The History Of Sumo – Everything You Need To Know

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My introduction to Japanese sport came from a late-night battle with jetlag.  We switched on the television in our Hokkaido apartment and between the crazy game shows and dramas, we found one of the most interesting sports we’ve ever encountered – sumo wrestling.

Sumo is a Japanese style of wrestling, and it’s also the country’s national sport. Matches are fought between wrestlers whose goal is to gain weight and strength, which might seem counter-intuitive when compared to the stereotypical image of a fit, lean athlete. But despite their size, sumo wrestlers, or rikishi, are models of strength, determination, and dedication to a craft, and their sport is one that dates back centuries.

We are going to look at the history of sumo, and tell you everything you need to know about this beloved Japanese sport.

What is sumo wrestling?

The clue is in the title – sumo is essentially a style of wrestling that originated in Japan centuries ago. It literally means “striking one another”, which is exactly what sumo wrestlers do. We’ll get into the specifics in detail soon, but simply – two wrestlers enter the ring at a time, with the sole purpose of either forcing one another out of the ring, or into touching the ground with any body part that isn’t the soles of their feet. Wrestlers fight during tournaments, or basho/honbasho, where they are divided into different divisions depending on ability and previous wins or status in the sport.

The matches take place on an elevated ring (you might know it as a dohyo), and can last anywhere from several seconds, to a minute or more, although it’s rare that they last more (and is thrilling when it does happen). Spectators watch the matches from seats that surround the entire ring, and if you’re sitting near the front, there’s a chance you might get squashed by a falling sumo.

Unlike many other sports, there are no weight restrictions, and people are not divided according to weight, but instead worth their way through the classes according to wins and skill. The classes are complicated, and hard to follow for newcomers to the sport, particularly if you don’t speak Japanese. But once you get a basic grasp of the structure, it’s exciting to see some of your favourite wrestlers progress.

We’ll look at each part of that brief description in detail soon, but first – what is the history of the sport?

When did sumo start?

The first recorded mention of sumo can be found in a manuscript dating back to 712 C.E., which details a wrestling match that was used to decide possession of different Japanese Islands. The match was between the Gods Takeminakata and Takemikazuchi, so we can’t attest to whether they actually happened here of course, but the mention of the wrestling itself is thought to be an indication of what we now know as sumo.

In a later manuscript, the first sumo match between men was actually dated to 23 B.C. when two men fought at the request of Suinin, the emperor at the time. The winner, Nomi no Sukune, is thought to be the ancestor of sumo because of this battle, in which he killed his opponent Taima no Kuehaya. Matches continued to be fought to the death right up until the middle ages, often as entertainment for visiting foreign royalty. Sumo as we know it today was really shaped during the Edo period, thanks to several different influences.

Shinto influence on sumo wrestling

During the Kamakura period (1192 -1333) sumo was used as a form of combat training for those in the military – i.e. samurai. Shoguns and feudal lords also saw it as a way to settle their differences, which was great for travelling samurai, as the winner would often earn a cash prize (a tradition that’s still in place today). By 1578, it had grown in popularity among the general population, and tournaments of hundreds, even thousands of wrestlers were held.

At one such event, devoted fan Oda Nobunaga commissioned 1500 wrestlers to fight in the grounds of his castle, and the modern-day circular dohyo was created to allow for multiple battles to take place at the same time. From 1603 onwards, the Edo period brought with it a change in how sumo was developed – fighting in the streets led to a ban of sumo in the hopes of quieting the violence, and matches were only permitted to be held again at Shinto shrines.

Shinto was the primary religion in Japan, and so many Shinto rituals and beliefs naturally crossed over into sumo practice. Sumo being practised at Shinto temples during the Edo period meant that many Shinto ceremonial practices were incorporated into every stage of a sumo match. The dohyo itself is still considered a sacred space, the officiators of each match are dressed in strikingly similar garments to Shinto priests, the ring is even blessed before each tournament, and salt, dried squid, kelp, and chestnuts are buried in the centre of the ring.

