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A really big thong...
The most notable feature about a sumo wrestler (a sumotori or rikishi), apart from the size of the man, is the mawashi. Looking somewhat like a very heavy thong, it is the only thing that separates the sumotori from the world. It comes in a variety of colours, but the material is usually1 silk.

In fact the mawashi is an approximately 9m * 0,6m (10 yd by 2 ft) silk cloth, folded numerous times, and wrapped around the rikishi's body. A slimmer rikishi does not get a proportionally shorter mawashi, which is why light-weight wrestlers like Ama and Kotooshu seem to have such bulky mawashi2.

It is said that the mawashi has determined the style of sumo. Many of the 82 kimarite (winning techniques) depend on the mawashi, as it is legal for the combattants to grip the mawashi during the bout, and use it to lift, hold, or pull the opponent. It is also permitted to grip any part of the body bar the throat and the private parts, but the mawashi does present the best and most secure handholds. It is strictly forbidden, though, to grab the vertical, frontal part of the mawashi, covering the "vitals".

If the mawashi starts to come undone during a bout, the gyoji can stop the match to let the wrestler fix the problem. If it unravels completely, the wrestler will lose the bout.

The sumotori in the lower ranks, below juryo, wear dark (green or blue) or black cotton mawashi. The higher ranks wear the coloured silk mawashi, each more or less his own, distinct colour3. One sumotori, Musashimaru wore an almost silvery grey mawashi; the Europeans Kokkai and Kotooshu wear light blue, and one of the few to wear clear green is Buyuzan. (The problem with determining colours on a TV-screen is, that what you see is not nessecarily the "true" colour). Yokozuna Asashoryu (the Grand Champion) wears black, but has fought a couple of bouts in gold. Otherwise the most popular colours are various shades of blue, lilac, and dark red.

Hanging from the mawashi are a number of strings, always between 17 and 21: the sagari. They are twined silk threads stiffened with glue, and they are not attached to the mawashi as such. They frequently get detatched during a bout, and you will often see the gyoji hasten to remove them from the dohyo. The sagari serve no real purpose, but are said to have been reminding the wrestlers which part of the body was a "no go". Now they are mostly seen as decoration.

  1. Wrestlers below juryo wear cotton mawashi. Juryo is the second highest division in sumo, makuuchi being the highest.
  2. Ama is now known as Harumafuji, and both he and Kotooshu has built up enough mass to actually "fill out" their mawashi.
  3. Only the colours black, dark blue, and purple are officially allowed, but the kyokai (Nihhon Sumo Kyokai or Japan Sumo Assosciation) overlook the transgressions, provided the colours do not get too close to white.

My sources are:
www.scgroup.com/sumo, www.sumo.or.jp/eng www.sumoforum.net/glossary.html

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