Brief Overview of Sumo

Sumo Ritual

Sumo is Originally a Traditional Religious Ritual
Sumo is a Japanese traditional ritual ceremony or festival. At the same time, sumo is also a martial or military art. Sumo is originally a ritual ceremony based on Shinto, which is the Japanese traditional religion, and local communities still have ritual sumo matches held at a shrine as a festival in various regions throughout Japan. Healthy and vital men would offer their power to gods to let the people show their respect and give thanks to gods. For this purpose, they attached great importance to etiquette and formality. Accordingly, sumo wrestlers do not wear anything but a mawashi (a sumo wrestler belt). The Imperial Family has had a close relationship to sumo since ancient times.

Sumo became Worldwide Famous Martial Art/Sport
Sumo ritual 2In addition, chosen people have held performances called Ozumo (grand sumo tournament) in order to obtain prize money to make a living from olden times. In recent years, people in other countries have enjoyed sumo as a traditional Japanese martial art or sport. Looking at sumo as a martial art, people find that it is a wrestling-type of sport in which an almost naked wrestler tries to grab and defeat his opponent without using any weapons. In English, the terms “Sumo” and “Sumo-Wrestling” are used. Sumo is unique when compared to similar types of martial arts in that sumo emphasizes having a wrestler to keep pushing forward. There are similar fighting sports in Japan and other countries such as Bukh in Mongolia, Shuai Jiao in China, Shilm in the Korean Peninsula, Shima in Okinawa islands, and Yagli Gures in Turkey. In June 1936, sumo was added to the regular curriculum of primary schools.

Sumo Wrestlers
Sumo Wrestlers before the Match
Sumo Stadium 'Ryogoku Kokugi-Kan'
Sumo Stadium 'Ryogoku Kokugi-Kan'
Sumo Match
Sumo Match
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Documentary of Sumo (27:13)

History of Japanese Sumo

Ancient Picture of Sumo

Sumo in Japanese Ancient Myth
Sumo has a long history, and is described in “haniwa” (hollow clay figures) and unglazed Sueki ware from the Kofun period (tumulus period: 3rd to 7th century ). The volume of Kamiyo (ages of gods) in the Japanese old book “Kojiki” (The Records of Ancient Matters), which refers to the ancient Japanese myth, includes a story concerning Takeminakata (a Japanese god) saying to Takemikazuchi (other Japanese god) that he wanted to find out which of them was the stronger god, and attempting to grab Takemikazuchi’s arm and throw him, when Takemikazuchi was dispatched to Ashihara no Nakatsukuni (the Central Land of Reed Plains) in order to conquer that place. Takeminakata could not grab Takemikazuchi’s arm eventually because Takemikazuchi changed his arm into an icicle and then a sword. Moreover, Takemikazuchi crashed Takeminakata’s hand in his hand as if it was a reed, and Takeminakata was no match for him. This is said to be the origin of sumo.

History of Sumo

Sumo has more than 2000 yeas history
According to Nihonshoki (The Chronicles of Japan), the oldest fight between human fighters, not gods, was a fight between NOMI no Sukune and TAIMA no Kehaya at Sumaitorashimu (also sometimes called Sumai) on August 26, B.C. 23 (this fight is also regarded as the origin of judo). This book says that the emperor heard that TAIMA no Kehaya was the greatest wrestler and he also said that Sukume broke Kehaya’s rib and hipbones with his kick technique and killed him. This is different from modern sumo, and was obviously a military or martial art. Sukume is worshiped as the father of sumo. In addition to Kojiki and Nihonshoki, descriptions of sumo are seen in other materials such as “Shoku Nihongi” (The Chronicle of Japan Continued), “Nihon Koki” (The Later Chronicle of Japan), “Shoku Nihon Koki” (The Later Chronicle of Japan Continued), “Nihon Montoku Tenno Jitsuroku” (The Veritable Records of Emperor Montoku of Japan), “Nihon Sandai Jitsuroku” (The Veritable Records of Three Reigns of Japan), “Ruiju Kokushi” (The Classified National History), “Nihongi Ryaku” (The Summary of Japanese Chronologies), “Shoyuki” (The Diary of FUJIWARA no Sanesuke), and “Chuyuki” (The Diary of FUJIWARA no Munetada).

