Sumō (相撲) is a unique form of wrestling with a 2,000-year-old history that easily qualifies as the national sport of Japan. Sumō became a professional sport almost 300 years ago in the early part of the Edo Period (1600-1868), and although it is practiced today by clubs in high schools, colleges, and amateur associations, it has its greatest appeal as a professional spectator sport, though no longer able to rival baseball or football in popularity.
At first glance, sumō seems to be odd: two massive giants, almost naked and apparently without an ounce of lean muscle between them for all their astonishing size and weight, climb up onto a cement-hard ring climb. The next four minutes are spent in a bewildering ritual of stamping, squatting, puffing, glowering, tossing salt in the air, and seemingly going nowhere. Suddenly, they charge each other in unison like two football tackles. An audible thud, a frantic tussle, and both inexplicably fly out of the ring and into the laps of the cheering audience. Elapsed time: eight seconds. A winner is declared by a referee dressed in the court costume of a fourteenth-century nobleman brandishing a warrior’s war fan (軍配団扇 gumbai-uchiwa). Without a pause two more giants stomp into the ring and the procedure is repeated.
This is not the sort of sport to which most Westerners are accustomed, and yet it is Westerners who often become the most avid fans of one of the world’s great spectator sports, rich with tradition, pageantry, and elegance and filled with action, excitement, and heroes, dedicated to an outstanding standard of excellence and detail.
The world of professional sumō is so complex and filled with fascinating details that it is challenging indeed to givea concise and comprehensive explanation. The following are some of the institutions whose influence plays an important part in shaping its unique character. The adjective “modern” is used because although sumō may appear to be totally medieval in every respect, it has changed constantly throughout its long history and continues to do so.
The Dohyō (土俵) or Ring
Hardly a ring in the Western sense, the dohyō is a 54-centimetre high, 5.45-metre square mound of special clay packed hard and sprinkled with sand. The borders of this mound are defined by the tops of 28 bales made of straw bags filled with earth and sunk in the clay during construction. Another 20 bales are similarly sunk in the center to form a circle 4.55 metres in diametres. In the middle of the circle are two white lines about 90 centimetress (3 ft) long, which face each other about 120 centimetres (4 ft) apart. These are the shikirisen (仕切り線, literally, “dividing lines”), where the two wrestlers meet to glower at each other during their psychological buildup for the match. And it is from the shikirisen that they finally leap at each other in the tachiai (initial charge). Over the dohyō hangs a roof (屋形 yakata) designed in a Shintō style of architecture called shimmei-zukuri (神明造). In Edo times when sumō was performed outdoors, the yakata served a functional purpose of weather protection and was supported at its four comers by coloured pillars representing the four seasons, against which the four judges sat. Now the two-ton yakata is slung from the ceiling by steel cables for better viewing, and the pillars have been
replaced by four huge silk tassels (fusa), green for spring, red for summer, white for autumn, black for winter.
The Object of a Sumō Match
A wrestler wins by forcing his opponent out of the center circle or by causing him to touch the surface of the dohyō with any part of his body other than the soles of his feet. To decide who has stepped out or touched down first is often extremely difficult and requires the closest attention of a referee (行司 gyōji) on the dohyō and judges (審判 shimpan) sitting around the dohyō at floor level. Judges are all former wrestlers and members of the Japan Sumō Association (日本相撲協会 Nihon Sumō Kyōkai).
The Japan Sumō Association, the governing body of professional sumō, officially lists seventy winning techniques consisting of assorted throws, trips, lifts, thrusts, shoves, and pulls. Of these, 48 are considered the “classic” techniques but the number in actual daily use is probably half of that. Kicking or punching with a closed fist are not allowed, but a thrusting slap (突っ張り tsuppari) delivered toward the chest-throat region is. Most wrestlers settle on six to eight techniques for their fighting repertoire, with emphasis on two or three that become their ring specialities. There are always a few, known as “technicians,” who keep a much wider arsenal of attacks and counterattacks at their command. Unlike Western professional wrestling, in sumō; ring decorum and sportmanship are of the highest importance.
