Sumo Wrestling: The Ultimate Guide

A guide to sumo wrestling.
A guide to sumo wrestling.

Sumo wrestling dates back to over a millennium and is the second most popular sport in Japan right after baseball. We have all seen it at some point in our lives, but not many of us know what it’s really about. Here we will learn more about sumo wrestling rules, the ranking system, training routines, famous wrestlers of past and present, and tournament schedules.

Topics Covered

  • What is sumo wrestling?
  • Sumo wrestling rules
  • The dohyo
  • Pre-bout rituals
  • Sumo wrestler training
  • Sumo wrestling ranks
  • Commonly asked questions
    • When was sumo wrestling invented?
    • What do sumo wrestlers wear?
    • What do sumo wrestlers eat?
    • How much do sumo wrestlers weigh?
    • Why do sumo wrestlers throw salt?
  • Where to see sumo wrestling in Japan
  • Terminology
Sumo: A Thinking Fan’s Guide to Japan’s National SportSumo: A Thinking Fan’s Guide to Japan’s National Sport – A 224-page book that covers sumo in-depth, including strategies and techniques.
The Way of Salt: Understanding Japan and SumoThe Way of Salt: Understanding Japan and Sumo – A 115-page book that explains how this ancient art form came about and how it ties in with Japanese culture.
Sumo t-shirt with the Makuuchi Division logoSumo t-shirt – 100% cotton and machine washable Osaka, Japan men’s Sumo t-shirt with the Makuuchi Division logo.

This video shows a sumo wrestling match with pre-bout rituals taken in Fukuoka during November 2015. The footage is owned and created by Ahmet Turkoglu.

What is sumo wrestling?

Sumo wrestling is an ancient full contact heavyweight sport shrouded in religious Shinto ceremonies and rituals. The Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters) tells the story of how two gods wrestled one another for possession of the Japanese Islands and have, as a result, become a performance to entertain the various Shinto deities. It’s also the national sport of Japan and can be traced back to around 1,500 years.

Sumo wrestling rules

The rules of sumo wrestling are straightforward. Make your opponent touch the ground with any part of his body other than the soles of his feet or push/throw him out of the ring.

A sumo wrestler, known in Japanese as a rikishi, is permitted to grab his opponent by the mawashi belt or neck to get him out of the ring. Slapping, pushing, and even tripping are allowed, but using fists, kicking, pulling by the hair and striking groin areas are not. Any such illegal moves will result in immediate disqualification. Also, a competitor will instantly lose if his belt comes undone.

Sumo wrestling rules also state that a rikishi instantly loses if he fails to show up for a match even if it’s because of injuries he sustained in the last bout.

There are around 48 different sumo techniques one can use and 70 moves to get an opponent out of the ring or onto the ground.

Interestingly, there are no weight divisions, so it’s common for someone to go up against a competitor twice or even three times his weight. Therefore, each wrestler is responsible for his weight. The more you weigh, the more of an advantage you will have, but it also helps to have a certain level of agility.

The dohyo

The dohyo is the 14.9-foot diameter square ring where fights take place, and they are so much more interesting than your average, let’s say.. boxing ring.

Sumo rules

Dohyo’s are made from bales of rice straw covered with sand and rests on a clay base. It’s built without modern tools, and instead, traditional tools that have been used for centuries are used. Each ring is custom-built for a tournament, and at the end of each match, serious sumo fans break pieces from the dohyo to take home as souvenirs.

Also, this may sound sexist, but the dohyo is seen as a sacred place, and therefore women are not allowed to touch it.

The dohyo design

In the illustration above, you will see two stripes in the center of the ring. These stripes are known as shikiri-sen and indicate where each rikishi must position himself at the start of a match. The edges around the ring are known as the ja-no-me (snake’s eye) and have a layer of sand spread over the surface area so that it’s easy to see whether or not a rikishi went out of the ring.

