Sumo is Japan’s national sport and has a history spanning over 1,000 years. The rules are simple: the first wrestler to leave the ring or touch the ground with any part of his body except the soles of his feet loses. The match rules may be simple, but sumo is a martial art deeply rooted in tradition and culture and is practised with strict demands on discipline and technique. Ceremonies and rituals are common elements in the lives of sumo wrestlers, who often live under very harsh conditions. Despite its Japanese origins, sumo wrestling has grown in popularity worldwide; today, sumo is practised globally.
We list ten things you might need to know about sumo!
1. Sumo comes from actual martial arts
Japanese unarmed melee has existed in various forms for a very long time. The oldest references are found in ”Nihon Shoki” (720 AD), a chronicle of ancient Japanese history. In the chapter called Chikara Kurabe [roughly ”comparing forces”], a systematized way of unarmed combat is described. Similar systems had existed in China and Korea long before, and influences likely came from there. In the ”Chuyuki-Burui” of the 1120s, a more brutal predecessor of Sumo wrestling – Sumai no sechie – is described as an annual event for the court’s pleasure. At the beginning of the Kamakura period (1192), armour wrestling, kumiuchi, was an integral part of samurai training for battlefield survival and later formed the basis of jujutsu and sumo.
Although the signs for sumo (相撲) mean ”to strike each other”, it is mostly about pushing down the opponent or forcing him out of the ring and the competition surface (dohyo), which measures 4.55 meters in diameter. Almost any means is allowed. Punches, kicks, hair pulling and groin grabbing, are the only exceptions. There are 82 approved ways to win, so-called kimarite, which are based on four groups of techniques:
1) Lifting (yorikiri) is when a wrestler grabs the opponent’s belt (called mawashi) and lifts it out of the ring.
2) Pushing and pushing (oshidashi), when a wrestler tries to push the opponent out of the ring or down the hill.
3) Bumping (oshi-zumo) is when a wrestler hits with the palms of his hands to get the opponent off balance.
4) Throwing (nage-zumo) is when a wrestler throws the opponent into the ring with or without holding the belt.
2. Religious roots
Sumo thus originates from the martial arts but has also been characterized by a Shinto ritual performed before harvest time. The purpose was for the strongest men to show their strength before the gods as a sign of respect and gratitude in the hope of getting a good harvest. At sumo competitions, this tradition lives on through rituals and decorations. At the beginning of each match, the previous match’s winner offers a wooden tub of water to the next wrestler to symbolically wash their mouths and bodies. On the ceiling above the ring hangs a throne sky, indicating that the ring is a holy place before the wrestlers enter the ring, they take a handful of salt and throw it into the ring to cleanse it of evil spirits further. Then they stand on opposite sides of the ring, face to face, extending his arms and raising his palms to show their intentions of a fair fight, which is followed by the characteristic stomping on the ground (the heavier the sumo, the more powerful the stomp) from side to side that precedes all bouts. All these elements indicate that sumo is still very closely associated with its religious origins and continues to permeate the strict everyday life of modern sumo wrestlers.
3. Psychicing the opponent during the match start
A match does not start until the wrestlers face each other and simultaneously have both hands on the ground (tachi-ai), which rule often leads to the sumo wrestlers trying to trick each other into thinking they are ready by assuming the starting position and pretending to start putting their hands on the ground, then regretting it and getting back up. And it can go on like this for several minutes before they finally start. Once the bout starts, a winner can usually be designated after a few seconds. The match is over when one of the wrestlers is thrown out of the ring or if any part of his body other than his feet touches the ground outside the ring.
4. The school of hard knocks
Given their physical appearance, it’s easy to believe that sumo wrestlers lead comfortable lives with a relatively relaxed approach to diet and exercise. On the contrary. Sumo wrestlers (rikishi) live under extremely harsh conditions in training schools reminiscent of prisons. The demanding lifestyle of a sumo wrestler is considered the most difficult and disciplined of all sports in the world. A sumobeya, a sumo stable, where wrestlers live together according to a strict hierarchy. The lowest-ranked wrestlers work as servants to the higher-ranked wrestlers and are expected to clean and cook for their superiors. After training, they get to shower, last of all, and for dinner, they get to eat the leftovers from the higher-ranked meal. The higher a wrestler ranks, the higher his status in the stable.
Sumo is practised during tournaments (basho) held every two months throughout the year. Three of these tournaments are held in Tokyo, while the others are held in Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka. These tournaments are 15 days long for the elite division (makuuchi) and division 1 (juryo) wrestlers, with the wrestlers going one match a day. In the lower divisions, participants only wrestle every other day – 7 days. Whoever wins the most matches wins.
Makuuchi is the highest of six divisions in the professional version of Japan’s national sport, sumo. Makunouchi means ”inside the curtain” and shows the enormous difference between being a sekitori and a paid sumo wrestler with many privileges. Those who reach the rank of yokozuna, the highest, can look forward to a monthly salary of just over 200,000 kroner. After each win, the referee holds out his fan (gunbai) with many envelopes, each with 30,000 yen. Between 300,000 and 600,000 yen for a won match is not unusual, or between 20 and 40,000 kroner. Whoever wins the tournament receives a bonus of 10,000,000 yen or 700,000 kroner. An annual income of close to SEK 10 million is thus not abnormal for a highly-ranked wrestler.
