Japanese Name
Kanji 相撲
Hiragana すもう
A Sumo match (Ozeki Kaio vs. Tamanoshima in May 2005).

Sumo (相撲 Sumō), or Sumo wrestling, is today a competition contact sport wherein two wrestlers or rikishi face off in a circular area. The sport is of Japanese origin and is surrounded with many rituals. The Japanese consider Sumo a gendai budō: a modern Japanese martial art.

The Sumo tradition is very ancient, and even today the sport includes many ritual elements from when Sumo was used in the Shinto religion.


Winning a Sumo bout

There are two principal ways to win a Sumo bout:

  1. The first wrestler to touch the ground with any other part of his body than the soles of his feet will lose.
  2. The first wrestler to touch the ground outside the circle will lose.

On rare occasions the referee or judges can determine that the wrestler touching first wins as the other wrestler was in an irrecoverable position (so called "dead body" or shini-tai).

There are also a number of rarer methods, for example a wrestler using an illegal technique (or kinjite) automatically loses, as does one whose mawashi becomes completely undone. A wrestler failing to turn up for his bout (including through a prior injury) also automatically loses (fusenhai).

Matches usually last only seconds, as one wrestler is quickly ousted from the circle or thrown to the clay. Each match is preceded by an elaborate ceremonial ritual. The sportsmen themselves are renowned for their great girth, as body mass is a factor in Sumo.

The wrestling ring or dohyō

Sumo matches take place in a ring called a dohyō. The dohyō is made of a mixture of clay and sand spread over the top. It is between 34 and 60 cm high. The circle in which the match takes place is 4.55 meters in diameter and bounded by rice-straw bales called tawara, which are buried in the clay. At the center are two white lines, the shikiri-sen, which the rikishi must position themselves behind at the start of the bout. Around the ring is finely brushed sand called the snake's eye, which can be used to determine if a wrestler has just touched his foot, or other part of his body, outside the ring. The yobidashi ensure it is clean of any previous marks immediately prior to each bout.

Missing image
Sumo at the Great Amphitheatre in Veddo, as illustrated in a 1867 publication Sketches of Japanese Manners and Customs, available at Project Gutenberg

Origins of Sumo

Like many forms of wrestling around the world, the roots of Sumo are lost in prehistory. Sumo is mentioned in some of the earliest texts in Japan, under its earlier name Sumai, from the 8th century A.D. However, these early forms would not be Sumo as it is known today, as in many cases the wrestling had relatively few rules and unarmed fights to the death were still referred to as 'Sumo'.

In addition to its use as a trial of strength in combat, it has also been associated with Shinto ritual, and even today certain shrines carry out forms of ritual dance where a human ceremonially wrestles with a kami (a shinto 'spirit' or 'god'). It was an important ritual at the imperial court. Reprentatives of each provinces were ordered to attend the contest at the court and fought. They needed to cost their travel by themselves. The contest was called Sumai no sechie (Party of Sumai).

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 your opponent. The concept of pushing him out of a limited defined arena came later.

It is believed that a ring, defined by more than the area given to the wrestlers by spectators, came into being in the 16th century as a result of a tournament organised by the then principal warlord in Japan Oda Nobunaga, but at this point wrestlers would wear loose loincloths, rather than the much stiffer mawashi of today. Much of the rest of the development came in the early Edo period to give the sport its current form.

Worth noting is that nations adjacent to Japan, sharing cultural traits and have common history, also features traditional wrestling that is very similar to sumo. Notable examples are Korea and Mongolia. The current Yokozuna, Asashoryu is of Mongolian birth.

Professional Sumo

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.

Currently professional Sumo is organised 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 practising 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.

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 Banzuke listing the full hierarchy is published two weeks prior to each sumo tournament.

There are six divisions in sumo: Makuuchi (fixed at 42 wrestlers), Juryo (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 Makuuchi division. Only wrestlers in the top two divisions are salaried, and they are called sekitori (to have taken the barrier). Wrestlers in the lower divisions are regarded as being in training and receive a subsistence allowance, in return for which they must perform various chores in their training stable.

Some of the better known currently active Sumo wrestlers are listed elsewhere.

The topmost Makuuchi division has a number of ranks within it. The majority of wrestlers are Maegashira and are numbered from one (at the top) down to about sixteen or seventeen. Each rank is further subdivided into East and West, with east being slightly more prestigious. Thus, Maegashira two east is ranked below Maegashira one west and above Maegashira two west. Above the Maegashira are the champion or titleholder ranks, called the Sanyaku. These are, in ascending order, Komusubi, Sekiwake, Ozeki and, at the pinnacle of the ranking system, Yokozuna.