There are many elements that set sumō apart fromother forms of wrestling, and perhaps the most significant is the use of a belt or belly band called a mawashi (廻し). Ten to thirteen metres long, depending on its owner’s girth, and 80 centimetres wide, the mawashi is first folded over six times to a width of about 13 centimetres, looped over the groin as a breechclout, then wrapped tightly around the waist (about five times) and knotted in the rear. Practice mawashi are made of cotton, blue for beginners, white for high-ranked seniors. During tournaments wrestlers in the two top divisions wear mawashi made of silk or satin costing several hundred thousand yen or more. Once limited to navy blue, purple, or black, the colors of these tournament mawashi are now brightly varied. The lower four divisions are limited to dark blue cotton.
Most sumō matches center on the wrestlers’ attempts to get a firm, two-handed grip on their opponent’s mawashi while blocking him from getting a similar grip on theirs. With the right grip they then have the leverage to execute a throw, trip, or lift. Wrestlers who are “good at the belt” usually enjoy the longest and most successful careers in sumō.
During tournaments, but not in practice, a curious string apron (下がり sagari) is also worn tucked into the front folds of the mawashi, from whence it falls frequently in the heat of the fray. The “strings” of the sagari are actually 40-centimetres lengths of silk, twisted and starched. There are usually 19 such strands – or 17 or 21 depending on a wrestler’s whim – but never an even number, for the sagari is patterned after the sacred rope (標縄 or 注連縄 or 七五三縄 shimenawa) that hangs before a Shintō shrine to ward off evil. There is nothing in sumō that does not have some very special significance.
Traditionally, sumō has drawn most recruits from the rural communities of the poorer prefectures, in particular from the Tōhoku Region and Hokkaidō. Young men from a poor farm or fishing village are believed to be prepared for the hard knocks and spartan discipline typical of sumō life. In the past, such recruits might be as young as thirteen, with no particular limits on height or weight. Now they are usually fifteen or have finished middle school and should be 173 centimetres tall and weigh 75 kilograms to pass the Japan Sumō Association’s acceptance examination.
Wrestlers grow to an average height of 183 centimetres and an average weight of 137 kilograms, with successful exceptions running from as light as 110 kilograms to as heavy as 200 kilograms. Most wrestlers retire from this rigorous sport in their early thirties, which is not surprising, considering that they start in their mid-teens.
In the early 1980s, the total number of wrestlers officially listed by the Japan Sumō Association hovers around 700 – up about 150 from the early 1970s. This growth surprises even members of the association, who assume that the alternatives offered by Japan’s increasingly affluent society would dim the luster of the distant rewards that might be made possible by a difficult and demanding career in sumō. And though it is true that some of the harsher aspects of sumō life have been deliberately softened in recent years.
While sumō is only practised in Japan, one current trend is the participation of foreign nationals in the sport. Until recently, less than five dozen foreign rikishi were listed by the Japan Sumō Association, with a record nineteen foreigners in the two top divisions in July 2007. The recent yokozuna Asashōryū and Hakuhō both hail from Mongolia, and many other foreign wrestlers come from Hawaii or Eastern Europe. The Bulgarian sumō wrestler Kotoōshū reached the rank of ōzeki in 2005 and was the first European to win an Emperor’s Cup. Until 2002, each heya was restricted to only two foreign wrestlers, but the rules have gradually become more rigorous, only allowing one foreign national per stable. As of 2010, only one “foreign-born” wrestler can be recruited, a regulation targeting naturalized foreigners.
Divisions and Ranks
Some 700 wrestlers in professional sumō are organized into a large pyramid. Progress from the ranks of beginners at the bottom to the grand champion’s pinnacle at the top depends entirely on ability: winners ascend, losers descend. The speed with which a wrestler rises or falls depends entirely on his win-loss record at the end of each tournament. Based on this, his ranking is calculated for the next tournament and then written with his name and those of other wrestlers in Chinese characters on a graded list called the banzuke (番付). The names of the highest rankers are written large and those of the lowest in very small letters. The pretournament posting of the banzuke is one of the great and often bitter moments of truth in sumō.
Not included on the banzuke are the names of the young apprentices of pre-sumō (前相撲 maezumō). Here are the six official divisions of the banzuke listed in order from bottom to top with literal translations of their names.
