A rare glimpse into the secretive world of sumo wrestling
In one of photographer David Sharabani's striking images, two sumo wrestlers face off beneath a roof resembling a Shinto shrine. In another photo, competitors are seen tossing salt high into the air to cleanse the ring; a third shows them with hands raised above their heads, a custom designed to prove that none are carrying weapons.
Sumo wrestling, which remains virtually unchanged since becoming a professional sport in early-17th-century Japan, is dictated by ritual and tradition. And as Sharabani discovered when he began shooting inside Tokyo's "beya" — a collection of stables in the city where wrestlers sleep, eat and train — it is also a world shrouded in secrecy.
"I think 90% of my time was spent trying to gain access, and 10% photographing," said Sharabani, who publishes his work under the name Lord K2, in a video interview from Tokyo. "It was a real challenge.
"They take their training very, very seriously," he added. "So, when I used to turn up, I was often rejected. But sometimes they allowed me to enter. When they did, I was allocated a place on the floor and told not to move from that position and to be very, very quiet."
His persistence paid off. The resulting images offer a rare glimpse of wrestlers stretching, grappling in practice bouts (known as sanban-geiko) and even being disciplined by superiors in the hierarchical stables. Other behind-the-scenes photos capture quieter moments: the hair of an unseen athlete being oiled and tied, or a line of "mawashi" — the heavy loincloths worn by all sumos — hanging to dry. Bruises, grazes and scratches speak to the unforgiving nature of the sport in which more serious injuries are also common.
Almost 100 of the images appear in the British photographer's newly published book, "Sumo." Unlike in conventional sports photography, Sharabani was more concerned with the culture surrounding sumo wrestling than the fights themselves. Even shots taken mid-tournament at Tokyo's 11,000-seat Kokugikan Arena draw viewers' eyes to the crowd and venue, not just the bouts unfolding in the ring.
"A sports photographer is mainly capturing the action... but for me, it's more about capturing the essence of the sport," said Sharabani.
"At times, it's good to catch the action, but I want to give readers the feeling of being in the stadia and stables, and to encapsulate the whole environment, including the crowd, the feelings and emotions around the events and the little nuances you often don't notice."
Tradition meets modernity
The rules of sumo wrestling are simple: Competitors win by forcing their opponent out of the "dohyo," a sand-covered circle on which bouts take place. Sharabani first encountered the sport when it was broadcast, albeit briefly, on a major British television channel in the late 1980s.
"I was really fascinated by the whole mystique around the costumes and customs," said the photographer, who has also produced a series about another combat sport, muay Thai.
Beginning his project in 2017, Sharabani often spent his time hanging around Tokyo's Ryogoku district, the sport's historic heart and where many of the city's sumo stables are still located. "If you spend the day there, you'll see 10 to 15 sumo wrestlers, on average, just walking around," he said.
Forbidden from expressing emotions during bouts, sumos are expected to maintain a humble demeanor in public, too. They are also prohibited from wearing modern clothing. As such, some of Sharabani's most eye-catching photos show the wrestlers going about their daily lives — visiting convenience stores or ordering food at McDonalds — in kimonos or loincloths, their hair tied into a topknot (a style they all wear until their hair is ceremoniously cut off upon retirement).
This visual contrast between modernity and tradition encapsulates sumo wrestling's role in Japan today. The sport's fixation on ritual has, in many ways, hindered its ability to modernize; women, for instance, are forbidden from taking part in major tournaments or even entering the stables. Sharabani also said the sport has resisted attempts to make events more fast-paced by reducing the time dedicated to various rituals.
"They don't want to change, but that may be (the sport's) strength," he added. "Sumo wrestling is very, very different from lots of Western sports where it's all action and there's not much waiting around. But I think when you wait so long to watch each bout that you appreciate it more."
Decline and revival
Sumo wrestling's popularity has waned in the modern era — a decline that reflects, among other things, a growing interest in baseball and soccer. But it has enjoyed something of revival in recent years, Sharabani said.
Currently, around one in five Japanese people describe sumo wrestling as their favorite professional sport, according to an annual survey carried out by Japanese data firm Central Research Services (CRS) — up from around 15% in 2011. Sharabani attributes this to effective PR campaigns and, as he writes in his book's foreword, a "push back against increasingly post-modern lifestyles."
Sharabani's images show the many ways sumo is still woven into the fabric of Japanese society, from street murals to a TV showing the sport at the back of a barbecue restaurant. He also turned his lens on the profession's future: the stables' aspiring young wrestlers, some of whom began training at the age of 5.
"The kids were in the stables because they had made a decision, or partly with their parents, to become professional sumo wrestlers," he said. "And it was very serious. They train hard, though only a small percentage will actually (make it) as wrestlers, no matter how good the technique is."
"Sumo," published by Ammonite Press, is available now in the UK and globally from March 2023.