Exploring the art of Sumo (相撲)

The sport of wrestling has been around throughout various cultures since time immemorial. It is usually a friendly competition, traditionally between males, to measure their fighting prowess. In Japan, this is called Sumo and has very deep historical, religious, cultural, and even mythological roots. Sumo is pretty much synonymous with Japan’s history, and there’s a lot more to it than just “Giants” pushing each other out of a ring.

Sumo Wrestlers adhere to a strict lifestyle year round, and there are many rules and customs to follow in the Sumo world.
As defending champion, Yokozuna Kakuryu dominated the ring for the start of the Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament on Sunday, let’s step into the ring with some Japanese Rishiki (wrestlers) and explore this fascinating sport.


Sumo is a form of wrestling with deep origins in Japanese legend and history. The sport dates back over 1,500 years. Ancient wall paintings suggest sumo was a religious ritual performed at Shinto shrines as part of agricultural rituals for the gods to determine the success of farmers’ crops and to honour the spirits. There still is a lot of ritual in Sumo today, such as the traditional salt throwing before a match.

As a matter of fact, the canopy that hangs over a Sumo ring is modeled after the roof of a Shinto shrine, indicating that the ring itself is a holy place.
Several stories exist of sumo matches held in the seventh and eighth centuries as part of Imperial court ceremonies. In 1909, sumo was established as the national sport of Japan. Today it is a widely popular form of professional entertainment.

Training and Rules

The Sumobeya, or ‘stable’, is where the wrestlers live, eat, train and sleep throughout their career – unless they get married, in which case they are allowed to live outside the stable.
Each stable, on average, contains around 15 wrestlers, and is arranged according to a very strict hierarchy.

Each day, younger and lower-ranked wrestlers must wake around 4am to cook, clean, serve food and do all kinds of tasks for the higher-ranked wrestlers. The lower ranks also get to eat last (basically only getting the scraps) and bathe after everyone else.
There’s quite a long history of systematic hazing and physical punishment as part of their training. Although this is expected by the young wrestlers, in very rare occasions, this can result in injury or even death.

The practice itself consists of many flexibility and strength exercises, followed by challenge matches. The younger and lower-ranked wrestlers are also held responsible for cleaning the ring, and various other menial tasks, in order to teach them discipline and respect for their older and higher-ranked peers.

Strict rules aren’t just for the lower-ranks, however. Serving as an example of “it only takes one to mess it up for everyone”, the Sumo Association has banned all wrestlers from driving cars after a serious accident many years ago. That’s also the reason why, during Sumo season, you’ll see quite a few Sumo on public transportation and on bicycles (if possible).

Another rule for wrestlers is that they have to wear only traditional clothes in public. Japan usually has an unwritten rule of “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down”, but since Sumo hold a very special place in society, they are expected to stick out and display their status as Sumo, enjoying reverence from the general public wherever they are spotted.

Speaking of being out in public, the rules don’t stop at the dress code, folks. It is expected of Sumo that when out and about, wrestlers must be self-effacing and softly spoken. During tournaments they should refrain from showing joy at winning or disappointment at losing. No amateur dramatics or self-congratulatory gloating allowed here (some athletes of popular western sports could learn a thing or two from them).


A typical Sumo wrestler eats about 10 times what a normal person would eat in a day. A Sumo’s daily calorie intake is around 20,000 calories! It’s not all junk food and candy, however. They skip breakfast and start the day around 11 am, when they eat a hearty stew called Chanko-Nabe (ちゃんこ鍋). It’s filled with Fish, vegetables, meat, and tofu. This is complimented with about 5-10 bowls of rice, and washed down with copious amounts of beer – all providing enough empty calories to aid their growth to an ideal weight of anywhere around 181-272 kgs. After lunch they take a siesta (sometimes as long as 4hrs, to slow down the metabolism), and eat another Chanko-Nabe for dinner.

There are quite a few Chanko-Nabe restaurants around Japan if you’d like to try this (rather delicious) dish out yourself.

Match Rules

After stepping in the ring, a sumo match doesn’t start until both wrestlers have placed both hands on the ground at the same time. This leads to quite a lot of fanning about while each wrestler tries to psyche the other out, pretending to put his hand down and then getting back up again.

Once they finally do begin, it is very rare for sumo bouts to last longer than a few seconds – although occasionally they can go on for up to four minutes. This means that the action is very fast-paced and exciting.
A match ends when one of the wrestlers is either thrown out of the ring, or if any part of his body apart from the soles of his feet touches the ground.

Ranking System

Sumo wrestlers are ranked in a pyramidal hierarchy. A winning record allows a wrestler to move to a higher ranking, while a losing record moves him to a lower ranking. Lifestyle and treatment inside and outside of the heya is based on this ranking.
The top five rankings are collectively referred to as the Makuuchi division (幕内). The highest ranking is Yokozuna (横綱), or sumo Grand Champion. Only a very small handful of wrestlers have achieved this status.

The next highest ranking below the Makuuchi division is called Juryo (十両). Only one in ten wrestlers achieves this status. All other rankings below Juryo are still apprentice stages. A Juryo wrestler is considered a professional. He begins to receive a monthly salary as well as other bonuses and perks, such as receiving permission to marry, having attendants assigned to take care of his personal needs, and wearing a silk kimono and Mawashi (Sumo Belt).
Makushita (幕下) is the third highest division in Sumo. It is often considered that holding the rank of Makushita is the first step toward becoming a professional (Sekitori ranked) sumo wrestler.

How to see a tournament

Tickets are sold for each day of the 15-day tournaments. They can be purchase in advance through the official vendors or via Alternatively, they can be purchased at convenience stores (note: some Japanese skills are required) or at the stadiums.

There are different types of seats available to visitors:

Ringside seats:
Located closest to the ring, ringside seats are most expensive and most difficult to get. Ticket holders sit on cushions on the floor and are exposed to the risk of injury due to wrestlers flying into the spectators.

Box seats:
The rest of the stadium’s first floor consists of Japanese style box seats, which generally seat four people (although there are a few with higher and lower capacities, as well). Shoes are removed, and spectators sit on cushions. Tickets are sold for entire boxes regardless of whether they are fully occupied or not, i.e. two people using a 4-seat box will still have to purchase all four tickets. Box seats are further classified into A, B and C boxes according to distance to the ring.

Balcony seats:
On the second floor balcony, there are several rows of Western-style seats. Balcony seats, too, are further classified into A, B and C seats depending on distance to the ring. Furthermore, there is one section for exclusive use by holders of same-day tickets, the cheapest ticket type that can only be purchased on the day at the stadium.

Seats usually sell out very quickly – especially the box or balcony seats, so make sure to get yours early.

Although there are bouts throughout each day, the more interesting (and thus more difficult seats to get) bouts happen in the later afternoon or early evening, when the more experienced wrestlers enter the ring.

The matches can be quite interesting to watch so if you happen to be in Japan around the tournaments’ time, try to include a stadium visit in your itinerary, if at all possible.

Big, mountainous men wrestling for fame, glory, honour, and tradition is a time-honoured tradition all over the world, but raised to a true art form in Japan.  Sumo wrestling has been a part of Japanese culture for many hundreds, if not even thousands of years. The origins of the Japanese race itself are said to have been established by a sumo match. This myth originated in the “Kojiki”, or the “Records of Ancient Matters”, which provides us with some of the earliest written records of Japanese history and legend.  Whether or not you believe these myths to have any basis in reality – one thing’s for sure, seeing a Sumo match in person is a very unique experience in Japan and should definitely not be missed.