- Jonokuchi (序の口), “the beginning” and the lowest rank in the division
- Jonidan (序二段), “the second step”
- Sandanme (三段目), “the third step”
- Makushita (幕下), “below the curtain”
- Jūryō (十両), lit. “ten ryō” (an old unit of coinage), meaning “junior wrestler”
- Makuuchi (幕内) “within the curtain”
Unlike the other divisions, the number of wrestlers in jūryō is presently fixed at 26, the makushita at 38. The makuuchi division is broken down internally in another set of rankings starting at the bottom with maegashira (前頭), “senior wrestler” (lit. “those ahead”), which includes about 24 to 28 wrestlers in all. Next up are komusubi (小結), “champion third-class” (lit. “little knot”), sekiwake (関脇), “champion second-class,” ōzeki (大関), “champion,” and yokozuna (横綱), “grand champion.” There are usually about ten wrestlers in the champion ranks, varying from tournament to tournament, depending on promotions, demotions, injuries, and withdrawals. The three ranks of komusubi, sekiwake, and ōzeki are called sanyaku (三役).
For purposes of competition, all divisions are divided into East-West camps on the banzuke. For example, a wrestler’s position for one tournament might be listed as “West, maegashira 10.” If he did well, he might be promoted to “East, maegashira 5″ in the next tournament. But if he did badly, he would probably descend back down into the jūryō division. Anyone with a losing record is liable to demotion except the yokozuna, whose rank is permanent. However, a yokozuna who cannot maintain a certain level of championship performance is expected to retire.
Only wrestlers in the top two divisions, jūryō and makuuchi receive salaries. They also enjoy many other distinctions such as the
title sekitori (関取, “top-ranking wrestler”) and the right to have their long, oiled hair combed into the elegant ōichomage (大銀杏髷, ginkgo-leaf top-knot) during
The world of sumō sports a plethora of ceremonies, all of which must be performed precisely down to the last detail. One of them is known as the yokozuna dohyō iri (横綱土俵入り, “the ring entrance of the grand champions”) displaying all the splendour of their success. Before the jūryō and makuuchi division matches, a much simpler ring-entrance ceremony is performed. First, the wrestlers representing the East file down their hanamichi (花道, “flower way”) aisle wearing their richly embroidered and very expensive keshō-mawashi (化粧廻し, ornamental aprons). A referee calls out the name of each wrestler as he mounts the ring and parades around the center rope circle to stop, facing the audience. When all are on the dohyō, they turn at a signal, face in, clap their hands, raise their aprons slightly with both hands, throw up their hands, and file out, followed immediately by wrestlers from the West, filing down their hanamichi and onto the dohyō to perform the same ceremony. Right after this, the jūryō matches begin.
After the makuuchi dohyō iri (幕内土俵入り), the yokozuna procession comes down the East em>hanamichi led by the top-ranked referee, who only officiates at yokozuna bouts. Next comes a herald, the tsuyuharai (露払い, “dew-sweeper”), then the yokozuna, then his tachimochi (太刀持ち, “swordbearer”), carrying a splendidly mounted ceremonial sword. The tsuyuharai and tachimochi must be makuuchi wrestlers and, if possible, from the same heya (部屋, stable) as the yokozuna. All three wear matching keshō-mawashii woven in heavy silk, rich with colorful designs accented with gold and silver threads. A sum of more than five million yen is often paid for a fine keshō-mawashii, but they are given gladly by members of the kōenkai (後援会, supporters group or fan club) of the wrestler or his heya.
Knotted around the yokozuna‘s waist is a huge white rope, the tsuna (綱), which only he can wear and which gives his rank (“yokozuna” means “sideways rope”) its name. Hanging from the tsuna and weighing in at up to 13 kilograms are five strips of paper folded in zigzags (these are called 御幣, gohei). Similar ropes with gohei can be found over the main entrances to Shinto shrines.
All three enter the ring and squat at the West side facing East. The yokozuna spreads his arms wide and brings them together in a mighty clap, rubs the palms together, sweeps his arms out again, turning the palms up, and repeats the gesture, which is supposed to symbolize purifying the hands and body with grass before battle and also indicates “no hidden weapons.” The yokozuna then stands, strides into the middle of the ring and turns to face north, which is the dohyō‘s shōmen (正面, “front”) and the side on which the emperor sits. Placing his feet wide apart he then proceeds to do a very elegant form of shiko (四股), the basic sumō exercise, complete with graceful and strangely evocative arm and hand movements. When he slams his foot down in the sand, the crowd roars its approval. Performed three times, this stamping ritual is supposed to frighten evil spirits from the ring and at the same time demonstrate the champion’s determination to trample his opponents in the dust. The yokozuna then returns to his original position, squatting between his two attendants, repeats the hand-body purifying ritual, and leaves the ring. The yokozuna for the West enters the ring immediately from the opposite side to repeat the ceremony. Following this, the final makuuchi matches of the day begin.
