Discovering the Ancient Art of Sumo.

We can finally cross off one more major event that we wanted to experience while living in Japan… the ancient Japanese sport of sumo wrestling! There are six sumo Grand Tournaments a year, three are held in Tokyo, one in Osaka, Nagoya, and Kyushu (where we live). A tournament lasts for 15 days, each rikishi (wrestler) fighting once every day with a different opponent. On day 7 of 15, we took a trip to the Fukuoka Kokusai Center where we had an experience unlike anything you can get from just watching this sport on television or listening to on a radio. Sumo is so much more than just an ancient sport. It’s a way of life for the Japanese, developed deep in their roots and heritage, carrying great meaning and significance. Here, we would like to share with you some very fascinating information that we learned during this sumo experience; everything from its origin, the rules, and ranking.


According to Japanese legend the very origin of the Japanese depended on the outcome of a sumo match. The supremacy of the Japanese people on the islands of Japan was supposedly established when the god, Takemikazuchi, won a sumo bout with the leader of a rival tribe. Apart from legend, however, sumo is an ancient sport dating back some 1500 years.

Its origins were religious. The first sumo matches were a form of ritual dedicated to the gods with prayers for a bountiful harvest and were performed together with sacred dancing and dramas within the precincts of the shrines. During the Nara Period (8th century), sumo was introduced into the ceremonies of the Imperial Court. A wrestling festival was held annually which included music and dancing in which the victorious wrestlers participated. Early sumo was a rough-and-tumble affair combining elements of boxing and wrestling with few or no holds barred. But under the continued patronage of the Imperial Court, rules were formulated and techniques developed so that it came more nearly to resemble the sumo of today.

A military dictatorship was established in Kamakura in 1192 and a long period of intense warfare ensued. Sumo, quite naturally, was regarded chiefly for its military usefulness and as a means of increasing the efficiency of the fighting men. Later in the hands of the samurai, jujitsu was developed as an offshoot of sumo. Peace was finally restored when the different warring factions were united under the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1603. A period of prosperity followed, marked by the rise to power of the new mercantile classes. Professional sumo groups were organized to entertain the rapidly expanding plebian class and sumo came into its own as the national sport of Japan. The present Japan Sumo Association has its origins in these groups first formed in the Edo Period.

The sumo ring is called the dohyo and takes its name from the straw rice bag which marks out its different parts. The greater portion of each bale is firmly buried in the earth. The dohyo is an 18 foot by 2 foot high square and is constructed from a special kind of clay. The hard surface is covered with a thin layer of sand. The bout is confined to an inner circle a little over 15 feet in diameter. Over the dohyo, suspended from the ceiling by cables, is a roof resembling a Shinto shrine with four giant tassels hanging from each corner to signify the four seasons.


The rules of sumo are simple: the wrestler who first touches the ground with anything but the soles of his feet, or leaves the ring before his opponent, loses. To lose the match it is not necessary to fall in the circle or to be pushed completely out. The rikishi who touches the ground with any part of his body, his knee, or even the tip of his finger or his top-knot, loses the match. Or he need only put one toe or his heel over the straw bales marking the circle. Striking with fists, hair pulling, eye gouging, choking and kicking in the stomach or chest are prohibited. It is also against the rules to seize the part of the band covering the vital organs. There are no weight restrictions or classes in sumo, meaning that wrestlers can easily find themselves challenging someone many times their size.

The winner of the tournament, in other words the rikishi with the best record of wins over losses, is awarded the Emperor’s Cup on the final day after the last match. There are 3 additional prizes: 1. the shukun-sho awarded to the rikishi who upset the most yokozuna (grand champions) and ozeki (champions). 2. the kanto-sho for fighting spirit. 3. the gino-sho for technique. To be eligible for any of these prizes, the rikishi must also have won at least 8 of his 15 matches.

Emperor's Cup
Emperor’s Cup

BANZUKE (Sumo Rankings)

There are at present about 800 rikishi in professional sumo from the lowly trainee to the yokozuna at the top. After each Grand Tournament the banzuke are revised with rikishi being either promoted or demoted depending on their performance during the 15 days. A new official ranking list called the banzuke is issued by the Nihon Sumo Kyokai, printed in an ancient, stylized calligraphy. The rikishi are first arbitrarily divided into east and west teams although they do not compete as teams nor is a rikishi from one team necessarily matched against one of the other. Heading the banzuke in large, bold characters are the names of the upper division rikishi, the maku-uchi (which includes the 5 top ranks). Listed below these on the banzuke, in progressively smaller characters, appear the names of the juryo and makushita, and below these the san-dan-me, jo-ni-dan and lastly the jo-no-kuchi. Below the makushita do not get to wrestle on each day of a tournament. The matches start in the morning with those of the lowest ranking rikishi, followed by those of progressively higher and higher rank, building up to a climax towards the end of the day with the bouts featuring the yokosuna.

A copy of a banzuke, thousands of years ago. The higher ranks start in bold at the top and progressively get smaller as the ranks get lower.
A copy of a banzuke, thousands of years ago. The higher ranks start in bold at the top and progressively get smaller as the ranks get lower.
A close up of the calligraphy on the banzuke.
A close up of the calligraphy on the banzuke.

The position of the yokozuna is unique. In the past 300 years, since the title was created, only 69 rikishi have been honored with this rank! The yokozuna, alone of all the ranks can never be demoted even if he makes a poor showing during a tournament. Instead, he is expected to retire. Before a rikishi can even be considered for promotion to yokozuna, he must have won two consecutive tournaments while holding the rank of ozeki (the rank just below yokozuna). He must have proven himself capable of turning in consistent performances and in the critical eyes of the Sumo Kyokai  be a man of character worthy to hold such an exalted position.

The rank of a rikishi determines the style in which his long hair is dressed. The style worn by juryo and maku-uchi is the more elaborate and is called the o-icho-mage after the ginko leaf which the top-knot is supposed to resemble. Higher ranked rikishi wear kimonos that can cost up to $20,000 a piece! The lower ranks wear their hair in a  chon-mage, plainer style, tied with paper strings. You can often tell their lower ranking because they do not wear any socks with their sandals. The hair styles are adopted from those fashionable in the Edo Period and have been preserved not merely because of tradition but also because they serve as a head protection in the event of falls.

**Check out my next blog to witness some of the ritual ceremonies performed in sumo and for pictures of the big men in action!!**


Lindsay View All →

Our roots will forever be from here, America, born and raised. Yet, life requires us to move more frequently than we care to count. Whether living stateside or abroad, you can always find us traveling somewhere. We scout out places that you only think you can dream of one day seeing and we seek out those that aren’t found in guidebooks. We then bring them to life here in our travel memos, so hopefully, one day you too can visit them or at least be able to live vicariously through us. This blog isn’t just about crossing off places from a bucket list. It’s about absorbing and learning how other cultures grow and fit into the same world that we do. Life is short and the world is big. Enjoy and get out there!

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