A 6-ton tsuriyane, which resembles the roof of a Shinto shrine, is suspended above the dohyo. The tsuriyane is held up by cables, but this wasn’t always the case. Up until a few decades ago, it was held up by four pillars but they have been removed to give sumo wrestling fans a better view. However, these four pillars had a significant religious meaning, so to compensate for the missing posts, four purple tassels, known as fusa, hang from each corner of the tsuriyane. These four fusa’s represent the four spirits of directions and seasons: Winter (the black tortoise of the North), Summer (the vermilion bird of the South), Autumn (the white tiger of the West), and Spring (Azure dragon of the East).

Pre-bout rituals

As mentioned, the sport is deeply rooted in Japanese religion, and therefore before a match, each rikishi must perform a series of Shinto rituals.

Wrestlers perform their first ritual before entering the dohyo, and it involves taking a sip of sacred water to rinse out their mouths. Once in the ring, competitors will wipe themselves down with paper towels as a cleansing process and even throw salt onto the dohyo. The salt not only purifies the ring but also protects the rikishi from any injuries which may occur during the match.

A sumo wrestler throwing salt.
Materialscientist at English Wikipedia, Kitazakurasalt, CC BY-SA 3.0

Next, the rikishi calls for the attention of the gods by clapping his hands together. His arms are extended to his sides, and he lifts his palms upwards to show that he is not concealing any weapons. This is followed by the legendary stomping of the feet onto the ground, which symbolizes the squashing of any demons which may be lurking within the dohyo.

Shikiri is probably the most interesting of all the sumo rituals. It’s when each competitor crouches in the start position and stare each other off. One would think the actual bout is about to begin, but at the last second, they will break their positions and return to their respective corners. This can take place multiple times over a four-minute period before any of the wrestlers engage one another.

Sumo wrestler training

Every wrestler belongs to what is known as a stable. A stable is not only a place where training takes place, but it’s also a community of wrestlers, referees, chefs, and hairdressers. All training at the stables is carried out by retired sumo wrestling champions.

Each stable is run by an oyakata and Okami-san (stable master and his wife), whose job is to ensure the traditions of the sport are upheld.

The training program is rigorous and demanding. The day starts at 5:00 AM, and the unranked wrestlers start their training first, which includes leg strengthening exercises along with balance and flexibility training. Practice ends at 10:30 AM, and that concludes all training for the day. Sumo stables have shower facilities for their trainees and a kitchen which serves high-calorie food twice a day, once at 11:00 AM and then again at 18:00.

Sumo wrestlers training at the Hakkaku stable in Tokyo. This video is from Jerome Guzzo.

Sumo wrestling ranks

Sumo ranks

As mentioned, there are no weight divisions; however, there are ranking divisions. The six main divisions are Jonokuchi, Jonidan, Sandanme, Makushita, Juryou, and Makuuchi. The higher a rikishi moves up in the ranks, the higher his salary, and the more popular he becomes with sumo fans.

Low level sumo ranks: Jonokuchi to Makushita levels

Each wrestler starts from the Jonokuchi level to climb the ranks to the top divisions. Low-ranking wrestlers – which range from the Jonokuchi to Makushita levels – are mostly unknown and only receive a basic allowance instead of a full salary. This group is also tasked with the more undesirable duties back at the stables, such as cleaning, cooking, and serving the higher-level sumo wrestlers.

Members of these low-level groups are made up of new wrestlers trying to make a name for themselves and older members who used to be ranked higher, but after a long series of losses dropped back down to the lower levels – usually as a result of some prolonged injuries.

High-level sumo ranks: Juryou to Yokozuna levels

The levels from Makushita to Juryou are the dividing line between the low and high ranks and are often seen as heaven and hell. For a sumo wrestler to make it from the bottom level to Juryou is something that can be achieved in one tournament – as long as he wins each bout.

These high-ranking positions are much desired because they come with fame, high salaries, and, more importantly – none of those undesirable chores back at the sumo stables.

