Sumo in Japan: a traditional sport

tunimaal 7 January 2012 0
Sumo in Japan: a traditional sport

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The Sumo in Japan is a traditional sport and a centuries old one. Sometimes it is not well known for people living outside of Japan. I propose you to discover the basics of this ancestral Japanese sport. 

Tomorrow, Sunday 8, January, will begin on the Sumo Tournament in Tokyo. As every year they are 3 major Sumo tournaments that are held in Tokyo. I intend to go and watch the Sumo tournament for the first time in my life. But before it, it would be interesting to discover this Japanese sport.

I invite you to discover my article about my day at the Grand Sumo Tournament at Ryogoku –Tokyo. 

Sumo: a short History 

The sport of Sumo wrestling dates from about 1500 years. Its origins were religious. The first battles were kind of ceremonies dedicated to the gods. The fighting was then held in the precincts of Shrines and consisted of prayers and sacred dances.

During the Nara period, dating from the 8th century, Sumo combats were introduced in the Imperial court. An annual wrestling festival was therefore held.

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Sumo – Ryoguku – Tokyo

Basically, the Sumo wrestler fighting boors and were composed of elements of boxing and wrestling, where the shots were not permitted. But over time, and under the influence of the Imperial court rules were adopted.

During the 17th century, fighting Sumo began to professionalize and were there to entertain the new middle classes of merchants. The current Japan Sumo Association has its origins in this period. 

The Sumo wrestling: The rules 

The ring of combat is called DOHYO and takes its name from the sacks of rice straw used to delimit it. The Sumo wrestling ring is 6 square meters and 1 meter high. It is built in clay used specially for this occasion. The hard part is covered with a thin layer of sand.

The fight must take place within the circle of 4 meters in size. Above the ring is suspended, from the ceiling, a roof resembling the Japanese Shrine ones.

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Sumo Ring

A Sumo wrestling is gained by pushing the opponent out of the inner circle or by dropping it on the DOHYO. To lose the fight, it is not necessary to fall completely within the circle or be completely pushed out. The Sumo that touches the ground with any part of his body, his knees, the tips of his fingers or event his hair, lose the contest. Similarly if any of these parts come into contact with the bags of straws making the circle, the wrestler loose the game.

Are prohibited the punches, hair pulling, choking, kicking in the stomach and chest. It is also against the rules to hit the strip that covers the genitals of Sumo.

There is no limit of weight in the battles of Sumo. In addition there is no weight class, which can lead in a fight between a Sumo who is slight build and another one who is much stouter.

There are six major tournaments in a year: 3 in Tokyo (January, May and September), 1 in Osaka, 1 in Nagoya and 1 in Kyushu. A tournament lasts 15 days, each Sumo fight once a day. The winner of the Sumo Tournament is the wrestler who has the best ratio of wins against losses. On the last day of the tournament he will be presented with the Emperor trophy.

There are three additional prizes which are:

  • SHUKUNSHO that rewards the Sumo whom won against the greatest champions
  • KANT-SHO rewarding fighting spirit
  • GINO-SHO that rewards the fighting technique

To receive any of these additional prizes, the Sumo wrestler must have won, at least, 8 out of 15 fights.


For the fighting, the Sumo – SHIRIKI are naked. They wear only a loin cloth of silk around the waist, called MAWASHI. 

After entering the ring, Sumo is to perform a series of spiritual rites, symbolic movements:

  • To clear his mind and his body: he rinsed his mouth with water (source of purity) and wipe his body with a paper towel.
  • To protect against injuries: he throws a handful of salt into the ring to purify the ring. However it is restricted to the Sumo wrestlers ranking at least at the level of MAKU-UCHI, MAKU-SHITA and JURYO
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Subsequently, the 2 Sumo fight face to face and look straight in the eyes to start a psychological battle. Then they have 4 minutes to start their battle.  They benefit of this to often to repeat the ritual several times.

The ranking of Sumo wrestlers:

There are, at present, about 800 Sumo wrestlers (from lowly trainee to champions). After each major Sumo tournament, wrestlers are being classified, promoted or demoted to the rank of general Sumo according to their performances during the 15 days tournament.

A new ranking list, called BANZUKE, is published by the NIHON SUMO KYOKAI (Japan Sumo Association) in an ancient style of calligraphy.

The Sumo – Rikishi are divided by teams: West and East. They are not fighting as a team or only against the opposite team’s Sumo. They may have to fight against other Sumo from the same team.

The top ranks of wrestlers are called MAKU-UCHI, the Sumo of upper division. They are putted in 5 different categories ranked as follow:

  • YOKOZUNA: this position is unique. Since it was created, over 300 years ago, only 69 Sumo were awarded in this position. Whoever gets it can never be demoted. However, if he accumulates to many bad results, he will retire.

Below these categories, in smaller print, are the JURYO and MAKU-SHITA, then SAN-DAN-ME, JO-NI-DAN and last the NO-KUCHI.

The fights start in the morning by the lowest ranked Sumo wrestlers and end in the early evening by the top-ranked Sumo wrestlers. So there is a timeline in the Sumo Tournament day. 

The Sumo’s ceremonies:

The ceremonies at Sumo tournaments are of great importance. They are traditional and have great significance. The sport managed to survive with all its ancient rituals.

Before the fighting of MAKU-UCHI wrestlers, the entrance to the ring ceremony, which is really colourful, start and his called DOHYO-IRI. At the ceremony, the Sumo wear traditional aprons with different designs and that cost between 400,000 and 500,000 Yen (5200 to 6500 USD). Each team enters one after the other in the ring and performs some ancestral rites.

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The leadership role at the ceremony is reserved for the YOKOZUNA who had no role during the ceremony until then. He must carry out specific actions such as clapping hands to attract the attention of the gods and strike with his foot on the ground to scare away the demons. 

At the end of the tournament day, a MAKUSHITA must enter the ring and perform a traditional dance called YUMITORI-SHIKI. He must do this dance with a bow in his hands.

Sumo: The referees and judges

They are dressed in a Kimono style dating from the Kamakura period, which is over 800 years ago. Their black hat looks like those worn by the priest in the Shrines. They are called GYOJI.

Like Sumo, the referees are classified. Thus, a single GYOJI, only top ranked referee can officiate a fight involving a Yokozuna.

The referees are recognized by the colour of their glands and their range:

  • Purple or Purple and white for TATE-GYOJI
  • Red for SAN-YAKU
  • Red and White for MAKU-UCHI
  • Blue and White for SAN-YAKU
  • Black for the lower ranks 
sumo tournament ryogoku tokyo japan referee sumo 200x300 Sumo in Japan: a traditional sport

Combat de Sumo (Sumo Fight)

The referees of the higher ranks wear white socks with a Japanese style called TABI and sandals made from straw and called ZORI, while the referees of a lower rank are barefoot.

On the four sides of the ring are the judges, who wear black formal Kimono. They are called to make a decision where there is uncertainty in the decision of a referee. They climb into the ring and then decide together the final decision. They can go against the original decision of the referee, or even ask that the fight will be redone. There are always 5 judges per game.

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Juges et Arbitres (Judges & Referee)

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