Sumo is a competitive contact sport where a wrestler (rikishi) attempts to force another wrestler out of a circular ring (dohyō) or to touch the ground with anything other than the soles of the feet. The sport originated in Japan, the only country where it is practiced professionally. The Japanese consider sumo a gendai budō (a modern Japanese martial art), though the sport has a history spanning many centuries. The sumo tradition is very ancient, and even today the sport includes many ritual elements, such as the use of salt for purification, from the days sumo was used in the Shinto religion. Life as a rikishi is highly regimented, with rules laid down by the Sumo Association. Professional sumo wrestlers are required to live in communal “sumo training stables” known in Japanese as heya where all aspects of their daily lives—from meals to their manner of dress—are dictated by strict tradition.
Origins of sumo
In addition to its use as a trial of strength in combat, it has also been associated with Shinto ritual, and even certain shrines carry out forms of ritual dance where a human is said to wrestle with a kami (a Shinto divine spirit). It was an important ritual at the imperial court. Representatives of each province were ordered to attend the contest at the court and fight. They were required to pay for their travels themselves. The contest was known as sumai no sechie, or “sumai party.”
Over the rest of Japanese recorded history, sumo’s popularity has changed according to the whims of its rulers and the need for its use as a training tool in periods of civil strife. The form of wrestling combat probably changed gradually into one where the main aim in victory was to throw one’s opponent. The concept of pushing one’s opponent out of a defined area came some time later.
Also, it is believed that a ring, defined as something other than simply the area given to the wrestlers by spectators, came into being in the 16th century as a result of a tournament organized by the then principal warlord in Japan, Oda Nobunaga. At this point wrestlers would wear loose loincloths, rather than the much stiffer mawashi of today. During the Edo period, wrestlers would wear a fringed kesho-mawashi during the bout, whereas today these are worn only during pre-tournament rituals. Most of the rest of the current forms within the sport developed in the early Edo period.
Professional sumo can trace its roots back to the Edo Period in Japan as a form of sporting entertainment. The original wrestlers were probably samurai, often ronin, who needed to find an alternative form of income. Current professional sumo tournaments began in the Tomioka Hachiman Shrine in 1684, and then were held in the Ekō-in in the Edo period. They have been held in the Ryōgoku Kokugikan since 1909, though the Kuramae Kokugikan had been used for the tournaments in the post-war years until 1984.
Nations adjacent to Japan, sharing many cultural traditions, also feature styles of traditional wrestling that bear resemblance to sumo. Notable examples include Mongolian wrestling, Chinese Shuai jiao, and Korean Ssireum. Examples of Chinese art from 220 BCE show the wrestlers stripped to the waist and their bodies pressed shoulder to shoulder.
Winning a sumo bout
The winner of a sumo bout is either:
- The first wrestler to force his opponent to step out of the ring.
- The first wrestler to force his opponent to touch the ground with any part of his body other than the bottom of his feet.
On rare occasions the referee or judges may award the win to the wrestler who touched the ground first; this happens if both wrestlers touch the ground at nearly the same time and it is decided that the wrestler who touched the ground second had no chance of winning as, due to the superior sumo of his opponent, he was already in an irrecoverable position. The losing wrestler is referred to as being shini-tai (“dead body”) in this case
There are also a number of other rarely used rules that can be used to determine the winner. For example a wrestler using an illegal technique (or kinjite) automatically loses, as does one whose mawashi (or belt) becomes completely undone. A wrestler failing to turn up for his bout (including through a prior injury) also automatically loses (fusenpai). After the winner is declared, an off-stage gyōji (or referee) determines the kimarite (or winning technique) used in the bout, which is then announced to the audience.
Matches often last only a few seconds, as usually one wrestler is quickly ousted from the circle or thrown to the ground. However, they can occasionally last for several minutes. Each match is preceded by an elaborate ceremonial ritual. The wrestlers themselves are renowned for their great girth, as body mass is often a winning factor in sumo, though with skill, smaller wrestlers can topple far larger opponents.
The wrestling ring (dohyō)
Sumo matches take place in a dohyō: a ring, 4.55 metres in diameter and 16.26 square meters in area, of rice-straw bales on top of a platform made of clay mixed with sand. A new dohyō is built for each tournament by the yobidashi. At the center are two white lines, the shikiri-sen, behind which the wrestlers position themselves at the start of the bout. A roof resembling that of a Shinto shrine may be suspended over the dohyō.