Commonly asked questions

What follows is a list of questions about the sport of sumo wrestling.

When was sumo wrestling invented?

No one knows for sure. The earliest written mention of the sport dates back to 712 AD; however, prehistoric cave drawings have been discovered which depict sumo battles, so it could be much much older than 712 AD. It’s safe to say that it’s at least 1500 to 2000 years old. The sport didn’t always exist in its current form and instead evolved over many centuries into what it is today. Also, sumo didn’t catch on nationally until the 1600s.

What do sumo wrestlers wear?

Sumo wrestlers, during training and tournament matches, wear a loincloth belt, which is known as a mawashi. When fully unwrapped, it stretches an incredible 30 feet long and 2 feet wide.

Sumo wrestler workout
PH1 (AW) M. Clayton Farrington, Sumoworkout, Cropped, CC0 1.0

Top-ranking wrestlers have mawashi made from silk, and they are available in a variety of colors. Interestingly, there is a tradition among rikishi where they will have their mawashi in a specific color as a good luck charm. However, when they start losing bouts consecutively, they will consider the color of their mawashi as the cause of their losing streak and then change colors in the hopes that their luck will change. Unfortunately, low-ranking rikishi is restricted to using plain white cotton mawashi belts.

The way a mawashi is tied around a wrestler can even help him with his strategy. A loosely fitted loincloth will make it difficult for an opponent to throw his competitor, and when it’s fitted tightly, it will be harder for the opponent to grab.

What do sumo wrestlers eat?

Sumo wrestlers eat what is known as chankonabe. There is no set recipe for this uniquely Japanese stew as long as it’s rich in calories and protein. Each sumo stable has its own variety of chankonabe, and it gets served twice a day. A wrestler will start his day training on an empty stomach and then eat large portions of this stew, followed by a nap. Many of those who retired from the sport has opened restaurants specializing in their own unique variety of the dish.

Chankonabe sumo food.
Nacho Facello, Chankonabe-japanesefood2007, Cropped, CC BY-SA 2.0

And if you ever get to watch a live sumo match at a stadium, you will notice that they exclusively serve a type of chicken chankonabe because it’s believed that a rikishi should always be standing on two legs like a chicken.

How much do sumo wrestlers weigh?

The average competitor weighs around 326lbs (148kg), but many are below and above this average. Interestingly, the title of the heaviest sumo wrestler goes to Yamamotoyama Ryuta, who weighed a staggering 584lb (265kg). Yamamotoyama also held the title for being the heaviest person in Japan.

Why do sumo wrestlers throw salt?

Throwing salt onto the dohyo is a Shinto ritual that purifies the ring. It’s also believed to protect the wrestler from any injuries which may occur during the bout.

Famous sumo wrestlers

There are hundreds of rikishi, with most of them being either Japanese or Mongolian. Here we will list some famous Japanese wrestlers from the past and present.

Chiyonofuji Mitsugu

Chiyonofuji Mitsugu
Route246, Kokonoe, CC BY 3.0

Chiyonofuji Mitsugu was born as Mitsugu Akimoto on June 1, 1955, in the town of Fukushima, Hokkaido. He started his wrestling career in September 1970 and reached the top of the sumo ranks 11 years later in July 1981. He was a member of Tokyo’s Kokonoe stable and maintained an average weight of 280lb (127kg) throughout his wrestling years. Chiyonofuji won a total of 31 tournaments and was famous for his technique and fighting spirit. He retired from the ring in May 1991 and passed away from cancer on July 31, 2016.

Goeido Gotaro

Goeido Gotaro
Ogiyoshisan, Goeido Gotaro in Osaka Naritasan 2014-02-03 004, CC BY-SA 2.0

Goeido Gotaro was born as Sawai Gotaro on April 6, 1986, in Osaka, Japan. He has been practicing wrestling since his first day of primary school and started competing professionally in January 2005. Goeido weighs 355lb (161kg), is a member of the Sakaigawa stable, and reached the top of the ranks in September 2014. He is well known for his techniques, which consist mostly of grappling and neck-throwing as opposed to regular pushing tactics. He is still an active wrestler and continues to compete to this day.