Yokozuna, or grand champions, are wrestlers who generally are regularly in competition to win the top division tournament title near the end of a tournament. As such, the promotion criteria are very strict. In general, an Ozeki must win the championship for two consecutive tournaments (or an equivalent performance) to be promoted. More details of the criteria can be found in the article on Yokozuna.

It is a rank held at the moment by only one man, Asashoryu. Other recent Yokozuna include Akebono, Musashimaru and Takanohana, who retired in January 2003. In the previous decade, Yokozuna Chiyonofuji retired after winning an astonishing 31 tournaments. That's nearly as many as Akebono and Takanohana won together. Once a wrestler has been promoted to Yokozuna, he can never again be subject to demotion and is expected to retire on his own initiative if he cannot perform to Yokozuna standards.

There are also special promotion criteria for Ozeki. Usually at least 33 wins are required over three tournaments as a Sekiwake/Komusubi with special attention paid to the most recent tournament record.

All sumo wrestlers take wrestling names called shikona (しこ名), 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. For more information, see Japanese name.

Professional Sumo is practiced exclusively in Japan, where it originated, but wrestlers of other nationalities participate. The first foreigner to win the top division championship was Takamiyama in the 1970s. He was followed by Konishiki who won the top division title on three occasions, and reached the rank of Ozeki. In 1993 Akebono became the first foreign born Yokozuna. These three former wrestlers were all born in Hawaii. Former Yokozuna Musashimaru was the second foreigner to reach sumo's top rank and was born in Samoa. The current Yokozuna Asashoryu is Mongolian and is presently (in 2004) the dominant force in the sport. Asashoryu heads a small group of Mongolian wrestlers who have achieved Sekitori status. Furthermore, recently wrestlers from Korea and several former Soviet and Soviet bloc countries have also found success in the upper levels of Sumo. There are currently 59 wrestlers officially listed as foreigners.

Approximately once every two years the top ranked wrestlers visit a foreign country to give a display competition. Such display competitions are also regularly held in Japan. 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. For 2005, the Sumo Association will be making such a display in Las Vegas in early October.

Professional Sumo tournaments

The sumo hall of Ryogoku in Tokyo during the May, 2001 tournament.
The sumo hall of Ryogoku in Tokyo during the May, 2001 tournament.

There are six Grand Sumo tournaments each year: three in Tokyo, and one each in Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka. Tournaments are held every other month starting in January. Each tournament begins on a Sunday and runs for 15 days, ending also on a Sunday. Each sekitori ranked wrestler 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 are matched up 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. The wrestler who wins the most matches over the fifteen days wins the tournament championship. If two rikishi 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 Makuuchi 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 rikishi also exist, but these are usually only seen in determining the winner of one of the lower divisions.

A Makuuchi rikishi 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 opponent of the day prior to the match. He will change first into his kesho-mawashi, an ornate, embroidered silk 'apron', which he will wear during the ring entering ceremony, or dohyo-iri. There are four dohyo-iri on each day, two for Juryo and two for Makuuchi ranked wrestlers. In each case there is one for those in the east changing room and one for those in the west. During the ceremony the rikishi 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 room. Yokozuna have a separate dohyo-iri; see Yokozuna.

Once in the changing room the wrestlers change into their fighting mawashi and await their bout. The wrestlers enter the arena again two bouts prior to their own and sit down at the side of the ring. When it is their turn they will be called into the ring by a yobidashi and they will mount the dohyo. The referee or gyoji will coordinate the bout. On mounting the dohyo the rikishi performs a number of ritual moves involving leg stomps and clapping whilst facing out towards the audience. He also cleans his mouth out with so-called chikara-mizu or power water. He then throws some salt into the ring to purify it. The rikishi perform another brief ritual when facing each other and then adopt a crouch position to "charge" at each other (called the tachi-ai). The wrestlers do not need to charge on the first occasion but can instead stare and return to their corner. This can happen a number of times (about four) until on the last occasion the gyoji informs them they must start the bout. The total length of time of this preparation and attempts to psyche themselves or opponents is four minutes for all rikishi, but in the lowest divisions the wrestlers are expected to start more or less immediately.

At the tachi-ai both rikishi must jump up from the crouch simultaneously at the start of the bout, and the gyoji can restart the bout if this does not occur. Once the bout is complete the gyoji will point his gunbai or war-fan towards the winning side. The rikishi will return to their start positions and bow to each other before retiring, a winning rikishi may receive additional prize money in envelopes from the gyoji if the matchup has been sponsored. For all matches, there are five shimpan (judges) around the ring who can query the referee's decision. If this happens they will meet in the centre of the ring to hold a mono-ii (lit: a talk about things). After reaching a decision they can uphold or reverse the gyoji's decision or order a rematch, known as a torinaoshi (lit: to take and fix).

