A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Can sumos retract their testicles inside their bodies?

October 22, 1982

Dear Cecil:

You have to confirm for me and some friends something I have heard recently about those strange humans, sumo wrestlers. I have been told that they have this peculiar talent of willing their testicles to ascend into their bodies. Is this really true? How do they do it? Just the thought makes me double over.

Dear George:

Don't think about it, because it's all guano. My source on this is a sumo promoter in Hawaii who frequently has occasion to visit the locker rooms of professional sumos in Japan, and I've also checked it out with an experienced amateur sumo.

What we have here is one of the great barroom legends. Where it got started nobody knows, but it was greatly popularized some years ago by Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, in You Only Live Twice, which was set in Japan.

In the novel, Bond gets to watch a practice battle by some apprentice commandos, who ferociously kick each other in the cojones without anyone appearing to feel pain. Later, the inscrutable head of the Japanese secret service, Tiger Tanaka, tells Bond that starting at the age of 14, junior sumos are taught that by "assiduously massaging" the appropriate organs, they can eventually cause the testicles to reenter the body via the inguinal canal, from which they originally descended. In my Catholic grade school, in contrast, we were told doing this would cause hairy palms and blindness. Just shows you the vast cultural gulf that separates us from the Orient.

Anyway, Tanaka goes on to say that before a match, sumos retract their testicles and bind them up thoroughly to prevent injury. Afterward in the bath they release them to hang normally.

One hundred percent BS, as I say, although that didn't stop Playboy from repeating it a while back. The only thing sumo wrestlers do to protect their vitals is bind themselves up tightly with a loincloth. This pushes the testicles just slightly back up the inguinal canal. That's quite enough, because the fact is that sumo is not an especially vicious sport. Hitting below the belt is forbidden, as is the use of fists or karate chops. You also can't kick your opponent in the chest or belly. It's illegal even to touch the mae-tatemitsu, the portion of the sumo jockstrap that covers the nether regions.

The idea in sumo is not to bludgeon the other guy into submission but simply to either (a) make him touch the ground with a part of his body other than his feet, or (b) force him out of the ring. Although the preliminaries can drag on for quite a while, once a match gets underway, it's over in an average of ten seconds.

All this is not to say that willing your testicles to ascend into your body is physiologically impossible. Various of our little four-legged buddies, such as moles, shrews, and hedgehogs, do it routinely.

In humans the testes are suspended from the cremasteric muscle, which is controlled by the autonomic (involuntary) nervous system. This muscle raises and lowers the testicles as necessary to keep the temperature-sensitive sperm at a constant simmer. Under certain stimuli, such as a cold shower or, more entertainingly, a gentle stroking on the inside of the upper thigh, the "cremasteric reflex" takes over and the testes are partially retracted into the body.

It's been shown that automatic functions such as blood pressure can be consciously controlled through yoga and the like, and presumably the same could be done with the testicles. Not that it'd be all that helpful as a means of protecting yourself--you'd still be vulnerable to a well-placed jolt to the groin, and besides, it's hard to conduct an authentically terrifying fistic offense while in a yoga trance state. Personally I prefer to repose my trust in the dependable plastic products of the Bike company, and if you know what's good for you, you will too.

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