Sumo wrestling is the national sport of Japan and a must see for visitors. Once patronized by the Japanese emperors Sumo’s origins go back at least 1,500 years and thus is the world’s oldest organized sport. Originally Sumo was performed as a way of honouring the deities or spirits known as kami so as to ensure a bountiful harvest and protection from the Gods. Sumo was basically a Shinto fertility ritual closely linked to the agricultural calendar and was originally performed on the grounds of a shrine or temple. Today there are major arenas devoted specifically to this cultural icon.
Sumo Rules and Basics
Wrestlers in professional sumo are assigned a rank according to their division. The highest ranks, in descending order, are yokozuna (grand champion), ozeki (champion), and sekiwake (junior champion). Since the ranking came into existence several centuries ago, only about 70 men have ever gained promotion to yokozuna.
Prior to the actual clash in the centre of the ring, the two wrestlers usually spend several minutes in a preparation ritual, extending their arms, stamping their feet, squatting, and glaring at each other. Handfuls of salt are repeatedly tossed into the air to purify the ring. After this extended warm up, a match often ends in a matter of seconds, although some may continue for several minutes.
The wrestling takes places on a dohyo, an 18-foot-square and two-foot-high platform made of a special kind of clay. The wrestlers battle one another within a 15-foot-in-diameter ring encircled with twisted rice straw and covered with a thin layer of sand that allows the wrestlers feet to slide.
The object of a sumo match is for the wrestler to force his opponent out of the dohyo (ring) or make him touch the surface with any part of his body other than the soles of his feet. If any part of the wrestlers body, even the tip of a finger, touches the ground or touches outside the straw bales making the circle, he loses. If both wrestlers go flying out of the ring, the one who hits ground last wins.
There are no size or weight limits in sumo. Because of professional sumo does not adopt weight classes, it is common to see a huge wrestler compete against a much smaller man. While bulk often works to a wrestler’s advantage, speed, timing, and balance can also determine the outcome of a match. Smaller faster wrestlers often please the spectators by pulling off upset victories over larger opponents.
The best way to see sumo
The best way to see sumo is to attend a sumo tournament. Tickets are sold for each day of the 15-day tournaments. They can be purchased in advance through official ticketing site for Ground Sumo Tournament. Sumo tickets go on sale roughly one month before the start of each tournament. For frequently asked questions on a pre-order of sumo tournament ticket: click here:
If you miss the sumo tournament, there is an even better way to experience sumo. You can visit a sumo stable and watch the morning training session known as asageiko. This can be organized through a guided tour or with a bit of preparation you can arrange your own visit to a stable and watch the action entirely free.
The Shinto ritual of sumo
The sport of Sumo contains many Shinto religious traditions and rituals:
- dohyo (elevated straw ring) is reminiscent of a Shinto temple or shrine, where the clay base is equivalent to the Earth
- a Shinto shrine hangs over the ring to heighten the religious significance of the event
- the dohyō-matsuri, a ring-blessing ceremony, is performed by sumo officials called gyōji, when sake is poured over the straw boundary of the dohyō as an offering to the gods
- the referee dresses like a Shinto priest in kimono and black hat
- wrestlers sip sacred water and throw purifying salt in the ring just before the match
- wrestlers clap their hand to summon the gods when they enter the ring
- wrestlers wear colourful mawashi (belly bands) and distinctive hair styles called oicho (ginkyo-leaf knot), both of which evoke images of ancient times
The tradition of hairstyle
While in the locker room, before coming out to begin the tournament, each wrestler has his hair combed and oiled and tied into place so it resembles a ginkyo leaf. The slow stroking with boxwood comb is said to help the wrester relax and concentrate. Tokyoyama are specialists who do the sumo wresters hair. They comb and apply bintsukke-abura (special hair oil) to help keep the wrestler’s topknot in place. Sometimes the process takes 30 minutes. One tokoyama told the Daily Yomiuri “Every wrestler has different hair. Every time I try to balance the hairdo with the face and make it different from others… relaxing wrestlers while doing to the topknot is our real job.” One wrestler said, “when the tokoyama makers make the final touch on my topknot before the bout, I feel ready to fight.”
Sumo Wrester’s Belt
The wrestlers compete barefoot and wear a mawashi, the distinctive wrestler’s loincloth-like belt that is 2-feet-wide and 10-metres long. During a match it often looks like the mawashi is going to come apart or fall off but that almost never happens.
In 2000 the unthinkable occurred! Asanokiri, a low-level wrestler, endured the embarrassment of having his mawashi fall off in the middle of a bout exposing his private parts. It was the first time in 83 years such an event was seen. The belt loss was televised nationally but fortunately few watched since this was a low level match. Afterwards Asanokiri said, “I tied my mawashi the way I always do, but today it just came lose.” It wasn’t until Japanese began worrying about what European Christians thought of them that the sport started to penalise wrestlers whose belt came off.