If you’ve ever watched highlights from a tournament day, you might have even seen the top wrestlers performing their own ritual at the start of each day. These “ring-entering” ceremonies require top division wrestlers to perform what’s known as a clapping ritual, which is said to attract the attention of the Shinto gods before each day of wrestling. Before each match you’ll even see each wrestler throw salt into the ring several times, which is said to purify it.

How is sumo organized?

As you’ll gather from the many Shinto rituals that are still practiced to this day, sumo has undergone very little change relatively speaking (aside from the fact opponents aren’t allowed to kill or kick each other anymore of course). The most striking change has not been within the sport itself, but rather in the way it is organised. The Meiji Restoration revived love for the sport, which had diminished a little before 1868, when Emperor Meiji organised a tournament in 1884, cementing sumo as the internationally recognised sport of Japan.

In 1925, the Japan Sumo Association reunited after their hiatus, and over the years they arranged and increased the number of official tournaments annually. These tournaments are known as hon-basho, and there are currently 6 honbasho held every year. They are not to be confused with display basho which take place year-round as part of sumo tours, and do not have any effect on a sumo’s official ranking within the official divisions. Here’s the schedule of honbasho each year:

HonbashoNicknameCityVenueOpening Day
JanuaryHatsu BashoTokyoRyogoku Kokugikan1st/2nd Sunday
MarchHaru BashoOsakaOsaka Prefectural Gymnasium2nd Sunday
MayNatsu BashoTokyoRyogoku Kokugikan2nd Sunday
JulyNagoya BashoNagoyaAichi Prefectural Gymnasium1st/2nd Sunday
SeptemberAki BashoTokyoRyogoku Kokugikan2nd Sunday
NovemberKyushu BashoFukuokaFukuoka Kokusai Centre2nd Sunday
The JSA Sumo schedule each year.

As well as a regimented tournament schedule, the process of becoming a professional sumo and the different divisions are strictly organised too, but not in the way that you would think.

How do you become a sumo wrestler, or rikishi?

To become a sumo wrestler and compete professionally, one must be part of a stable. A stable or heya is essentially a place where a chosen group of sumo wrestlers train, eat and live. It could be likened to people from different gyms who train together, only in this case they live there too. Loyalty is paramount in Japan, in all professional fields, so a sumo is expected to stay with his chosen stable (or stable master) until the last match of his career.

The heya is managed by the stable master, or oyakata (boss), who oversees everything from lodging, to new recruits, to food, and training. All sumo wrestlers train with a stable – there are no rogue sumo who compete only for themselves, and the JSA are strict in enforcing these rules.

So, what are the requirements of starting your official sumo training? There are three main conditions before a person will be accepted into a stable, and into the JSA: 1. The applicant must have completed compulsory education, and should be 23 or younger on the day he tries out officially. 2. He must be 173cm+ tall. 3. He should weigh 75KG or more.

While these rules are generally adhered to, stable masters have been known to turn a blind eye to somebody on their tiptoes or drinking pints of water on test day, if they show enough promise. Even young men straight out of school can apply, but they must have parental approval and a certificate of good health from a doctor.

In recent years, applications have dwindled a little, with many oyakata stating that the newer generation of applicants are quick to run away when they see the amount of dedication involved (we’ll get to that later). Fortunately for the spot, Japanese aren’t the only ones who can apply. 

Can anyone be a sumo wrestler?

Considering Japan’s population is roughly 95% Japanese and 5% foreigners, it surprised me to learn that there are no nationality restrictions in professional sumo. While men are the only ones allowed to become rikishi (professional sumo), many of Japan’s top wrestlers are from other countries. Between January 2006 and January 2016, 56 out of 58 tournaments were won by Mongolians, who dominated several of the topmost spots in the top divisions. In the early 90s, a spell of foreign winners led the JSA to introduce new “unofficial” rules (or enro – restraint) about how many foreigners could be actively recruited by stable masters.

Stable masters across the country agreed to limit the number of foreigners that were actively scouted, and by 2002 only one foreign sumo per stable was allowed (not including those already competing in the sport professionally). Despite the level of, shall we say, national pride in Japan (which I’ve covered in other articles), once a foreigner has become a rikishi they are able to progress through the divisions as far as their skill allows, and they are cheered for as loudly as anyone else, regardless of nationality.

