Japan Trip
Rikishi in action | © Japan Trip

Sumo Wrestling in Japan

Sumo is Japan’s national sport and is surprisingly subtle. Find out how to attend a sumo tournament as well as what you can expect from the day.

Sumo is Japan’s national sport and is surprisingly subtle. The bouts take place in-between ancient rituals and combine both physical strength and psychological tactics. Attending a tournament is also great for people watching, as the audience ranges from die-hard sumo fans to geishas accompanying clients. This article looks at the history of sumo, how to get tickets and what to expect from a tournament.

A Brief History of Sumo

Sumo originated from a Shinto ritual where fighting was accompanied by prayers, dancing and drama. As the wrestling element developed in to the sport of sumo, rules and approved moves were put in place. Sumo really took off in the Edo period, and sumo matches were organised to provide entertainment for the working classes. Wrestling was also a popular career choice for samurai during peaceful periods when their fighting skills were not needed on the battlefield.

There are still echoes of Shintoism in the modern sumo bout; the referee (gyoji) dresses similarly to a priest, there are salt purification rituals and the ring (dohyo) has a thatched roof similar to those found on shrines.

Where and When To See Sumo

There are six major tournaments a year, taking place in January, March, May, July, September and November. Three take place in Tokyo, but there are also tournaments in western Japan, in Osaka, Fukuoka and Aichi. Tournaments are televised so even if you are not in town it is possible to view sumo live.

The major stadium is the Kokugikan in eastern Tokyo. You can buy tickets in advance from Ticket Oosumo which has a website in English. You can choose between stadium seats which are further away from the ring, or Japanese boxes nearer the ring, which are small areas which seat up to four people on the floor. Tournaments can go on for some time so make sure you will be comfortable sitting on the floor for an extended period if you choose to go for a box ticket. Tournaments take place over 15 days, so each wrestler gets a chance to fight every other wrestler in his division. The first and last days of the tournament are the most popular with fans; however each day of the tournament follows a similar schedule.

What Happens at a Sumo Match

The arena will open around 8am, when drums welcome the wrestlers (known as rikishi) and spectators to the stadium. The first bouts (basho) start at 8.30am, when trainee rikishi with no rankings face each other. Throughout the morning the lowest ranked wrestlers fight – at this stage only the most die-hard fans will have taken their seats and most of the stadium will be empty.

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The basho take place on the dohyo, a raised square clay platform which is about 18 foot square. The surface is covered with sand and a 15 foot ring is marked out in rope. Each basho is closely watched by 5 judges as well as a referee (gyoji). If the gyoji makes a dubious decision, the 5 judges can confer and over-rule the gyoji.

Rikishi enter the ring | © Japan Trip
Rikishi enter the ring | © Japan Trip

As the day progresses, the skill and ranking of the rikishi increase. After each tournament, the rikishi are ranked in an official document known as banzuke; successful rikishi will move up rankings while poor performance will result in demotion to a lower grade. The top wrestlers in the top class are known as yokozuna and can never be demoted, although honour dictates that if their poor performance goes on for more than a few matches they should retire rather than continue.

At the start of each section of the day, each class is announced by the gyoji. The rikishi enter in two groups, with each rikishi stepping up on to the dohyo as their name is called. At this stage, the rikishi wear ceremonial aprons with elaborate decorations and embellishments. Once the whole first group are assembled on the dohyo, the rikishi perform a ritual before leaving the ring to prepare for their basho. The performance is then repeated with the second group of rikishi in that class. Finally, a top rikishi is selected to perform a ceremonial dance before the basho can begin. Wearing an apron made of heavy braided rope and decorated by paper fronds, the rikishi claps to attract the attention of the gods, before raising his leg to the side one by one and stamping down. This aggressive dance is meant to drive evil spirits from the dohyo.

The rikishi return to the dohyo wearing the iconic mawashi wrestling belts. Salt is thrown on the dohyo to purify the area, and the rikishi crouch and try to unsettle each other. This ‘psyching out’ can last for several minutes as the rikishi prepare to fight. As rikishi are ranked by success rather than weight, it is possible for opponents to be physically mismatched; so the psychological element can be particularly important.

To win the bout, the rikishi must push his opponent out of the rope ring, or force him to touch the ground with any part of his body except for his feet. If even a fingertip brushes the ground, the match is lost. There are 82 approved moves that can be used against an opponent.

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The more senior classes will start their basho around 2pm, and the sumo arena begins to fill up from this time. It’s worth hiring a radio from the desk at the entrance to the stadium, as there is English language commentary and explanation available. You can also pick up leaflets and guides in English that explore the history of sumo in more detail. Around the outside of the stadium are various food and drink outlets, and it’s ok to bring food back to your seat. Some of the most discerning fans get takeaways delivered from nearby restaurants; you’ll notice waiters running up and down the stadium aisles delivering boxes of food.

As the day goes on the fights get more exciting as the rikishi skills improve – the top division fights start around 4pm.

After the final fight, one of the rikishi is chosen to perform the bow dance. This harks back to when the prize for winning the basho was a bow. The rikishi is presented with a bow by the gyoji, and then performs an intricate routine, whirling the bow around him. It’s worth sticking round until the end to see this.

On the final day of the tournament, results are worked out for each rikishi. The fighter with the best record of wins vs losses is awarded the Emperor’s Cup. There are additional prizes for the rikishi with the best fighting spirit, the best technique and for ‘giant-killing’ i.e. defeating highly ranked rikishi.

Other Ways to Experience Sumo

If you are visiting Japan outside of the tournaments, there are still several ways to experience sumo wrestling.

The Kokugikan stadium in Tokyo houses the sumo museum, which has displays about the history of sumo and current rikishi. Many of the rikishi train in ‘stables’ (heya) near to the stadium, so it’s not unusual to bump in to rikishi in the streets and restaurants in the Ryogoku area.

Another option is to contact the heya and make an appointment to visit a morning training session. If your Japanese isn’t quite up to scratch, the Tokyo tourist office can help you to arrange a visit.

For more information about sumo wrestling in Japan, contact the Japan Sumo Association.

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