The rikishi (sumo
wrestler, lit. "strong man") crouch at the starting lines - the shikirisen
. They stare at each other. They wait. And then they charge.
The tachiai is the initial charge in a sumo bout. "Tachi" is "stand up" and "ai" is "join", so "tachiai" might be translated into something like "get up and go for it". Which is exactly what the wrestlers do.
Once the gyoji (referee) has given the signal to start, the rikishi must synchronize their charge. They do this by crouching down and touching the ground with their fists. When both wrestlers have their fists on the ground, they charge. There is a lot of psychological warfare involved, as a good tachiai is often crucial for the outcome of the bout. The rikishi will almost put his fist down, change his mind, hesitate, stand up, crouch down again: all in order to get the mental upper hand1.
The tachiai really is a "clash of giants". The rikishi (or sumotori) slam into each other, and very often their heads meet with considerable force. (This shows how strong and powerful they are - as most people would pass clean out, should they try a stunt like that). The wrestlers will try to get a grip on their opponent - or perhaps one will jump to the side ("do a henka") to win by eg. hatakikomi (one of more than 80 winning techniques); either way, the bout will probably not last more than 5 or 10 seconds.
False starts (matta) occur rather frequently, and though there is no danger of being disqualified on that account there is a hefty fine2 for each false start.
- There is a four minute time limit (seigen jikan) on tachiai. The limit was primarily introduced to make sumo more media-friendly.
- For the top division, makuuchi, the fine is 100,000 yen. For the second highest division, juryo, it is 50,000 yen. For the ranks below, false starts are "free", although frowned upon.
My sources are:
www.scgroup.com/sumo, www.sumo.or.jp/eng, and matt.waggoner.com/sumo.html