Japanese culture is rich and varied. Those who travel to Japan can experience the customs, rituals, and delicious food. In terms of Japanese culture, sumo is a martial art in which larger combatants wrestle as part of a sacred ritual. This is one of the most popular sports in Japan and for several centuries, its history was intertwined with that of Shintoism. If you go to Japan, you need to see what Japanese wrestling is really about!
In this article, we’re looking at Japan’s ancestral sport, what it is, and where it fits in Japans rich and diverse culture. From the sumo wrestlers, known as a sumotori, to the ceremonies, you’ll learn about this popular discipline and the grand champions of it.
A sumotori needs to be large and capable of defeating their opponent in a gruelling fight. In Japan, the preferred term for a sumo wrestler is “rikishi”, which means “mister” and “strength”, showing their respect for the sacred combatant.
Rikishi train from a young age in a heya, “stables” or “training quarters” where they also live. They’re used to eating food designed to gain weight. Most rikishi weight at least 22st but they can weigh as much as 34st, albeit while drastically reducing their life expectancy.
Sumo wrestling is hugely popular in Japan. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
The combatants fight barefoot in the dohyo (ring) wearing just a maetate-mitsu (codpiece) with a belt known as a mawashi. Each rikishi’s hair is styled in keeping with tradition and according to their rank. Furthermore, each rikishi has their shikona or ring name.
There’s an established ranking for the rikishi from apprentice (uchi-deshi) to professionals (sekitori). However, there are ranks granted to great champions. The most important ranks are sekiwake, ozeki, and yokozuna, the grand champion.
Here’s a list of some of the great yokozuna throughout history:
Rikishi aren’t the most common type of athlete in Japan and there are only around 800 of them across all of Japan.
Check out our article on Japanese weaponry.
Rikishi fight in the dohyo which represents the heavens and is 6m². The match itself takes place in a 4m-diameter ring in the centre of the dohyo. There’s a ceiling hanging over the ring, making the arena a sanctuary and the match is dedicated to the gods.
Sumo wrestling isn’t just a sport, it’s also a traditional ceremony and ritual. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Before starting the fight, there are several rituals for washing the rikishi’s body and spirit. They’ll rinse their mouths with water and clean their bodies with a paper towel. To protect them from injury, they’ll purify the ring with salt.
To win, the rikishi needs to push their adversary out of the ring of onto the floor of the dohyo. Only a rikishi’s feet are allowed to touch the ground. They also lose if they touch the bags of straw surrounding the combat area.
In sumo, you cannot throw punches or kick above the hips, strangle, or pull hair. You cannot grab the maetate-mitsu of your opponent either. They fight by striking their opponents with an open palm, grappling, or using their weight or their opponent’s weight against them.
Here are a few important sumo terms:
There are 6 main sumo tournaments each year: 3 in Tokyo, 1 in Osaka, 1 in Nagoya, and 1 in Fukuoka. Each rikishi fights once per day for 15 days and the combatant with the best win/loss ratio is the champion. At the end of the tournament, the rikishi receives the emperor’s trophy.
The history of sumo is intertwined with Japanese history: the first mention of sumo wrestling can be found in the Kojiki, a chronicle of Japanese history dating back to 712. According to legend, a sumo match decided who controlled the Japanese islands.
Sumo wrestling originated as a battle of the gods. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
The gods Takemikazuchi and Takeminakata fought on the Shimane beach. Outside of legend, it’s difficult to say exactly when sumo wrestling arose in Japan. It seems that sumo wrestling was used as an agricultural ritual to bring about a good harvest. There were no illegal blows and these fights were to the death. In the Nihon Shoki, sumo was said to have begun between mortals around 23BCE. The first winner, Sukune, is said to be the father of sumo.
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During the Nara Period (8th century), sumo wrestling was introduced to the imperial court and an annual festival was organised. There were several festivals in the Imperial Palace of Emperor Shomu. Thus, sumo was no longer an agricultural ritual but a ritual for peace and prosperity.
Sumo wrestling’s history dates back over 1,500 years! (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Sumo became a martial art during the reign of Emperor Saga (9th century) and the warrior class practised the sport from the 12th century. Several great Japanese military chiefs were fans of sumo including Minamoto no Yoritomo and Nobunaga Oda.
During the 17th century, the rikishi started becoming professionals and entertainers for the Japanese elite. This is also when the first rings surrounded by bags of straw. They started burying them during the 18th century.
During the Edo Period, the great daimyos became the sponsors for sumos grand champions. In addition to a salary, the rikishi also earnt the title of samurai.
Modern sumo wrestling was developed during the Edo Period: the Kanjin-zumo was used to raise funds for buildings, sanctuaries, repairing temples, bridges, and other public works.
The official ranking system was also introduced during the Edo Period. Official organisations were formed and merged during the 20th century, leading to the modern Sumo Kyokai.
Now you know a bit more about Japanese culture and the national sport. If you want to learn even more, consider reading our other articles on Japan or getting Japanese language lessons from a private tutor on Superprof!
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