Geisha And Sumo: Turning Away From Tradition
September 14, 2013

Geisha And Sumo: Turning Away From Tradition

Both sumo wrestling and geisha are famous icons of the historic culture of Japan, although admittedly from completely opposite ends of the gender spectrum. But, despite being very different pursuits, they have severely dwindling numbers and a lack of enthusiasm to sign up from younger Japanese people in common.

I heard there are now fewer than 2000 geisha in Japan compared with 80,000 in the 1920s. This may be because for the male clients there are now just too many entertainment distractions and getting a fan waved at you isn’t as entertaining as, say, playing Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance on the PS3 and Xbox 360. It may also be due to long-time trouble in Japan’s economy and the fact that the geisha community never fully recovered from the disruption of World War II. But it’s also partly explained by the reluctance of Japanese girls and women to give up their young lives to an extremely strict and disciplined profession.

Once upon a time, geisha were so concerned to keep their hair in perfect styling at all times that they slept on a pillow that only supported their neck, leaving their head untouched. They would have rice put around the base of the pillow, so that if their heads slipped the sticky rice would end up in their hair, giving them what they deserve for being so sloppy. They used to have their virginity sold to the highest bidder as well, which isn’t ideal. Such brutal days have gone, but it’s still a world that a girl would have to think very carefully about entering.

The same problem applies to sumo wrestling (the tough professional environment, not having their virginity sold of course). A young man would have to think long and hard if he would want to put himself through the gruelling and regimented lifestyle of a sumo wrestler. Japan hasn’t had a yokozuna (sumo grand master and champion – the best of the best) since the year 2000. Of the four since then, three were from Mongolia, including the two current yokozunas, Hakuho Sho and Harumafuji Kōhei, and one from Hawaii. Another high ranking wrestler (an ozeki, the second highest rank behind yokozuna) is Bulgarian Kotoōshū Katsunori.

Sumo wrestlers will spend a lot of years cleaning their seniors’ jockstraps before they are finally allowed to enter into the spotlight.

All of this does sort of beg the question of why everything has to be so intense. Part of this is a traditional Japanese propensity towards that sort of thing; especially the master/apprentice relationship which is an extension of the great respect shown to elders by younger people in Japan. And of course it is good to perfect one’s craft, whether is the performing of tea ceremonies, refined conversation and the arts, or trying to heave an incredibly huge guy around a wrestling ring. One more reason in the case of geisha might be that the intense qualification justifies the price paid for their company, which in turn serves to keep them exclusive to only certain higher-level sections of society.

But it seems that for most young Japanese people in this day and age, it’s simply too much to ask.

Image Credit: J. Henning Buchholz /

Facebook Twitter Pinterest Plusone Digg Reddit Stumbleupon Email


John is a freelance writer from the UK, currently living in Japan and thoroughly enjoying their food and whiskey. His first novel, Three Little Boys, and his travel book, Following Football, are currently available on

Send John an email