The Rules of Sumo

The Basics: The two combatants meet in a ring that is 4.55 meters across, wearing only thick silk belts around their waists. The object is to either force your opponent out of the ring or to cause him to touch the playing surface with any part of his body other than the soles of his feet.

The Not-Quite-So-Basics: The wrestlers start the match facing each other, staring at each other. The point is to seek a synchronized start to the bout; the rikishi (wrestlers) may start if they are in agreement to do so. After 1950, time limits on this segment of the bout were instituted to make the tournaments more radio-friendly.

The wrestling begins when the gyoji (referee) shows the other side of the gunbai (war fan) and calls out "gunbai wo kaesu" ("flip the gunbai"). At this point the match has begun; if either combatant leaves the ring, he is disqualified. The combatants meet & touch their hands to the dohyo (the ring); at this time the wrestling may begin. There is a 100,000 yen penalty for starting the wrestling before your opponent has signaled he is ready. The match begins. As the wrestlers grapple, the referee tells the wrestlers the match is continuing by repeatedly yelling "nokotta!" If the wrestlers are in a standoff, the referee encourages them to move by calling out "Yoi, Hakkeyoi!"

Winning the Tournament: A simple majority of wins is all it takes to win the tournament*. However, many early wins will put a competitor in tougher company, as he is matched to similarly skilled rikishi (literally, "strong man"). If a competitor is injured, he gives up the rest of his bouts as losses

A Brief History of Sumo

Sumo has been popular throughout history in Japan. It probably began in China in the 2nd century BC as wrestling commonly referred to as Chiao-ti. This wrestling was formalized during the Han period (200 BC to 200 AD), adding the throwing techniques that exist in modern sumo. The refined styles allowed imperial soldiers to take part in the wrestling in military training, and eventually the wrestling became popular among the noble classes as entertainment.

Sumo became extremely popular in Japan, beginning in the 8th century AD. Emperor Shomu (reigned 724-749) held lavish tournaments which included the best wrestlers of the entire kingdom. Court officials were responsible for travelling to every province to recruit the best wrestlers for the tournament. During this period the style of sumo was refined further, banning rough techniques like kicking and punching. In 821 sumo was added to the official set of tournaments, joining the equestrian and archery tournaments. As the power and wealth of the imperial court declined at the end of the 10th century, the tournaments did as well; around this time sumo began to be included in Japanese military training, and the tournaments were discontinued due to declining popularity.

After the unrest that marked the next 700 years, sumo began to resurface as entertainment in the form of street entertainment. Sumo became a diversion for the masses. However, the "street sumo" became dangerous as matches ended in violent fights. Even when sumo was done as benefits for temples and shrines, most of the money raised ended up going towards the wrestlers and many matches degenerated into the same violent brawls as the street sumo.

This led to a decree in Edo:
  • Street-corner sumo shall no longer be performed
  • Benefit sumo shall no longer be organised
  • Wrestlers who are invited to perform at the residences of their superiors shall not wear loincloths made of silk, but only those made of plain cloth
Sumo matches continued in an official way in a few official tournaments every year, and streetcorner sumo continued illegally until sumo was banned in Edo completely in 1661.

In Kyoto and Osaka, large scale benefit sumo tournaments were held on a regular basis at the time of the Edo edicts, which prevented both streetcorner sumo in these cities and the violence which followed that style of sumo. 20 years after banning it, sumo in Edo was permitted again, in the form of one 8-day benefit tournament. Changes were made to the tournament layout & techniques of sumo. The techniques were distilled into 4 basic groups: throwing, tripping, bending, and twisting. By the late 17th century programs (including the referees and wrestlers) began to come into use.

After this, sumo began to take the form we know it today. The ring-entering cermony took shape in Kyoto and Osaka; there were so many wrestlers that the ceremony served as an introduction to the audience and a way to show off the wealth of the wrestler's sponsor through the elaborate apron, the Mawashi. The mawashi was initially worn throughout the match, but was too restricive and were limited to the beginning of the match. The training facilities, the heya (stables), were established at this time; most of these are still active. The referee position, the gyoji, was also solidified at this time.

This time was referred to as sumo's golden age. Some of the greatest wrestlers ever were active at this time. However, as these heroes retired from sumo, its popularity dwindled. By the 1860's sumo was in a slump once more. As westernization began, sumo became an embarrasment to the Japanese people, a symbol of the old times they were trying to distance themselves from. Feudal domains were abolished, and with them sumo organisations which were used to sponsorship by the rich daimyo lords. Finally, in 1884, Emperor Meiji organised a sumo tournament in an effort to couteract the detrimental effect of westernization on the Japanese culture. The Tokyo Sumo Association was formed five years later, and sumo began a recovery in popularity, bolstered by the nationalism created by the Sino-Japanese war. Since this time sumo has been immensely popular in Japan.
*: Shroom tells me it's actually the least losses, not the most wins.
Not cut and pasted, but props for dates & facts must go out to:

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.

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