Sumo for Beginners

”Two fat, naked men hugging each other while wearing a sort of thong.”
That’s how an (ignorant) friend of mine once described Sumo. Although basically kind of true, the description does leave out the more subtle aspects of the sport. But if one accidentally comes across a Sumomatch, whilst channelsurfing on one’s TV... and if one knows nothing of Sumo... well, then sure, my friend’s description is pretty close to the point, albeit rather sketchy. I take every opportunity to colour the picture in to make it more interesting, and so I give you:

The Beginners Guide to Watching Sumo.

The rikishi.
At first, take a look at the wrestlers. While they all certainly are a bit on the large side, do not be fooled: most of them are deceptively agile. It is impressing to see a 160+ kg rikishi pirouette on his toes, no less, on the ring of straw (shobudawara) that marks the fighting-area, to lure his opponent to overstep - or to fall off the platform, if he comes charging.
Some (a lot) of the rikishi are very well-proportioned, though. Takamisakari, for one, a Maegashira, usually ranked somewhere in the middle (6 - 9), almost looks like a bodybuilder. And then again, another Maegashira, Kakizoe, always makes me think of a beach-ball... But enough of this! Let the bout - the torikumi - begin.

Warming up.
The rikishi will spend quite some time warming up once they’re on the platform. Usually that’s something the TV-viewers don’t get to see, which is a shame. There will be a lot of stomping and clapping to scare away evil spirits, and get the attention of any passing gods. Big handfuls of salt are thrown into the ring - sometimes with great aplomb - to purify the fighting-area. It looks rather amusing but make no mistake: the wrestlers are very, very focused. They know their opponents and they are mulling over their tactics one last time, glaring at each other, playing the ”psychological warfare-game”. One wrestler in particular is worth seeing when he warms up: Takamisakari. He is by far the most popular rikishi in Japan right now - partly thanks to his antics before the start of the bout - the tachiai.

The action.
Once the gyoji has ”flipped the gunbai”, the bout may begin. The wrestlers will synchronize their start by touching the floor with their fists. And then they charge. Often their heads will meet with an audible clash, hard enough to knock most people clean out. Listen for it. It’s a creepy sound.

There are basically two types of rikishi: the bull-rusher and the technician (Oshi-zumo and Yotsu-zumo).
Ozeki Chiyotaikai is one heck of a bull-rusher! He can rise from the starting line like a charging rhino and work his opponents upper body, neck, and face with hard blows, initially forcing them backwards out of the ring. He’s awesome. Especially since he does have other techniques up his metaphorical sleeve, which make his bouts worth watching.

Ozeki Kotooshu is a real technician. He is a lightweight sumotori (141 kgs and 204 cms tall). He can use his long reach to get a good outside grip on his opponents mawashi (belt), and throw him down. He’s good.
Every once in a while a rikishi skips all the honourable clashing and wrestling and simply jumps to one side at the tachiai, sending his charging opponent headlong onto the sand with a hand to his shoulder. It is at the same time really satisfying to see a henka followed by hatakikomi done well - and a little disappointing to be cheated out of the match. But that's sumo for you...

Names you should watch out for: Ama (is now Okzeki Harumafuji), Aminishki, Aran, Homasho, ”Robo Cop” Takamisakari, "The Giant Killer" Tochinonada, new comer redhead Baruto, and of course the top dogs1. Their bouts will, more often than not, be good entertainment.

The little things...
Yokozuna Asashoryu is always good fun too watch. Pay attention to when he has won, and accepts the prize-money from the gunbai: he always looks to his right, before he gets on his feet. I don’t know what he glares at, but sometimes he sure looks menacing...
In fact, all of the wrestlers have their own little quirks, from Homasho's picture perfect tegatana o kiru to Takamisakari's (well, he is a darling) look of utter surprise when he wins a bout.
And just when you think it’s all hugging and no action: keep an eye on how they are trying to get that really good grip on the mawashi without giving the other guy an opening. All the time they are testing each other's balance, sometimes almost imperceptible. The more you notice, the more fun it will get - and suddenly you’re hooked on Sumo.

Give it a go.

A few explanatory remarks:
  • Mawashi - the "thong" sumo wrestlers wear. The apron you see occasionally is a keshomawashi.
  • Oichomage - the hairdo of a sumo wrestler when he is in formal attire (or on the dohyo)
  • Dohyo - well, it's the fighting arena. The dohyoiri is the "ring opening ceremony"
  • Sumotori (sumo wrestler), and rikishi (strong man), can be used interchangeably.
  • A basho will (almost) always be construed as one of the fifteen-day tournaments, held every odd numbered month.
  • The ranking list - the banzuke - is announced thirteen days before the first day of the basho.
  • When a rikishi retires, a special ceremony is held: The danpatsushiki.
  • The referees on the dohyo are the gyoji; the black clad judges are called shimpan. The yobidashi are the helpers.
  • The kimarite are the winning techniques. There are 82 of them.

The ranks I mention are from the January Banzuke (ranking list) 2007. Check out Nihon Sumo Kyokai Official Grand Sumo Home Page at

1: The Top Dogs at this time: Komusubi Goeido and Kyokutenho. Sekiwake Baruto and Kisenosato. Ozeki Kotomitsuki, Harumafuji, Kaio, Chiyotaikai, and Kotooshu. Yokozuna Hakuho and Asashoryu.