Sumo: A Primer

Hello all,

My family and I have access to some Japanese TV through a local cable-channel here in the US (TV Japan), and they often play Sumo wrestling tournaments.  As an American, I thought Sumo was very strange at first because all I saw were really fat dudes wrestling.  Then, years ago, I saw Sumo champion Konishiki on Japanese TV explaining some of the techniques Sumo wrestlers have to use.  He demonstrated the difference between a regular slap to the face, and a Sumo-style slap.  The target (one of the show’s hosts) was on the floor on the second slap.  It was pretty funny, but it really made me think about how there’s more technique to Sumo then I first thought.

Now that I watch Sumo wrestling tournaments monthly, I’ve started to learn more and more about the sport and wanted to share with readers.

History

Sumo wrestling has deep roots in the native Shinto religion (as opposed to the foreign-imported Buddhism), and so although it is a sport, it does include a lot of Shinto rituals as well.

The origins of Sumo are pretty obscure, but there are examples of Sumo-like rituals in Shinto shrines since antiquity.  Sometimes wrestling has been used in military training as well.  However, true Sumo wrestling as we know it, also known as ōzumō (大相撲), appeared in the Edo Period (1600 – 1868) when wandering samurai were looking for additional income, but then started in certain Shinto shrines before it became an organized sport we know today.

In recent years, foreigners have been allowed to compete as well, so you often see wrestlers from Mongolia, including the current grand champion Hakuhō (白鵬), as well as from eastern European countries like Bulgaria, and the country of Georgia.

Rules

The rules of Sumo are super simple:

  • The first one to step out of the ring in any way loses.
  • The first one to touch the ground with any part of their body besides their feet loses.

From here, the challenge for the professional Sumo wrestler is to figure out how to either push out, throw out, or topple their opponent, who is trying to do the same thing.  Sumo wrestlers are deceptively fast and flexible (they have to practice doing the splits, for example), and employ many techniques when toppling their opponent.

At the end of the match, after an opponent loses, you’ll see on TV which technique the winner used to defeat them.  Common techniques include:

  • Yorikiri (寄り切り) – pushing the opponent straight out of the ring with your body.
  • Tsukidashi (突き出し) – pushing the opponent out of the ring forcefully with both hands.
  • Oshidashi (押し出し) – this technique involves lifting the opponent out of the ring by hooking under their armpit for leverage.
  • Nagete (投げ手) – a group of techniques involving grappling your opponent, often by the belt, and throwing them out.  One example is uwatenage (上手投げ) which is a throw with the outer-arm.
  • Tsukiotoshi (突き落し) – while grappling an opponent you flip them over to one side causing them to lose balance.

There’s a great website in Japanese that shows different techniques and other basics of Sumo here.  I used it as a reference for some of the techniques above.

Before the match starts, it is customary for Sumo wrestlers to throw salt into the ring.  This is related to Shinto rituals for purifying a space, but some wrestlers also like to put extra gusto in their throws to show of.  It’s fun to see certain wrestler’s style.

Sumo Matches

Sumo matches often take place in periodic tournaments through the country. These are called honbasho (本場所) and take place according the following schedule (source: Wikipedia):

Honbasho Nickname City Venue Opening Day
January Hatsu (Opening) Basho Tokyo Ryōgoku Kokugikan 1st or 2nd Sunday
March Haru (Spring) Basho Osaka Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium 2nd Sunday
May Natsu (Summer) Basho Tokyo Ryōgoku Kokugikan 2nd Sunday
July Nagoya Basho Nagoya Aichi Prefectural Gymnasium 1st or 2nd Sunday
September Aki (Autumn/Fall) Basho Tokyo Ryōgoku Kokugikan 2nd Sunday
November Kyūshū Basho Fukuoka Fukuoka Kokusai Center 2nd Sunday

Apart from this, there are also various other exhibition tournaments and such, but only the six official tournaments count toward one’s official ranking (more on that later).

I took some photos from one of the matches we watched recently.  Here you can see the next two wrestlers are being introduced:

Both of these wrestlers are maegashira rank (前頭), but the guy on the left is 9th rank, while the guy on the right is 11th rank.  Lower number means higher rank. Both are from Kumamoto Prefecture (熊本), though from different cities.  Their professional Sumo names, or shikona (四股名) are often contain dramatic images from Japanese culture, or just sound somewhat poetic.  They are often read in native-Japanese “kun-yomi” if you study Japanese, though not always.  For example, wrestlers from certain stables will have 琴 (koto) in their name, as in the musical instrument.  Others will have 富士 (Mt. Fuji) in their name.    Foreigners will often have names that reflect where their from in some clever way, or maybe something about their culture.

The two wresters above are 佐田の海 (sada no umi) on the left, and 正代 (shōdai) on the right. The name on the left is read kun-yomi style, while the name on the right is an on-yomi (Chinese-style) reading.

Here you can see the wrestlers facing off. The guy in the red is the referee. He has the dual-responsibilities of determining who wins, but also firing up the wrestlers to keep the match from getting stale. Sumo matches are typically very short, and shouldn’t last more than a minute or two.  You can hear the referee yelling or chanting things over and over. At the beginning of the match, he’ll also say ‘hakkiyoi!’

Finally, when the match is over, the loser will bow and exit.  When the tournament is sponsored, sometimes the winner will crouch, while the referee hands him a stack of money which is the prize money.  The wrestler makes a couple ritual gestures, takes the money and exits the ring.  For higher-ranking wrestlers, the stack of money is quite large, while lower-ranking wrestlers might not receive any at all.

Special prize money is sometimes awarded for exceptional performances, or at the discretion of the judges or the tournament officials for other reasons.  In any case, a good wrestler can expect various bonuses and rewards for his efforts.

Rankings

The rankings in Sumo are pretty complex and hierarchal.  Here is the rankings in descending order:

  • Yokozuna (横綱), grand-champion
  • Ozeki (大関), champion
  • Sekiwake (関脇)
  • Komusumi (小結)
  • Maegashira (前頭)
  • Jūryō
  • Makushita
  • Sandanme
  • Jonidan
  • Jonokuchi

Any from maegashira or higher is considered makuuchi ranking (幕内), which is like the ‘major leagues’.  Literally, makuuchi means “within the curtain”, because in the old days these were the rankings that could sit within the tent/curtain, while lower-ranking sumo were stuck outside waiting.

Rankings in general are based on winnings and loses over time in the official tournaments.  If you win a lot, you tend to go up; if you tend to lose, your ranking goes down.  Becoming a Yokozuna or grand-champion requires winning two consecutive tournaments and approval from the Sumo association, so it requires not just a winning record, but also a good reputation.  Yokozuna are champions for life, and it’s possible to have more than one living, but overall, it’s a very long road to becoming a grand-champion.  Once you reach that level though, you can’t lose it.  Also, you get to wear a special belt during the tournament, and take part in special ceremonies at the start of the tournament.  The current Yokozuna is Hakuhō (白鵬), whom I mentioned earlier.  You can see an example match (skip to 04:00 if you are in a hurry) of Hakuho:

Also, ranking has privileges too.  If you’re stuck in a lower-rank, you often get stuck doing more menial tasks at the stable, and wear simpler clothes, while higher-ranking sumo have fewer chores and can wear warmer, nicer clothes.

Conclusion

This is not an exhaustive look at the sport of Sumo, but for a foreigner like me, it’s what I’ve figured out so far.  Sumo is definitely not what I expected it to be, and personally I find it pretty fascinating.  I hope readers get a chance to watch a sumo match too.

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Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

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