An Introduction to Sumo - Japan's National Sport
Created | Updated Apr 3, 2009
Sumo is an intrinsic part of Japan's culture and its sense of identity. Deep-rooted concepts like harmony and respect underpin the sport. Sumo's origins can be traced back to more than a thousand years ago and in many ways it has hardly changed in that time. Even now, the most important bouts can bring the nation to a standstill.
The Origin of Sumo
Japanese mythology credits sumo with ensuring the very survival of the Japanese race. The Japanese god Take-mikazuchi won a sumo contest with a rival god and gained supremacy over the islands that make up Japan. Although this is just a legend, as far as we know, it shows the importance that Japanese people attach to this sport. Sumo as we know it today can be traced back, with a measure of certainty, over 1500 years.
The first sumo matches were rituals dedicated to the gods, praying for a good harvest. In the Nara period, during the 8th Century, no-holds-barred sumo was a popular pastime in the Imperial Court. During this time the rules that govern sumo to this day were introduced. The military used sumo as a training ground for its soldiers. Indeed Ju Jitsu was developed as an off-shoot of sumo.
In the early 17th Century professional sumo wrestlers, or rikishi, to give them their common name, travelled around Japan bringing tournaments to the masses. It was at this time that the Japan Sumo Association was set up. 400 years later this same body still governs the sport.
A beya is the 'stable' where rikishi train and live. There are 49 beya in Japan, each of which is run by a former wrestler. For young trainees in particular it is a hard life. These lowest-ranked rikishi get up at about 4am, clean the building, prepare the food for the main meal and put in some practice. For higher-ranked rikishi the schedule is a little less demanding as they can rise later and get straight down to a five-hour training session. The main meal of the day is chankonabe, a rich stew that provides the rikishi with enough calories to bulk up. To ensure the rikishi gain the maximum weight, they go to sleep straight after the meal. Married rikishi live in their own apartments near the beya, single higher-ranking rikishi live in their own rooms in the beya while the lower-ranked rikishi live in barrack accommodation in the beya.
The beya can determine how far you will get in sumo. If you are in a powerful beya you will avoid some very difficult matches as stablemates are forbidden to fight each other unless there is a play-off at the end of the tournament. Fujishima-beya was the dominant stable for the latter half of the 1990s, with five rikishi ranked in the top ten. This meant that Wakanohana followed his brother to the rank of Yokozuna despite being one of the most limited rikishi in the top echelon. He would have 11 easy matches and four real contests, as would the other high-ranking wrestlers from this stable. By contrast, Akebono and Musashimaru would have a straight week of really tough contests to negotiate, because of their relatively weak beya.
It is in the beya that rikishi choose their fighting names. The head of the stable, called an oyakata, will help the fighter to choose a name that is a talisman. It will pay due respect to the tradition of the beya and bring good luck throughout his fighting career - in theory at least. Sometimes a rikishi will change his name again. Takanohana and Wakanohana were originally called Takahanada and Wakahanada. When the rikishi retires he will take yet another name. When sumo was televised in the UK during the 1980s they were given 'fan names' in order to help the British public identify them. However, it is best - and less confusing - to stick to the fighting name.
The dohyo is the ring in which contests take place. It is a sacred area which is blessed by a Shinto priest every morning before a tournament, which is known as a basho, to ensure the safety of all participants. Once the dohyo has been blessed, only rikishi, referees and judges are allowed to enter the ring. The fighting area is a circle 15 feet in diameter made of clay and covered in a thin layer of sand. Above the ring is a roof, suspended by cables, that resembles a shinto shrine called a tsuriyane. The tsuriyane has a large tassel at each of its four corners representing the seasons of the year.
The mawashi is the belt that covers the rikishi's groin area. It is made of silk and measures ten yards long by two feet wide. The belt is folded in six then wrapped round the rikishi four to seven times depending on his girth. Although the fundamental aim is to protect the fighters, the mawashi has determined the fighting style of the sport. There are 70 winning moves, nearly all of which involve getting a grip of some kind on the opponent's mawashi. On many occasions, the bout is effectively over when one of the combatants has achieved a grip on his opponent's belt.
Sumo is based on a strict hierarchy, like Japanese society itself, so the rikishi are moved up and down the ranking list, called the banzuke, according to their performances in the previous basho. At present there are about 800 rikishi, split into six broad ranks called makuuchi, juryo, makushita, sandanme, jonidan and jonokuchi. The lower ranks, below makushita, fight seven times during a 15-day basho. The matches take place early in the day with the lowest-ranked rikishi fighting first. The makuuchi fight later in the afternoon with the top ranked wrestlers going last. Within the makuuchi there are 5 divisions with the grand champions, or yokozuna, being the highest ranked rikishi of all. The yokozuna are invited to hold this exalted position by the Sumo Association, so they alone are not demoted even after a bad performance. However, a string of bad performances will lead to an honourable retirement by the rikishi concerned.
The referee calls the names of the two rikishi and they enter the ring, from the east and west sides. They drink holy water to purify themselves, then throw salt to purify the ring before they enter it. The rikishi face each other, clap their hands to attract the attention of the gods, stamp their feet to scare away evil spirits and return to the edge of the ring. The two combatants lift their legs and stamp their feet, originally to show the lack of a concealed weapon. Then the rikishi face each other and squat down on all fours. At this time the staring begins, in an attempt to intimidate the opponent. The highest-ranking rikishi are allowed five minutes for these rituals, with the squatting and salt-throwing being repeated three or four times. Finally the rikishi both throw one last handful of salt and prepare for the face-off, or tachiai. The bout begins when both fighters touch the ground with their hands.