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, in which case the gyoji 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 gyoji's responsibility to do this. If after a further few minutes they are still deadlocked they can have a second break, after which they start from the very beginning. Further deadlock can lead to a draw, which is an exceptionally rare result.

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 rikishi 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.

Promotion and demotion 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 Makuuchi 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 size of promotion being higher for better scores. Similarly, makekoshi almost always results in a demotion. In the sanyaku ranks simple kachikoshi are usually not sufficient to be promoted. Rikishi in this highly competitive subgroup of the highest division usually require at least nine out of fifteen possible wins to gain in rank. There are special rules for Ozeki and Yokozuna promotions (see above).

A top division wrestler who is not an Ozeki or Yokozuna and who finishes the tournament with kachikoshi is also eligible to receive one of the three sanshō prizes awarded for technique (ginōshō), fighting spirit (kantōshō), and for the defeating the most Yokozuna and Ōzeki (shukunshō).

Life as a professional Sumo wrestler

Unlike most sports Sumo is a highly controlled way of life. The Sumo Association can prescribe the behaviour of its wrestlers in a way that would be more commonly associated with life in a commune. For example in the wake of a serious car accident involving a senior rikishi the association banned wrestlers from driving their own cars.

Sumo wrestlers can be identified immediately when in public. On entering sumo, the rikishi are expected to grow their hair long to form a topknot, or chonmage, similar to the samurai hairstyles of the Edo Period. Furthermore they are expected to wear traditional Japanese dress when in public.

The type and quality of the dress depends on the wrestler's rank. Rikishi in Jonidan and below are allowed to wear only a thin cotton robe called a yukata, even in winter. Furthermore they must wear a form of wooden sandals called geta when outside. These make a clip-clop sound as one walks in them. Wrestlers in the Makushita and Sandanme divisions can wear a form of traditional short overcoat over their yukata and are allowed to wear straw sandals, called zori. The sekitori can wear silk robes of their own choice and the quality of the garb is significantly improved. They also are expected to wear a more elaborate form of topknot on formal occasions.

Similar distinctions are made in stable life. The junior rikishi must get up earliest, around 5 a.m., for training whereas the sekitori may start around 7 a.m. When the sekitori are training the junior rikishi may have chores to do, such as assisting in cooking the lunch, cleaning and preparing the bath, or holding a sekitori's towel for him for when he needs it. The ranking hierarchy is preserved for the order of precedence in bathing after training, and in eating lunch.

Rikishi are not normally allowed to eat breakfast and are expected to have a nap after a large lunch. This regime helps rikishi put on weight so as to compete more effectively.

In the afternoon the junior rikishi will again usually have cleaning or other chores to do, while their sekitori counterparts may relax, or deal with work related issues related to their fan club. In the evening sekitori may go out with their sponsors while juniors stay at home in the stable, unless they are to accompany the stablemaster or a sekitori as his manservant when he is out (this is normally a more privileged role given to a rikishi who may be nearing sekitori status himself).

Sekitori also are given their own room in the stable or, if married, may live in their own apartment. The junior rikishi sleep in communal dormitories.

Thus the world of the Sumo wrestler splits broadly into the junior rikishi who serve and the sekitori who are served upon. Life is especially harsh for new recruits, to whom the worst jobs tend to be allocated, and there is a high dropout rate at this stage.

The negative effects of the rikishis lifestyle becomes dangerously apparent later in life. Sumo wrestlers have a life expectancy of between 60 and 65, more than 10 years less than the average Japanese male. They often develop chronic diabetes and high blood pressure, and are prone to heart attacks. The excessive intake of alcohol leads to liver problems and the stress on their joints causes arthritis. Recently, the standards of weight gain are becoming less strict, to try and increase the health of Japans greatest heroes[1] ([2] (

Amateur Sumo

In addition, Sumo is an amateur sport, with participants in college, high school and grade school in Japan. In addition to college and school tournaments, there are also open amateur tournaments. The sport at this level is stripped of most of the ceremony. The most successful amateur wrestlers in Japan (usually college champions) can be allowed to enter professional sumo at Makushita (third division) rather than from the very bottom of the ladder. This rank is called Makushita Tsukedashi, and is currently between Makushita 15 and 16. Many of the current Makuuchi rikishi entered professional Sumo by this route.

There is also an International Sumo Federation, who encourage the sports development worldwide, including holding international championships. A key aim of the federation is to have Sumo recognized as an Olympic sport.

External links

ar:سومو ca:Sumo de:Sumō es:Sumo (arte marcial) eo:Sumoo fr:Sumo ia:Sumo he:סומו ja:相撲 os:Сумо pl:Sumo pt:Sumo simple:Sumo wrestling zh:相扑


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