playing a prank to relieve boredom. Someone coming in a minivan to grab a piece of dirty, smelly, two-years-in-use coarse cotton which costs ¥800 new. That’s $7.50. Why?