History of SumoConnection between Sumo and Imperial Court of Japan
In 726, they defined a list of prohibited techniques, 48 major sumo techniques, etiquette, and good manners. Emperor Shomu (whose reign was from 724 to 749) issued an Imperial order in order to almost forcibly recruit sumo wrestlers from rural communities throughout the country. This was because the Emperor enjoyed watching sumo matches in the garden of the Shishinden Hall (the Hall for State Ceremonies) of the Imperial Court during the annual ceremony of the Star Festival held on July 7. In the Heian period, sumo was already an important ceremony of the Imperial Court. The Sumai no Sechie (Festival of Wrestling) was held regularly every year as one of sando sechi (three annual Court ceremonies). In addition to Sumai no Sechie at the Imperial Court, ordinary citizens also enjoyed sumo very much. Meanwhile, buke zumo (samurai sumo) among samurai was training of wrestling for actual combat, and also referred to martial arts that allowed them to train their body and mind.

Start of Ozumo (Grand Sumo Tournament)
In the Edo period, Ozumo (grand sumo tournament) became a professional occupation. The original wrestlers Ozumo were probably samurai, often Ronin, who needed to find an alternative form of income. Current professional sumo tournaments began in the Tomioka Hachiman Shrine in 1684, and then were held in the Eko-in in the Edo period. Western Japan also had its own sumo venues and tournaments in this period with by far the most prominent center being in Osaka. Osaka sumo continued to the end of the Taisho period in 1926, when it merged with Tokyo sumo to form one organization. For a short period after this four tournaments were held a year, two tournaments in locations in western Japan such as Nagoya, Osaka and Fukuoka, and two in the Ryogoku Kokugikan in Tokyo. From 1933 onward tournaments were held almost exclusively in the Ryogoku Kokugikan until the American occupation forces appropriated it and the tournaments were moved to Meiji Shrine until the 1950s. Then an alternate location, the Kuramae Kokugikan which was near Ryogoku, was built for sumo. Also in this period, the Sumo Association began expanding to venues in western Japan again, reaching a total of six tournaments a year by 1958 with half of them in Kuramae. In 1984, the Ryogoku Kokugikan was rebuilt and sumo tournaments in Tokyo have been held there ever since.

Grand Sumo Tournament
Grand Sumo Tournament in Edo Period

How to Have a Sumo Match


Sumo in Japanese Ancient Myth
Basically, two persons wearing a sumo wrestler’s belt stand on a “Dohyo” in the shape of a circle with a diameter of 4.55 meters (15 shaku) or a square, and they wrestle with each other to fight to the finish. A wrestler loses when he goes out of the dohyo, when his body parts except for his soles touch the ground, or when he commits a foul. A Gyoji (sumo referee) produces a decision. Traditionally, a wrestler’s age, height, and weight do not affect sumo matches.

Two wrestlers stand facing each other with a short distance between them on a circle-shaped “Dohyo”, and they bend their knees until they can touch the starting line with their fists. This step is called “Shikiri”, and the wrestlers should repeat this until their Tachiai (rising from a crouch to attack) was successfully made. Wrestlers with their fists touching the ground lock eyes with each other, and then rise to the attack at the same time. They usually attack the opponent from the front, but it does not mean they always have to do this. This initial charge is called “Tachiai”. Tachiai is unique to Japan and no other countries start their matches in this way. Only a tacit understanding between the wrestlers can determine the starting time for wrestling. The ideal Tachiai is such that two spirited wrestlers stand up when both wrestlers are fully motivated after repeating Shikiri. A Gyoji simply confirms the wrestlers’ tachiai, and he does not declare the start of the match, unlike referees and umpires of other sports.