5. Diet and weight gain
Unlike most other martial arts, sumo does not categorize its participants into weight classes, but the main thing is to get as big as possible. The bigger a wrestler is, the better his conditions are considered in the ring. Wrestlers train more than five hours a day to achieve the perfect sumo body. The food is divided into two huge meals, where neither breakfast nor snacks are included. At lunch, however, the wrestlers eat a massive chankonabe, a protein-rich stew containing meat, vegetables and rice. On average, a sumo wrestler can eat up to 10,000 calories daily. The huge food intake is followed by a long nap, allowing the calories to take root. At noon, the wrestlers are awakened to once again consume the same enormous food intake before going to bed again. Smoking is now forbidden, but most sumo wrestlers consume beer and sake in large quantities to put on extra pounds.
6. Sumo wrestlers are necessarily fat
The enormous physique that characterizes sumo wrestlers is a relatively young phenomenon in the Japanese national sport. It wasn’t until well into the 20th century that the typical behemoth of sumo wrestlers began to take shape – before that, sumo wrestlers were smaller and often had more well-defined musculature. But far from all weight is fat. According to the study ”Upper limit of fat-free mass in humans: A study on Japanese Sumo wrestlers”, the average fat percentage of sumo wrestlers is indeed 26% (compared to 11% for bodybuilders and 12% for untrained), but when it comes to fat-free mass (muscle mass) the sumo wrestlers are at the top: The largest sumo wrestler in the study had 121 kilos of fat-free mass, which for his height corresponds to 0.65 kilos of fat-free mass/cm. The former Mr Olympia, Phil Heath, had just over 109 kilos of fat-free mass in 2012,
One of the greatest sumo champions of our time, Chiyonofuji Mitsugu (1955-2016), was relatively light at around 120 well-trimmed kilos. Chiyonofuji won 31 tournaments, surpassed only by Taihō Kōki and Hakuhō Shō. He won more tournaments in his 30s than any other wrestler. Chiyonofuji had 1,045 career victories, two fewer than Kaiō Hiroyuki, who reached 1,047 victories.
7. Gyoji – the dutiful sumo referee
Sumo wrestlers, or gyoji as they are called in Japan, live at least as interesting a life as the wrestlers. At a young age, the referee enters the world of sumo and stays there until they retire. Like the wrestlers, they live in a hierarchy where they are ranked and graded according to their ability in the ring. The traditional clothes they wear are classified by rank; the higher they get, the more honourable names they bear. For a gyoji, the profession of a judge means strict loyalty, duty and honour. The knife that the referee carries during a match is a symbol of their intention to commit ritual suicide (seppuku) should he make a mistake. The highest-ranking gyoji (equivalent to yokozuna for wrestlers) takes the honorary title of Kimura Shonosuke. Still, unlike a Yokozuna, the title can only be held by one person at a time.
8. Hairstyle and clothing with cultural anchoring
When a sumo wrestler joins a stable, they are expected to let their hair grow out to tie it up in a traditional knot that dates back to the Edo period samurai hairstyles. During tournaments, a specialist hairdresser spends 10-15 minutes per wrestler to oil the hair and set it up in a set that resembles a chrysanthemum, the flower that is the seal of the Japanese emperor. This hairstyle is said to provide some protection at the beginning of a match when the opponents go at each other. When a sumo wrestler’s career is over, his hair is cut off in a traditional ceremony. Active sumo wrestlers must wear yukata daily, a kimono-like coat. Ordinary clothes and shoes are prohibited. Sumo wrestlers are also expected to be low-key and act like real samurai, competing or at home.
9. Little room for foreign wrestlers
For a long time, there were no restrictions regarding the number of foreigners in sumo wrestling and wrestlers were often recruited from, among other places, Mongolia. Nowadays, foreign sumo wrestlers are not as welcome and are only allowed to occupy one place per stall. Despite these restrictions, foreign sumo wrestlers have achieved success and recognition. Takanoyama Shuntaro, also known as ”Skinny Sumo”, is a Czech sumo wrestler who has proven with his impressive success that neither size nor nationality need matter. In 2011, ”Skinny” finally achieved Makuuchi, the highest division in sumo wrestling.
10. No female wrestlers and a driving ban
Women are not allowed to practice professional sumo wrestling, only at the amateur level and in the West. In Japan, the official Sumo Association, JSA, does not even allow women to enter the sumo ring because it is considered against the traditional view of purity. The ban caused problems when there was a female governor in Osaka between 2000 and 2008. According to tradition, the governor presents an award in the ring at the end of the tournament, which the female governor was prohibited from doing. She repeatedly urged the JSA to allow her to exercise her traditional role as governor but was unsuccessful. The fight continued until her term was over. Yes, as absurd as it sounds, it is true. Incidentally, JSA has also introduced a for sumo wrestlers to drive. If a sumo wrestler breaks the rule, it leads to a fine.