Personally, I love sports like this – ones where the only things that matter are personal conduct and skill, regardless of where you are from or your heritage within the sport or country. Obviously, it would be amazing if female sumo wrestlers were offered the same opportunities, but unfortunately they can’t compete at a professional level in Japan right now. I’ve mentioned the divisions several times with no explanation (I’m sorry), so let’s dive a little deeper into how they work.

How are sumo wrestlers ranked?

Unlike many competitive sports, there are no weight classes within sumo divisions – rikishi are promoted or demoted through the divisions based on their wins. Eight wins or more during a tournament will lead to a promotion, while eight or more losses will result in a demotion. There are six divisions in total, comprising around 650 wrestlers.

  • Maku-uchi – division 1 (the highest/best wrestlers) in order of rank – Yokozuna, Ozeki, Sekiwake, Komusubi, and Maegashira.
  • Juryo – division 2
  • Makushita – division 3
  • Sandame – division 4
  • Jonidan – division 5
  • Jonokuchi – division 6

The maku-uchi division contains the 42 best rikishi, and they are naturally the focus of most media attention. This makes sense when you consider that following 650 wrestlers competing in 6 tournaments a year that last 15 days each would be a pretty hefty time commitment, even if the matches are only a few minutes in total. Within each division, there are then different positions of sumo, with Jonokuchi being the lowest, and Yokozuna being the highest you can achieve. At each tournament, divisions 3 through 6 compete within their ranks, and division 1 and 2 compete against each other.

How does a sumo become a Yokozuna?

With great difficulty. Rising up through the bottom divisions is relatively straightforward – win 8 or more battle in a tournament and you’ll be moved up. But the rank of Yokozuna is incredibly difficult to achieve – there have only been 72 since the first sumo was given the title posthumously. His name was Akashi Shiganosuke, and he was active between 1624-1643 – the fact that there have only been 72 Yokozuna in 396 years should tell you how difficult it is to become one.

Typically, to get close to becoming a Yokozuna, a rikishi must win two hon-basho tournaments consecutively (which is difficult enough in itself). Additionally, they are expected to conduct themselves with the utmost honour and respect. While they can never technically be demoted, there has been at least one instance of a Yokozuna having to relinquish the role due to “unacceptable” public behaviour (if you’re reading this Harumafuji, my husband misses seeing your matches during every hon-basho). Yokozuna usually retire when they’ve aged-out of the sport, or are encouraged to do so after many consecutive losses, but considering the amount of skill and strength it takes to attain the role, this is incredibly rare.

What kind of training do sumo wrestlers do?

The life of a rikishi is strict and regimented, and has been known for being brutal in previous years. The lower ranking wrestlers awake between 5-5:30am and prepare the stable for the day’s activities, which includes getting the ring ready. Higher ranking sumo get up around 7-7:30am, and immediately commence the morning training, which includes stretching, strength exercises, and bouts with each other. The training area is a hub of activity even for those who are not wrestling, as they will sweep the ring between matches, offer water to higher ranking sumo that have helped them in some way, and bring salt for the purification of the ring.

Training usually ends at 11:30am, when the rikishi will have a bath and their first meal of the day. Looking at the size of these wrestlers, you might be surprised to learn that they skip the most important meal of the day, but they certainly make up for it at lunch and dinner time, eating up to 10’000 calories at each meal.

Yes, you read that correctly, sumo wrestlers can eat as many as 20’000 calories a day (although some other wrestlers claim to eat anywhere between 4000-10’000), which helps contribute to their size and strength. After lunch, they’ll nap, enjoy free time, eat dinner, and then enjoy more free time. The lower ranks have much less free time, as they complete chores around the stable. Some stables then have a curfew.

It’s an unusual training schedule by western standards, but training has been done this way for centuries, and clearly achieves the result rikishi are hoping for – incredible strength, size, and power. On learning about their calorific diet, many people ask the same question.

Are sumo wrestlers healthy?

While there are risks to being overweight, or even obese as most sumo wrestlers would be classified, a sumo’s weight is stored differently to the average obese person. Because of the heavy amounts of exercise, and their (mostly) healthy diet, sumo wrestlers don’t have much of the dangerous visceral fat that leads to issues like high blood pressure, Type-2 diabetes, and even some forms of cancer. But, they still have a lot of fat, right? Where does it go?