The average sumo match lasts little more than six seconds, but these six seconds are full of action, as the two huge fighters attempt to push each other out of the ring, or force each other to touch the dohyo with a part of the body other than the soles of the feet. Many of the bouts are one-sided, as one of the rikishi succeeds with his first attack, but two well-matched fighters can produce sporting theatre of the first order. Once the bout is over the referee points to the victor, and the two rikishi bow to each other before leaving the dohyo. The biggest difference between sumo and other major sports is the complete lack of celebration by the victor. In order to show respect to an opponent a rikishi must refrain from any triumphalism in the arena. Only when he is out of sight of the public can the victor give vent to his feelings. This ensures that order and respect, or rei, is maintained throughout the sport.
Six times a year in January, March, May, July, September and November the grand tournaments, or basho, are held. The basho lasts 15 days with rikishi fighting opponents of a similar standing. The aim of most rikishi is simply to achieve a majority of wins, or kachikoshi. Kachikoshi ensures the rikishi against demotion, and can even lead to a promotion if it is part of a good series of results. A majority of losses, or makekoshi, will lead to a fall down the ranking list. In most basho three or four top rikishi will fight for the championship, or yusho. Often the winner will be a yokozuna, but as in all sports, upsets can, and do, happen.
The yokozuna are the rikishi who come along every few years and take the sport by storm. By common consent, the greatest yokozuna of the post-war era was Chiyonofuji. He was the antithesis of the huge rikishi that come to mind when the sport is mentioned. Small, agile and extremely fit, he held opponents at bay for a decade winning nearly half of the tournaments during the 1980s. Despite weighing 100kg, he was dwarfed by nearly all of the top division. His fights were won with tremendous upper body strength and a breathtaking array of skills. He had few challengers who could match him on a regular basis, and his name is still spoken in reverent tones to this day.
In the mid-90s two yokozuna were promoted in quick succession. One was Takanohana, a representative of sumo's most powerful family. The other was Akebono, a Hawaiian and the first foreigner to achieve sumo's highest rank. Despite the adherence to rei, one thing was clear, these two yokozuna really disliked each other. Takanohana was a pure fighter with great skill and an undisguised disdain for foreign rikishi. Akebono was a tough scrapper with a chip on his shoulder and an urge to prove himself against the standard bearer of Japanese insularity. The result was one of the most exciting rivalries in modern sport. Most of the fights were classics and the subtext was always evident whoever won. Overall, Takanohana was more successful, but it was Akebono who changed the face of sumo forever.
At present there are two yokozuna, the 67th and 68th to hold that position in the modern era. The problem for many Japanese sumo fans is that they are both foreigners, or gaijin, and this has led to a lot of soul-searching. However, Musashimaru from Hawaii and Asahoryu from Mongolia are genuinely popular wrestlers who have broken down many barriers in recent years.
No roll of honour is complete without a mention of the first gaijin to make a real impact on this most Japanese of sports, Konishiki. This Hawaiian behemoth tipped the scales at 557 pounds! His size hid the fact that he was actually a very good fighter with a full range of attacking techniques. He was the first foreigner to win a yusho and he was kept at ozeki, the rank below yokozuna, by a bad tournament at a vital time. Although this can be seen as evidence of his unsuitability for the highest possible rank, he can also be seen as unlucky. It is a moot point whether the Sumo Association would have promoted him after a really good tournament, but they were let off the hook by his bad basho. He was a better fighter than many previous and subsequent yokozuna but he never received due recognition.
As with every sport, the crowd pleasers in sumo tend to be good but not great. Without them, however, the sport would be significantly less fun.
Mitoizumi was the unrivalled showman of sumo for nearly 15 years. His trademark was the salt throwing ritual. Whereas most rikishi were content to pick up small handfuls of salt, Mitoizumi would grab a huge handful of salt, which he would launch 15 feet into the air. The crowds loved it, and his opponents would often lose concentration, giving Mitoizumi the edge. This brave but limited rikishi shocked the sumo community by winning a yusho towards the end of his career. It was no more than he deserved after years of entertaining the fans.
Takatoriki was a completely different type of rikishi. Mean and irritating enough to rile the most zen-like of opponents, he specialised in hunting down gaijin. As a stablemate of Takanohana and Wakanohana he could usually be relied upon to defeat one or other of the foreign rikishi. His mode of attack was always a barrage of open-handed slaps that would drag the opponent into retaliation. Takatoriki would then take advantage of any temporary lapse in concentration to push for victory. He would also give overbalancing opponents a final push-off of the dohyo in order to launch them into the crowd. One of the most satisfying sights in sumo was seeing the aggressive little rikishi flying into the crowd as an opponent took well-merited revenge.
Terao was the smallest and fittest rikishi in sumo for many years. He was an ironman who holds the record for most consecutive fights at the top level. His trademark was the agility and technical brilliance that was almost on a par with Chiyonifuji. He was unfortunately too small to make a real impact on the sport. Heavier rikishi would often push him out through sheer bulk. He was tremendously popular for his all-action style of fighting and his longevity. He has recently retired after nearly 20 years at the top.
Finally, there is one chance for every rikishi to become a personality for one day. Anyone who beats a yokozuna in the last bout of the day will send the crowd into a frenzy. Their reaction has to be seen to be believed. As the referee announces the victor, dozens of cushions fly into the ring in celebration of the fighting spirit of the underdog. Despite the ban on celebrations on the dohyo, the reaction of the crowd will often raise a smile from the departing rikishi.