Professional sumo is organized by the Japan Sumo Association. The members of the association, called oyakata, are all former wrestlers, and are the only people entitled to train new wrestlers. All practicing wrestlers are members of a training stable (heya) run by one of the oyakata, who is the stablemaster for the wrestlers under him. Currently there are 54 training stables for about 700 wrestlers.
All sumo wrestlers take wrestling names called shikona, which may or may not be related to their real names. Often wrestlers have little choice in their name, which is given to them by their trainer (or stablemaster), or by a supporter or family member who encouraged them into the sport. This is particularly true of foreign-born wrestlers. A wrestler may change his wrestling name several times during his sumo career. The current trend is for more wrestlers, particularly native Japanese, to keep their own name rather than change it.
Sumo wrestling is a strict hierarchy based on sporting merit. The wrestlers are ranked according to a system that dates back hundreds of years, to the Edo period. Wrestlers are promoted or demoted according to their previous performance, and a carefully prepared banzuke listing the full hierarchy is published two weeks prior to each sumo tournament.
There are six divisions in sumo: makuuchi (maximum 42 wrestlers), jūryō (fixed at 28 wrestlers), makushita (fixed at 120 wrestlers), sandanme (fixed at 200 wrestlers), jonidan (approximately 230 wrestlers), and jonokuchi (approximately 80 wrestlers). Wrestlers enter sumo in the lowest jonokuchi division and, ability permitting, work their way up to the top division. Wrestlers in the top two divisions are known as sekitori, while lower division wrestlers are generally referred to by the generic term for wrestlers, rikishi.
The topmost makuuchi division receives the most attention from fans and has the most complex hierarchy. The majority of wrestlers are maegashira and are numbered from one (at the top) down to about sixteen or seventeen. Above the maegashira are the three champion or titleholder ranks, called the sanyaku. These are, in ascending order, komusubi, sekiwake, and ōzeki. At the pinnacle of the ranking system is the rank of yokozuna.
Yokozuna, or grand champions, are generally expected to compete for and to win the top division tournament title on a regular basis. Hence the promotion criteria for yokozuna are very strict. In general, an ōzeki must win the championship for two consecutive tournaments or an “equivalent performance” to be considered for promotion to yokozuna.
Exhibition competitions are held at regular intervals every year in Japan, and approximately once every two years the top ranked wrestlers visit a foreign country for such exhibitions. None of these displays are taken into account in determining a wrestler’s future rank. Rank is determined only by performance in Grand Sumo Tournaments (or honbasho), which are described in more detail below.
Professional sumo is practiced exclusively in Japan, but wrestlers of other nationalities participate. There are currently 55 wrestlers officially listed as foreigners. In July 2007, there were 19 foreigners in the top two divisions, an all-time record, and for the first time, a majority of wrestlers in the top sanyaku ranks were from overseas.
A Japanese-American, Toyonishiki, and the Korean-born Rikidōzan achieved sekitori status prior to World War II, but neither were officially listed as foreigners. The first non-Asian to achieve fame and fortune in sumo was Hawaii-born Takamiyama. He reached the top division in 1968 and in 1972 became the first foreigner to win the top division championship. He was followed by fellow Hawaii-born Konishiki, the first foreigner to reach the rank of ōzeki in 1987; and the native Hawaiian Akebono, who became the first foreign-born yokozuna in 1993. Musashimaru, born in Samoa but from Hawaii, became the second foreigner to reach sumo’s top rank in 1999. Both of the current yokozuna, Asashōryū and Hakuhō, are Mongolian. They are among a group of Mongolian wrestlers who have achieved success in the upper ranks. Wrestlers from Eastern Europe countries such as Georgia and Russia have also found success in the upper levels of sumo. In 2005 Kotoōshū from Bulgaria became the first wrestler of European birth to attain the ōzeki ranking and the first to win a top division championship. Until relatively recently, the Japan Sumo Association had no restrictions at all on the number of foreigners allowed in professional sumo. In May 1992, shortly after the Ōshima stable had recruited six Mongolians at the same time, the Sumo Association’s new director Dewanoumi, the former yokozuna Sadanoyama, announced that he was considering limiting the number of overseas recruits per stable and in sumo overall. There was no official ruling, but no stable recruited any foreigners for the next six years. This unofficial ban was then relaxed, but only two new foreigners per stable were allowed, until the total number reached 40.Then in 2002, a one foreigner per stable policy was officially adopted. (The ban was not retroactive, so foreigners recruited before the changes were unaffected). Though the move has been met with criticism, there are no plans to relax the restrictions at this time. However, it is possible for a place in a heya to be opened up if a foreign born wrestler acquires Japanese citizenship. This occurred when Hisanoumi changed his nationality from Tongan at the end of 2006, allowing another Tongan to enter his stable, and Kyokutenhō’s change of citizenship allowed Ōshima stable to recruit Mongolian Kyokushuho in May 2007.