Studies and scans have shown that sumo wrestlers tend to store fat right beneath the skin (also known as subcutaneous fat). Incredibly, when scientists did some studies on sumo wrestlers to find out about their physical makeup, they found them to have normal levels of triglycerides, and low levels of cholesterol.

This probably wouldn’t be the case if wrestlers didn’t get quite so much exercise – from the schedule you can see they wrestle for around 5-6 hours a day. Also, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but not all calories are created equal, and a sumo spends his time taking in the good kind. Their main source of nutrition (aside from evening beers, of course) is a dish called chanko nabe, which is made up of a meat-based broth, chicken, fish, and plenty of vegetables. It’s always served with beer and white rice, too. So, they’re eating lots of calories, but they’re healthy calories.

Of course, when sumo wrestlers retire, they are at risk of several health problems if they fail to lose weight quickly. The additional lbs put pressure on the joints, and without the exercise to offset the calories in, sumo wrestlers would be at risk of the health concerns listed above.

What happens at a sumo match?

We’ve looked at the history, the diet, the health-concerns, and the rituals…..but once they’ve eaten, bathed, and trained, how do they actually win? Wrestlers begin a match by purifying the ring with salt, and they do this several times. The wrestler on the east side of the ring enters first, and both wrestlers then complete a series of movements like stomping and raising their legs. This is an ancient ritual thought to drive out evil spirits from the ring.

They then raise their arms to show they have no weapons, and toss the salt again. This is done several times, before the wrestlers put both fists to the ground and charge, each trying to get the other to touch the ground with anything other than the soles of their feet. Each match is monitored by the referee (gyoji) in the ring, and five others around it. Is there a technique to winning a sumo match? Of course!

There are currently around 82 legal kimarite (techniques) that rikishi can use to win, with the most recognisable being:

  • Oshidashi – pushing your opponent out of the ring without touching their mawashi (or the thing that looks a little like a nappy thong to uncultured swine like myself in the west)
  • Yori kiri – forcing somebody out of the ring by holding their mawashi
  • Suridashi – lifting somebody out of the ring
  • Uwatenage – slamming your opponent to the ground in an overarm throw

Forbidden sumo moves include punching, pulling hair, and grabbing the crotch area (ouch). Some moves are also considered unsuitable for Yokozuna to use because their skill level should be high enough that they don’t need them. A great example of this is a sneaky move in which one wrestler will clap his hands in front of his opponent’s face as they charge, causing him to close his eyes, subsequently losing balance and any advantage he might have had.

The legendary Mongolian-born Hakuhō, who currently has several sumo records including longest-standing Yokozuna, is considered to be one of the greatest wrestlers of all time, and is my favourite rikishi after Ura Kazuki, which isn’t an award but I thought you should know, has been criticized for using this technique, with onlookers stating that the move is below the station of a true Yokozuna.

The winner of the match receives a cash prize, while the loser has to stand and bow to the sumo who has bested him. At the end of each tournament, a ceremony takes place in which awards are given to whoever has won the honbasho overall.

Fun Facts

  • If a low-ranking sumo wrestler beats a Yokozuna, all the spectators throw their cushions into the ring in celebration!
  • Historically, the Gyoji (referees) were expected to commit seppuku (disembowelment) if they made an inaccurate call during a match (thankfully this isn’t the case anymore).
  • The longest ever recorded sumo match happened in 1951, and lasted a whopping 32 minutes.
  • Not only does Yokozuna Hakuhō hold the record for holding the title for longer than any other sumo, he also holds the record for most ever career wins. He broke the record in July 2017 with his 1048th win, and has since gone on to win many other battles.
  • The slicked back topknot (chonmage) that sumo wrestlers wear used to be a mandatory hairstyle for samurai, but sumos continued the style until the present day!
  • During tournaments, chanko nabe is only ever served with chicken, and never any other land-animal, since chickens stand on two feet, while cows and pigs stand on four, resembling how wrestlers look after losing a match. 
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