Another famous ceremony is the danpatsu-shiki (断髪式), the “hair cutting ceremony” performed at a senior wrestler’s public retirement (引退相撲 intai-zumō). Intai-zumōd is an event where one can enjoy such sumō specialities as shokkiri (初っ切り, “comic
At this point it is quite common to see the ex-wrestler’s face in tears.
Traditionally, with a brief exception in the late 1920s and early 1930s, only two tournaments were held in a year until 1949. By 1959, this number had grown to six, where it stands until today. The big six are held every other month in four different cities as follows:
- in January in Tōkyō
- in March in Osaka
- in May again in Tōkyō
- in July in Nagoya
- in September in Tōkyō
- in November in Fukuoka
In 1949, the length of a tournament increased from the traditional ten days to fifteen days. A tournament opens on whatever Sunday is close to the tenth of the month and closes on a Sunday. A tournament day starts around 10:00 am with the apprentices of maezumo fighting qualifying rounds. Interest increases around 11:00 am, when the long march of the four lower divisions across the dohyō begins. The boy-men in these divisions – jonokuchi, jonidan, san-damme, and makushita – wrestle on alternate days for seven days. For them, a winning record (勝ち越し kachikoshi) begins with four wins against three losses, which ensures promotion. Anything less is a losing record (負け越し makekoshi) and demotion. A zenshō record (全勝, all wins, no losses) of course boosts a wrestler way up the ladder, usually into a higher division.
Sekitori in the two top divisions, jūryō and makuuchi, wrestle once a day for fifteen days. Each of their bouts takes around five minutes, most of which is consumed by ritual preliminaries. Actual fighting time averages thirty seconds per bout. Sekitori must win eight of their fifteen bouts for a kachikoshi record. Makekoshi starts with eight losses. The entire tournament is won by the makuuchi wrestler with the most wins, usually a yokozuna with a 13-2 or 14-1 record. Should two sekitori end the tournament with identical records, they must fight again soon after the last bout even though one of them may have been in it.
The jūryō division begins to wrestle around 3:00 pm, makuuchi at 4:00, and the tournament is over for the day at 6:00 except on the last Sunday, when prize-giving takes longer.
The sumō stable system is another of the sport’s unique and influential institutions. Its purpose is to train young wrestlers into senior champions while inculcating them with the strict etiquette, discipline, and special values which are the foundations of sumō‘s world apart society. Physically, a stable (部屋 heya, lit. “room”) includes all living and training facilities. Upstairs are dormitories for the juniors and semi-private and private rooms for the seniors. Downstairs, the unheated training room has a hard-packed earthen floor with a 4.55-metres rope circle just like a dohyō except that the floor is not raised. Adjacent is an open room, usually with tatami mats, where coaches and visitors sit to observe practice. Other areas include a large washroom with Japanese-style bath tubs, a kitchen, a dining-living room, and a reception room.There are thirty or so heya currently active, and every professional sumō wrestler belongs to one, making it his home throughout his ring career and often even into retirement. The only exceptions to the live-in rule are the married sekitori, who may live outside with their wives and commute to daily practice at the heya. In fact, few wrestlers are married until they are well established in the upper ranks. Depending on the state of its fame and fortunes, a heya may boast several dozen wrestlers or carry on with barely a handful. Each heya has a name taken from the champion or retired elder (年寄 toshiyori) who founded it, and its wrestlers fight under this aegis. Some heya, like Sadogatake, have a 200-year-old history. Some, like Taiho-Beya, named for the brilliant yokozuna who retired in 1971, have been founded within the past 20 years.