Professional sumo tournaments
There are six Grand Sumo tournaments (or honbasho) each year: three at The Sumo Hall (or Ryōgoku Kokugikan) in Ryōgoku, Tokyo (January, May, and September), and one each in Osaka (March), Nagoya (July) and Fukuoka (November). Each tournament begins on a Sunday and runs for 15 days, ending also on a Sunday. Each wrestler in the top two divisions (sekitori) has one match per day, while the lower ranked rikishi compete in seven bouts, approximately one every two days.
Each day is structured so the highest-ranked contestants compete at the end of the day. Thus, wrestling will start in the morning with the jonokuchi wrestlers and end at around six o’clock in the evening with bouts involving the yokozuna, or the ōzeki in the case of the yokozuna’s absence. The wrestler who wins the most matches over the fifteen days wins the tournament championship (yūshō). If two wrestlers are tied for the top, they wrestle each other and the winner takes the title. Three-way ties for the top position are rare, at least in the top division. In these cases the three wrestle each other in pairs with the first to win two in a row taking the tournament. More complex systems for championship playoffs involving four or more wrestlers also exist, but these are usually only seen in determining the winner of one of the lower divisions.
The matchups for each day of the tournament are announced a day in advance. They are determined by oyakata (or sumo elders) who are members of the judging division of the Sumo Association. As there are many more wrestlers in each division than matchups during the tournament each wrestler will only compete against a selection of opponents, mostly from the same division. With the exception of the sanyaku ranked wrestlers the first bouts tend to be between wrestlers who are within a couple of ranks of each other. Afterwards the selection of opponents takes into account a wrestler’s prior performance. For example in the lower divisions the last matchups often involve undefeated wrestlers competing against each other, even if they are from opposite ends of the division. In the top division in the last few days wrestlers with exceptional records will often have matches against much more highly ranked opponents, including sanyaku wrestlers, especially if they are still in the running for the top division championship. Similarly more highly ranked wrestlers with very poor records may find themselves fighting wrestlers much further down the division. For the yokozuna and ōzeki the first week and a half of the tournament tends to be taken up with bouts against the top maegashira, the komusubi and sekiwake, with the bouts between them being concentrated into the last five days or so of the tournament (depending on the number of top ranked wrestlers competing). It is traditional that on the final day the last three bouts of the tournament are between the top six ranked wrestlers, with the top two competing in the very final matchup, unless injuries during the tournament prevent this.
There are certain match-ups that are prohibited in regular tournament play. Wrestlers who are from the same training stable cannot compete against each other, nor can wrestlers who are brothers, even if they join different stables. The one exception to this rule being that training stable partners and brothers can face each other in a championship deciding playoff match.
A top division wrestler will arrive at the stadium in the afternoon and enter the changing room. There are ‘East’ and ‘West’ rooms so competing wrestlers do not meet their opponents of the day prior to the match. The wrestler will change first into his kesho-mawashi, an ornate, embroidered silk ‘apron’, which he will wear during the ring entering ceremony, or dohyō-iri. There are four dohyō-iri on each day, two for jūryō and two for makuuchi division wrestlers. In each case there is a procession of those in the east changing room and one for those in the west. During the ceremony the wrestlers are introduced to the crowd one by one in ascending rank order and form a circle around the ring facing outwards. Once the highest ranked wrestler is introduced they turn inwards and perform a brief ritual before filing off and returning to their changing rooms. Yokozuna have a separate, more elaborate dohyō-iri.
