The centuries-old world of traditional Japanese wrestling provides many insights for our rough-and-tumble world of business.
By Raju Thakrar
You might be surprised to learn that Japanese executives have always been huge fans of sumo. Not only is this because the sport is quintessentially Japanese, but it’s also due to the similarities between the sumo ring and the office. From the perspective of these high-level “salarymen”, the world of sumo and any single bout has the potential to teach them things that they can implement in their everyday work lives. These include dedication, the rewards for loyalty, thorough preparation, knowing your opponent, and treating others with respect. But Japanese executives are not the only people who can learn how sumo can improve their work lives – anyone working in a company can as well.
Keeping it in the family
Most recruits to a “sumo stable” – the name for the group where wrestlers live and train together – are on average 15 years old. Each stable is headed by a stable master and his wife, both of whom act as parental guides for the young sumo trainee.
Wrestlers belong to one stable their whole career. The stable repays their loyalty by investing a huge amount of time and money into ensuring they succeed as far as they can in the sport. Not only are the wrestlers given a roof over their heads and fed, but they are also provided with one-on-one instruction and welcomed into a system that looks after them throughout their career. Each wrestler, for example, is provided with a mentor who cares for them like a “big brother”.
It’s not an easy life being a sumo wrestler. But those young men who decide to dedicate their lives to it know that with hard work and determination, they could be rewarded with fame and glory – just like with business. This is the reason why young Japanese boys from poor, rural areas join: they want to better themselves. More recently, teenagers from Mongolia, a much poorer country than Japan with its own form of wrestling, have chosen to try their luck in the sumo world. Some of them have made it to the upper echelons of the sport.
Sharing the fruits of your success
No matter how successful a wrestler becomes, he never forgets that he belongs to a stable. Top-ranking wrestlers who are paid a monthly stipend have to share part of that with their stable. What’s more, whenever a wrestler wins prize money offered at a bout by sponsors – on occasion this can amount to thousands of pounds – the wrestler has to share the money with the rest of his stable.
When wrestlers reach the top ranks, it’s great PR for the stable, as it attracts wannabe wrestlers who believe that by joining the stable they too can one day become rich and famous. Talent is organically attracted to a successful stable. For example, Kokonoe stable, whose stable master was Chiyonofuji – one of the most famous wrestlers in recent years – now boasts more highly ranked wrestlers than any other stable in the sumo association.
A mindset of focus and mutual respect
Many sumo bouts only last for a few seconds. That means wrestlers prepare all day to be in the ring for a match that could be over in a blink of an eye. Preparation is thus key. In fact, wrestlers spend most mornings training all out so that they can win in tournaments and rise through the ranks. Chiyonofuji had these words of wisdom for wannabe sumo stars: “You must train to get stronger now but also to be stronger in three years from now”.
Even when they enter the ring, the bout does not immediately start. As part of a centuries-old ritual, the wrestlers normally face off four times before they actually charge full throttle at each other. This run-up period is where mind games are usually played, so much so that it’s often said that a bout’s outcome is decided at this stage. That’s why, as with business, keeping your cool is key in sumo. After the bout is over, win or lose, you are not allowed to show your feelings, out of respect for your opponent.
Sumo may have been around for hundreds of years, but some of the things that it can teach people are very much relevant to today’s corporate world: how companies can care for and reward their employees; how working hard on a daily basis can bring about long-lasting results; how business negotiations can change in an instant; and how, win or lose, respecting others is so important.
Which sport do you think best represents what an office environment is like?
Raju Thakrar is a consultant working at GR Japan, Japan’s leading government relations consultancy. He can be contacted via his LinkedIn page.