A stable is managed under the absolute control of a single boss (親方 oyakata). All oyakata are ex-senior wrestlers and members of the Japan sumō Association. The stable they run is usually the stable where they wrestled. For example, the present boss of Dewanoumi-Beya, traditionally one of the biggest and most powerful stables, is ex-grand champion Sadanoyama, who succeeded his boss (after marrying his daughter) to become the ninth-generation Dewanoumi Oyakata.
Oyakata are generally married and live in special quarters with their wives, who are known by the title of okamisan, the only women to live in heya. Okamisan play an important behind-the-scenes role in the smooth operation of a stable, but their duties never include cooking or cleaning for the wrestlers. These and all other housekeeping chores outside the oyakata‘s quarters are performed by apprentices and low-ranked wrestlers who receive no pay at all for all their pains and must in addition serve as tsukebito (付け人, servant-valet) for jūryō and makuuchi wrestlers. Heya expenses are paid for by regular allowances from the Japan Sumō Association and gifts from the heya fan club (kōenkai).
Occasionally in the past and still today, a retiring champion will leave his old stable to found his own. If this break is amicable, he will be allowed to enter the main stable’s ichimon (一門, “clan”), thus establishing a beneficial and typical parent-child relationship. Powerful and established stables may have three or four related heya in their ichimon. In the past this practice dulled competition, since ichimon wrestlers were not required to fight against each other. Today this rule applies only to wrestlers in the same stable.
Traditionally, the greatest geographical concentration of heya has been and still is in the Ryōgoku area of Tōkyō, by the Sumida River. Other high population areas for
heya are nearby Edogawa and Kōtō wards.
Keiko (稽古, “practice”) is a sacred word in sumō and a brief description of what takes place every day in a typical heya: the day begins at 4:00 or 5:00 am for the youngest, lowest-ranked wrestlers, who ready the ring and begin their exercises. The higher a wrestlers’s rank, the longer he may stay asleep. Makushita are up at 6:30 and in the ring by 7:00. Jūryō wrestlers enter the ring around 8:00 and makuuchi shortly after.
The physical essentials for success in sumō are balance, agility, and flexibility, combined with a pair of powerful thighs and the lowest possible center of gravity. To achieve all this, wrestlers practice endlessly three traditional exercises, shiko (四股, stomping exercise), teppō (鉄砲, a pushing exercise for the arms and shoulders), and matawari (股割り, a streching exercise), which every coach and oyakata will agree are the absolute basics of sumō.
For shiko one stands with feet wide apart, draws in the breath, tips the body to the left, raises the right leg sideways as high as possible, and then stamps it down with a hissing exhale. The action is repeated with the left foot, and so on. Beginners should practice shiko at least 500 times a day.
Matawari involves sitting in the dirt with legs spread as far apart as possible, the closer to 180° the better. Next, one leans forward until the entire upper body from the navel to the cheekbone is pressed against the ring. If one cannot do that, a senior wrestler will help by standing on his back, an incredibly painful procedure. Teppō is the sumō punching bag, but the object one hits is a pillar of wood sunk in the earth. Stepping forward and back with rhythmical, sliding footwork one slams ones open hands against the pole in order to develop timing and coordination while strengthening arms and hands, legs and back.
Wrestling techniques are learned by watching and in practice bouts (申合い mōshiai), there being no formal, Western-style teaching of the various throws and lifts. Instead the wrestler learns from wrestling with a senior and then practicing with one of his peers.
When the session is almost over, wrestling ends and butsukari-geiko (ぶつかり稽古, lit., “collision training”) starts: younger wrestlers charge a senior and drive him across the ring in one long slide, turn and drive him back and repeat until the junior is completely exhausted. Along the way, he is occasionally thrown down so that he will learn how to hit the cement-hard dohyō and roll without hurting himself. After butsukari-geiko follows matawari, and then all join in a final round of shiko.
At 11:00 am the senior wrestlers head for the baths, where their backs are scrubbed by their tsukebito attendants. When they are done, the lower ranks can get in. Next it is time for brunch, the first and largest sumō meal of the day. This consists of chanko-nabe (ちゃんこ鍋), the famous, high-calorie stew which is another one of the sumō basics. To prepare chankonabe big pots of seaweed-base stock are brewed and chicken, pork, fish, tofu, bean sprouts, cabbage, carrots, onions, etc, are dumped in. The senior wrestlers eat several bowls of this stew together with several bowls of rice washed down with beer. Around 1:00 pm the skinny youngsters who got up at 4:00 am sit down to eat what is left.