A match is decided when one of the following occurs.
When any of the opponent’s body parts except for his soles touch the Dohyo
The opponent loses if he is thrown down and his back touches the ground, he is pulled and his fist touches the ground, or even his hair touches the ground in an extreme case.

When the opponent is pushed out of the Dohyo
The wrestler wins as soon as a part of his opponent’s body touches the outside of the Dohyo.

In many sumo-like fighting sports except for Japanese sumo, a player wins if his or her opponent’s back touches the ground just like a fall in wrestling. Additionally, while going out of a fighting area is an offense in such sports, the player often does not lose the match straight after in most cases. For these two reasons, a sumo match can be concluded in a short period of time, and no one can expect the result of a match until just before it actually ends. This is one of the reasons why sumo tournaments can have fair matches without weight categories.
Pushing is the most important thing in sumo. A sumo wrestler pulls his hand and arm when he grabs his opponent belt, but even in that case, the wrestler tries to keep going forward eventually with his arms pulling back. Some people say, “Whether or not your opponent pushes, just keep going forward.” There are some pulling techniques such as hikiotoshi (hand pull-down) in fact, but many people do not like such techniques. In addition, people think that, even if the opponent steps back, the wrestler should go forward faster than his opponent’s step.

Sumo Fighting
Sumo Fighting2

Divisions of Grand Sumo Tournament

Grand Sumo Tournament is divided into 6 ranked divisions. Wrestlers are promoted and demoted within and between these divisions based on the merit of their win/loss records in official tournaments. For more information see Kachikoshi and Makekoshi. Wrestlers are also ranked within each division. The higher a wrestler's rank within a division is, the stronger the general level of opponents he will have to face becomes. According to tradition, each rank is further subdivided into East and West, with East being slightly more prestigious, and ranked slightly higher than its West counterpart. The divisions, ranked in order of hierarchy from highest to lowest, are as follows:

MakuuchiMakuuchi (幕内)
Makuuchi, or Makunouchi, is the top division. It is fixed at 42 wrestlers who are ranked according to their ability, as defined by their performance in previous tournaments. At the top of the division are the "titleholders", or "champions" called the san'yaku comprising yokozuna, ōzeki, sekiwake and komusubi. There are typically 8-12 wrestlers in these ranks with the remainder, called maegashira, ranked in numerical order from 1 downwards. This is the only division that is featured on standard NHK's live coverage of sumo tournaments and is broadcast bilingually. The latter part of the lower divisions is shown on satellite coverage.

The name makuuchi literally means "inside the curtain", a reference to the early period of professional sumo, when the top ranked wrestlers were able to sit in a curtained off area prior to appearing for their bouts. Possibly confusingly, makuuchi can also refer to the top two divisions makuuchi and Juryo as a whole, as the wrestlers in these divisions are salaried and considered professionals as opposed to "in training".

Juryo Juryo (十両)
Juryo, is the second highest division, and is fixed at 28 wrestlers. The name is derived from ten ´ryō, which was previously the income a wrestler ranked in this division could expect to receive. Wrestler in this and the makuuchi division above are known as sekitori. The official name of the division is actually Jumaime, and can be heard in official announcements and seen in some publications, but within and without the sumo world it is almost universally known as Juryo.
Juryo wrestlers, like those in the top makuuchi division, receive a regular monthly salary as well as other perks associated with having become a sekitori, or a member of the two upper divisions in sumo. Sumo wrestlers ranked in the divisions below Juryo are considered to be in training and receive a small allowance instead of a salary.

