They almost got it right: they note that Sumo wrestlers are supposed to maintain “monkish” discipline, and there’s some real truth to that. (( Though also some exoticism, clearly. All athletes are supposed to forego some pleasures in order to maintain high levels of physical training. )) They also made a classic error: I actually left a comment, which I almost never do at the Times:
“Shinichi Suzukawa” is not his “real name” but his birth name. Sumo wrestlers take on a new name when they enter the sport, and many will take on another when they reach high rank. After they retire, they give up their fighting name and take on a new name, often one based on their stable or coach’s name.
The Japanese tradition is much more flexible than the Western tradition in regard to names.
The name thing and the “monkish discipline” are clear reminders that Sumo, though it’s been a part of the entertainment world for a long time, has its origins in Shinto ritual. The accoutrement of the referrees are drawn directly from priestly garb; the throwing of salt and stamping rituals for purification, etc.
There was a pretty substantial period — most of the Tokugawa era, really — where Sumo seems to have been somewhat divorced of these practices (though ukiyoe of bouts show the presiding referees clearly in traditional garb), and sumo wrestlers were more like free agents and daimyo retainers, but when the modern sport is formulated in the Meiji and Taisho eras, it is clearly resacralized, almost certainly as a result of the state-sponsored resurgence of Shinto and the desire to connect it to a reimagined family-state tradition.
The name changes, then, are also part of this religious tradition: the tradition of taking a new name when taking religious orders is well-known in Buddhism; the tradition of taking on a new name for a new stage in life, and the pseudo-kinship relationship between a stablemaster and his wrestlers also play a role.