Except for the housekeeping, chores of junior wrestlers and tsukebito-type errands, the official business of the day is over at the heya after lunch and does not begin again until next morning’s practice. Supper is usually modest, and most wrestlers prefer to eat out if they can afford it. Whenever a wrestler leaves the heya he must be dressed neatly in a kimono. His hair, if it is long enough, must be painstakingly oiled, combed, and tied in the chonmage topknot of the 18th-century chōnin (町人, townspeople). This is done by the heya‘s resident barber (床山 tokoyama.
The Japan Sumō Association
Every aspect of professional sumō is controlled down to the last detail by the Japan Sumō Association (日本相撲協会 Nihon Sumō Kyōkai), which is composed of 105 retired wrestlers known as elders (toshiyori) and includes representation from sumō‘s active members, such as wrestlers, referees (gyōji), and ring stewards (呼出 or 呼び出し yobidashi). Thus one could say that sumō is one of the few professional sports run entirely by insiders.
To become a member of the Japan Sumō Association
- one must qualify as a former wrestler who has competed in twenty-four tournaments in the jūryō division or in a tournament in makuuchi
- there must be a vacancy among the 105 memberships
- a share in the association (年寄株 toshiyorikabu), usually at a few million yen, has to be acquired.
As always in sumō, there are exceptions, and in the early 1980s there were 106 association memberships, 96 of which were actually filled. This is because, although there were no vacancies at the time of his retirement in 1971, ex-yokozuna Taihō was permitted to buy a share and join the association in recognition of his outstanding career. This practice is called ichidai toshiyori (一代年寄 “one-generation elder”). Once Taiho Oyakata had reached the retirement age of 65, the position retired with him and the number of toshiyori reverted to 105.
The Japan Sumō Association is organized in six divisions: Business, Judging, Off-Season Tours (遵行 jungyō), Out-of-Tokyo Tournaments (場所地方 chihō-basho), Training, and
Guidance. All this is supervised by an elected, 10-man board of directors under the leadership of a chairman or managing director (理事長 rijichō).
Located close to the Ryōgoku section of Sumida Ward in Tōkyō, the Kokugikan (国技館, National Sport Arena) is the home of professional sumō, with a seating capacity of over 13,000, where the three Tōkyō tournaments and other sumō-related events are held, with changing rooms and baths for the wrestlers, a medical clinic, and all the various offices of the Japan Sumō Association.
Also within the Kokugikan are a Sumō Museum and a Sumō School (相撲教習所 Sumō Kyōshūjo). All new wrestlers must attend a six-month course at
this school, which presents a core curriculum evenly balanced between physical and classroom education.The first Kokugikan was built in the Ryōgoku section in 1909. Destroyed by fire in 1917, it was quickly rebuilt. This second building, though damaged in World War II, was repaired and used as an auditorium for Nihon University. The Kuramae Kokugikan (蔵前国技館) in the Kuramae section of Taitō Ward was completed in 1954 and used until 1984. The Ryōgoku Kokugikan opened in 1985 and is located in Yokoami section of Sumida Ward, (bordering Ryōgoku) right next to the Edo-Tokyo Museum. It is also used for boxing and wrestling events and concerts.
In addition, sumō is an amateur sport, with participants in college, high school and grade school in Japan. As well as 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 can be allowed to enter professional sumo in the Makushita (third division) rather from the very bottom of the ladder. Many of the current Makuuchi rikishi entered professional sumō 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 the sumo recognized as an Olympic sport.
Sumo scandals and criticism
In March 2011, the Ōsaka tournament was cancelled over a yaochō (八百長, match-fixing) scandal. While allegations of fixed games have been quite common over the years, the Japan Sumō Association had always been denying them fiercely. Following an investigation, fourteen sumō wrestlers and oyakata were found guilty, and all of the wrestlers forced to retire.
Other sources of controversy involve allegations of some sumō stables apparently maintaining close ties to gambling rings run by the yakuza, as well as the practice of subjecting junior wrestlers to excessively rigorous practice, resulting in June 2007 in the death of a seventeen-year old wrestler, who died of traumatic shock inflicted in a violent training session.