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Sumo wrestling explained: do you know how to Sumo?

NETHERLANDS | Tuesday, 5 April 2011 | Views [50490] | Comments [3]

Sumo wrestling: national sport of Japan

Sumo is one of the many unique things Japan is known for. It is a fast, powerful and technical contact sport between two people in a ring. Seeing it for the first time can be a thrilling but confusing experience that raises a lot of questions. In this article, Sumo is explained and basic questions are answered.

Sumo is the national sport of Japan and is almost 2000 years old. The specific characteristics developed during time, in harmony with the spiritual, mythical and cultural characteristics of the Japanese people. Despite its drastic changes in the past ages, it has never been fully detached from its spiritual origin.

From ceremony to contest
In the early days, it was directly associated with Japans rice culture and was practised as a ceremony to secure the success of the harvest. Nowadays, it is not only worldwide organised but also worldwide practised.

The most famous Sumo wrestling tournaments are probably the Basho’s in Japan where only the professional wrestlers (rikishi) participate. These tournaments last 15 days.

Do you know how to Sumo? 10 questions about Sumo answered!

How large is the Sumo-ring?
The outer ring (dohyo) is formed with 20 straw rice bags, and measures 4.55 meters in diameter. One bag is set slightly back from the ring at the north, south, east and west sides. This is a remain of the days of outdoor matches, when it was often necessary to drain off rain water. Today, these extra spaces offer a slight advantage for wrestlers who are driven to the ring’s edge, which makes the contest more interesting.

The greeting ceremony: how does it work?
Politeness, mutual respect and discipline are the most important aspect of Sumo. The ceremony before the fight (Chirichozu) starts by entering the ring:

  • both wrestlers welcome each other when sitting crouched
  • they look each other straight in the eye
  • they rub their hands
  • they clap them one time – by clapping their hands, they ask for the attention of the gods in order not to go to battle alone
  • they move their arms horizontally sideways, the palm of their hands facing up
  • they turn their hands, the palm of their hands facing down
  • they put their hands on their knees

These arm movements are a purification and shows that the wrestlers are unarmed. It symbolises the sportiveness and honesty of Sumo.

Why do Sumo wrestlers throw salt around?
From ancient times, salt has been believed to own purifying powers. Both wrestlers throw salt in the air as they prepare for their bout (round), clearing thing as a sacred place. They also stamp the ring to squash the bad spirits and they sip water to clear their bodies. Each movement is a religious ritual.

What are the rituals during the Sumo fight?
After the greeting ceremony, the beginning of the fight follows with the Tachiai:

  • both wrestlers put their fists on the ground
  • after the referee yells “Hakkeyoi” the game starts

The Tachiai – the moment the two wrestlers bump into each other – is a very important moment in the game: 70% of the fights is decided in this moment. Fights last from several seconds up to a few minutes.

  • after ending the game, the loser bows towards the winner and leaves the ring
  • the winner crouches again
  • the referee announces the victory by saying: “winner east” or “winner west” instead of the winner’s name
  • after announcing the result, the winner shows his winning and respect to the loser by making a closing arm movement

Winner and loser are expected not to show emotions. Showing respect is the key.

When is the battle won?
The rules are simple, the battle is won when:

  • a wrestler touches the surface of the ring with his body
  • a wrestler throws, pushes or lifts his opponent outside the ring

How many winning techniques are there?
In the old days, before a ring was even used, there were 48 winning techniques (kimarite). In 1955 the Sumo Association released its first official list of 68 techniques, increased to 70 in 1960 and 82 in 2001.

Sumo wrestlers performing dohyo-iri

What are the ranks?
There are six divisions:

  1. Makuuchi (highest rank)
  2. Juryo
  3. Makushita (junior grade)
  4. Sandanme
  5. Jonidan
  6. Jonokuchi (lowest rank)
  • The Grand Champions: Yokozuna.

Wrestlers enter Sumo in the lowest jonokuchi division and – if they’re good enough – work their way up to the top division. Wrestlers in the top two divisions are called sekitori. Lower division wrestlers are in general called rikishi (the generic term for wrestlers).

In the juryo division, wrestlers range from young ones full with hope to reach the highest division to veterans of the game.  Watching a fight in this division is a chance to see potential future champions early in their careers. Fighters in this rank and above are considered salaried Sumo professionals.

What are those hairstyles they wear?
The “topknot” is a Sumo wrestler’s everyday hairstyle. Once he entered the  juryo rank, he can wear a special topknot for bouts and official appearances,  shaped like a ginkgo tree leaf.

How much do those ceremonial aprons cost?
When a wrestler reaches the juryo rank, he receives one of these ceremonial aprons (kesho-mawashi) from his supporters group or other sponsors. Aprons feature fancy  gold and silver threads, embroidery and other fine touches. Each costs at least 2 million yen. When diamonds, pearls and other precious gems are used, the price is pushed sky-high.

What do Sumo wrestlers wear during the bout?
The only thing they wear is a linen or silk (for professional use) belt around their waist. It is called the mawashi. The length depends on the size of the wrestler, this can be up to 12 meters at the heavyweights!

Being naked -with the exception of their mawashi – means they enter the battle unarmed. The mawashi has another very important function: it gives the opponent something to hold on to, which makes various wrestling- and throwing techniques possible.

There you go. Sumo wrestling a bit more explained and some basic questions answered. Now you know how to Sumo!

Tags: japan, sumo, wrestling



Hi kids this is really useful and helpful thanks for this article!

  The Emperor of Fabulous Nov 21, 2014 11:32 AM


The sport of sumo is very entertianing, however, sometimes difficult tell them apart. My request is to again identify the sumo'so, just as they put their hands dsumo's

  Noafraidofdog Jan 20, 2017 3:50 AM


What are the long stick- like things that are hanging down in the front of their belts? What is their function?5CGLX3

  M. Jane Hause Mar 16, 2018 4:18 AM

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