Kotoshogiku Kazuhiro

Kotoshogiku Kazuhiro
Mituo.toko68, 大相撲, CC BY-SA 4.0

Kotoshogiku Kazuhiro was born as Kazuhiro Kikutsugi on January 30, 1984, in Yanagawa city. He entered the world of sumo wrestling in 2002 and made his way to the top ranks by 2005. Kotoshogiku is a member of the Sadogatake stable in Matsudo City, Chiba prefecture. In 2011, he competed in 3 tournaments and won 33 bouts for which the Japan Sumo Association promoted him. Additionally, in 2016 he became the first Japanese-born wrestler in ten years to win a top-division tournament.

Wakanohana Masaru

Wakanohana Masaru
Gio la Gamb, Wakanohana – panoramio, CC BY-SA 3.0

Wakanohana Masaru was born as Masaru Hanada on January 20, 1971, in Suginami, Tokyo. His weight was 295lbs (134kg) and belonged to the Futagoyama stable. He made his sumo wrestling debut in March 1988 only to reach the top of the ranks 11 years later in May 1998. Wakanohana won numerous tournaments and retired in March 2000. Since his retirement, he has served as an elder of the Japan Sumo Association, worked as an entertainer within Japan, played American football for the Arizona Rattlers, and is currently the owner of numerous chankonabe restaurants.

Yamamotoyama Ryuta

Yamamotoyama Ryuta
BollywoodHungama, Yamamotoyama Ryūta at Bigg Boss series, India (3), CC BY 3.0

Yamamotoyama Ryuta, simply nicknamed Yama, was born May 8, 1984, in Saitama, Japan. At the height of his career, he weighed an incredible 584lb (265kg), which made him not only the heaviest sumo wrestler in history but also the heaviest person in Japan. Yama made his wrestling debut in January 2007, reached the highest ranks in May 2009, and then retired in April 2011. He didn’t retire out of free will though but was pressured to do so by the Japan Sumo Association after allegations emerged of him rigging matches. Since his retirement, he did a sumo and sushi tour of the US and starred in India’s biggest reality show – Bigg Boss.

Where to see sumo wrestling in Japan

There are six grand tournaments held across Japan each year. Each tournament starts and ends on a Sunday and lasts 15 days each. Three of the six yearly tournaments are held in Tokyo and one tournament each for Osaka, Nagoya, and Fukuoka.

Sumo wrestling terminology

Banzuke: A banzuke is a list of competing wrestlers listed according to their current rank for an upcoming grand tournament.

Basho: A basho is a tournament or the venue where a tournament will be held.

Chankonabe: Chankonabe is the main diet of wrestlers. It’s a high-protein stew that wrestlers eat in large quantities to help them gain weight.

Chonmage: Have you ever wondered what the hairstyle wrestlers have is called? That topknot hairstyle is called a chonmage. The hairstyle has only fairly recently become popular with sumo wrestlers. It was first popularized during the Edo Period, where it was mostly worn by samurai.

Dohyo: A dohyo is a ring where a bout takes place.

Gyoji: A gyoji is a professional sumo referee.

Hikiwake: A hikiwake is a draw. It’s uncommon in the modern era but frequently happened in the old days.

Nihon Sumo Kyokai: The Japanese name for the governing body of professional sumo – the Japan Sumo Association.

Rikishi: The word rikishi directly translates to ‘powerful man’ and refers to a sumo wrestler.

Shikiri-sen: Shikiri-sen are the two white lines you see in the dohyo, which indicate each competitor’s starting position.

Related Content

Watch a real life sumo match in Tokyo.

Are you interested in watching sumo wrestling in Japan? Get your tickets from the Japan Sumo Association here or from here.