Juryo wrestlers, along with their makuuchi counterparts, are the only professional sumo wrestlers who compete in a full fifteen bouts per official tournament. In the case of injuries with makuuchi wrestlers pulling out, Juryo wrestlers near the top of the division may find themselves in the occasional matchup with a top-division wrestler. Such Juryo-makuuchi matchups are also not uncommon towards the end of a sumo tournament, in order to better establish promotion and relegation of individuals between the two divisions.
As once a wrestler is promoted to Juryo he is considered a professional with significant salary and privileges, promotees to Juryo are announced just a few days after a preceding tournament, whereas other rankings are not announced for several weeks.

MakushitaMakushita (幕下)
Makushita is the third highest division. Prior to the creation of the jūryō division, this division was only one below the topmost makuuchi division (meaning inside the curtain). Hence makushita, literally meaning "below (shita) the curtain (maku)".
In the current system, there are 120 wrestlers in the division (60 ranked on the East and 60 on the West side of the banzuke). Unlike the sekitori ranks above them, wrestlers compete only seven times during a tournament.

It is often considered that holding the rank of makushita is the first step toward becoming a professional (sekitori ranked) sumo wrestler. Furthermore it can be regarded as the most heavily contested division, with younger sumo wrestlers on their way up competing with those older sumo wrestlers who have dropped from jūryō and are determined to regain the higher rank. A key incentive is the difference between being ranked in the topmost makushita slot versus the lowest jūryō rank, which has been likened to being that between heaven and hell: A wrestler ranked at makushita or lower is expected to carry out chores for the stable and any sekitori within it, whereas the Juryo wrestler will be served upon. Similarly the Juryo wrestler receives a comfortable monthly salary, whereas a wrestler below makushita still only receives a small living allowance.

Winning all seven matches in a tournament grants an unconditional advance to the Juryo division if one is ranked within the top thirty members of the division. For any other member of the division a 7-0 record will guarantee promotion to within the top thirty members, so two successive 7-0 records will allow a makushita wrestler to advance to Juryo.

SandanmeSandanme (三段目)
Sandanme is the fourth highest division. This level represents the first break point in the treatment a wrestler receives as he rises up the ranks. From sandanme he is allowed a better quality of dress, most notably he no longer needs to wear geta on his feet and can wear a form of overcoat over his yukata. However, the wrestlers are still considered to be in training, receiving only an allowance rather than a salary.

There is typically a set number of 200 wrestlers in sandanme and as with the other divisions below jūryō, wrestlers only compete in seven bouts, held roughly every other day.

JonidanJonidan (序二段)
Jonidan is the fifth highest division. Unlike the divisions above it, there is no fixed number of wrestlers in the division although it is usually the largest division in any given tournament, with commonly around 200-250 wrestlers ranked within it. As a result of the numbers, and the fact that, as with the other lower divisions, the wrestlers fight only seven times during a tournament, a play-off tournament on the last day is normally required to determine the division champion.

Wrestlers in this division are forbidden from wearing overcoats over their thin cotton yukata, even in winter, and must wear geta on their feet. They often also pick up many of the more mundane chores within the training stable in which they live.

JonokuchiJonokuchi (序の口)
Jonokuchi is the lowest division. All wrestlers, apart from those who have had successful amateur careers and are given special dispensation to enter makushita directly, start in this division. In addition to the new wrestlers the division tends to consist of other recent recruits to sumo wrestling as well as some older wrestlers who have fallen to the bottom of the ranks due to prolonged injury.

A new wrestler's initial position in the jonokuchi division is determined by his performance in maezumō, a tournament held among new wrestlers at the time of the grand tournament before they are ranked for the first time. The jonokuchi division varies in size and typically includes between 40 and 90 rikishi, with the high mark being reached for each May tournament as the number of recruits appearing in maezumō is generally largest during the preceding March tournament, when the Japanese school year ends. As with the other lower divisions, wrestlers only compete in seven bouts over the course of the tournament. Jonokuchi is the only division in which a wrestler can be promoted even with a losing record; promotions to the next highest jonidan division with a losing record are not uncommon, especially when there is a large influx of new recruits. The word jonokuchi is also used as an expression to describe when something has just begun.

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Encyclopedia of Japan