Once in the changing room the wrestlers change into their fighting mawashi and await their bouts. The wrestlers reenter the arena two bouts prior to their own and sit down at the side of the ring. There are no weight divisions in sumo, and considering the range of body weights in sumo, an individual wrestler can sometimes face an opponent twice his own weight. When it is their turn they will be called into the ring by a yobidashi (announcer) and they will mount the dohyō.
On mounting the dohyō the wrestler performs a number of rituals derived from Shinto practice. Facing the audience, he claps his hands and then performs the leg-stomping shiko exercise to drive evil spirits from the dohyō as the gyōji, or referee, who will coordinate the bout announces the wrestlers’ names once more. Stepping out of the ring into their corners, each wrestler is given a ladleful of water, the chikara-mizu (“power water”), with which he rinses out his mouth; and a paper tissue, the chikara-gami (“power paper”), to dry his lips. Then both step back into the ring, squat facing each other, clap their hands, then spread them wide (traditionally to show they have no weapons). Returning to their corners, they each pick up a handful of salt which they toss onto the ring to purify it.
Finally the wrestlers crouch down at the shikiri-sen, or starting lines, each trying to stare the other down. When both wrestlers place both fists on the ground on or behind the shikiri-sen, they spring from their crouch for the tachi-ai (the initial charge). In the upper divisions, they almost never charge on the first occasion. Instead, after staring they return to their corners for more mental preparation. More salt is thrown whenever they step back into the ring. This can happen a number of times (about three, or even more in the case of the highest ranks) until on the last occasion the referee informs them they must start the bout. The total length of time for this preparation is around four minutes for the top division wrestlers, but in the lower divisions they are expected to start more or less immediately.
A professional sumo bout
At the tachi-ai both wrestlers must jump up from the crouch simultaneously at the start of the bout, and the referee can restart the bout if this does not occur. Upon completion of the bout, the referee must immediately designate his decision by pointing his gunbai or war-fan towards the winning side. The referee’s decision is not final and may be disputed by the five shimpan (judges) seated around the ring. If this happens they will meet in the center of the ring to hold a mono-ii (lit: a talk about things). After reaching a consensus they can uphold or reverse the referee’s decision or order a rematch, known as a torinaoshi. The wrestlers will then return to their starting positions and bow to each other before retiring. A winning wrestler may receive additional prize money in envelopes from the referee if the matchup has been sponsored. If a yokozuna is defeated by a lower ranked wrestler, it is common and expected for audience members to throw their seat cushions into the ring (and onto the wrestlers), though this practice is technically prohibited.
In contrast to the time in bout preparation, bouts are typically very short, usually less than a minute, and often only a few seconds. Extremely rarely a bout can go on for many minutes (up to four minutes), in which case the referee may call a mizu-iri or “water break“. The wrestlers are carefully separated, have a brief break and then return to the exact position they left off in. It is the referee’s responsibility to reposition the wrestlers. If after four more minutes they are still deadlocked they may have a second break, after which they start from the very beginning. Further deadlock with no end of the bout in sight can lead to a draw (hikiwake), an extremely rare result in modern sumo. The last draw in the top division was in September 1974.
The last day of the tournament is called senshuraku, which literally means the pleasure of a thousand autumns. This colorful name for the culmination of the tournament echoes the words of the playwright Zeami to represent the excitement of the decisive bouts and the celebration of the victor. The Emperor’s Cup is presented to the wrestler who wins the top division (makuuchi) championship. Numerous other (mostly sponsored) prizes are also awarded to him. These prizes are often rather elaborate, ornate gifts, such as giant cups, decorative plates, and statuettes. Others are obviously commercial, such as one trophy shaped like a giant Coca-Cola bottle.
Promotion and relegation are determined by a wrestler’s score over the 15 days. The term kachikoshi indicates a record having more wins than losses, as opposed to makekoshi, which indicates more losses than wins. In the top division, kachikoshi means a score of 8–7 or better, while makekoshi means a score of 7–8 or worse. A wrestler who achieves kachikoshi will almost always be promoted further up the ladder, the level of promotion being higher for better scores. See the makuuchi article for more details on promotion and relegation.
A top division wrestler who is not an ozeki or yokozuna and who finishes the tournament with kachikoshi is also eligible to be considered for one of the three sanshō prizes awarded for “technique” (ginōshō), “fighting spirit” (kantōshō), and for defeating the most yokozuna and ozeki (shukunshō), sometimes referred to as “outstanding performance”.