History of Sumo

Sumo is known to have dated back thousands of years, and the sport is even mentioned in Kojiki - the oldest known historic text in Japan (written in 712 A.D.). According to legend, sumo is said to originate from a time when two gods fought over the ownership of the Japanese islands. Sumo was originally performed in the Shinto (Japanese ethnic religion) rituals of purification and prayers for a good harvest. Men would fight only with their bare bodies, apart from a cloth called mawashi on their hips. It was not until the late 16th century that sumo became a form of public entertainment.

Sumo flourished during the Edo period, and it was performed around the country with the purpose of raising money to build temples and shrines. This was sumo wrestling's beginning as a professional sport. Alongside Kabuki (traditional theater performance), sumo was a popular attraction for the common people. It is said that the foundations of sumo, such as the system of ranking individuals and determining champions, were established during this period.

While sumo has become much more structured relative to its origins, the shinto roots remain strong. For example, rice is buried in the middle of the sumo ring (known as dohyo) where the match takes place, and the dohyo is also purified with salt. The national sport has become more global with the increasing numbers of international sumo players (known as rikishi) and demonstrations abroad. Recently, sumo has been approaching exciting times with multiple yokozuna (the highest and strongest status of rikishi) and a Japanese rikishi becoming the champion for the first time in many years. Sumo receives a lot of media attention, and remains a prominent part of Japanese people’s lives.

Basic sumo terminology

rikishi- sumo wrestler

mayashi- the cloth that rikishi wear around their hips

dohyo- sumo ring, approximately 15 feet in diameter 

honbasho- official sumo tournament

gyoji- the referee

kimari-te- the technique used to win

banzuke- sumo ranking system

maku-uchi- highest ranking division in sumo

yokozuna- the highest individual rank in sumo

Structure of sumo

The rules of sumo are simple. A rikishi wins when the opponent’s body, apart from the soles of the feet, touches the floor, or the opponent steps outside the dohyo. In order to do this, the rikishi usually pushes or throws the opponent outside the dohyo. There are various techniques, and the technique used to win is called the kimari-te (literally translated as “the determining move”). The referee, gyoji, is always present on the dohyo, and performs rituals as well as call the winner.

The sumo tournament, honbasho, is held 6 times a year on odd numbered months. It last 15 days, and starts from a Sunday and ends on the Sunday two weeks later. The participating rikishi are all individually ranked in a banzuke, with the yokozuna on the top. In order to go to a higher rank, a rikishi must have more wins than losses during a season, and may be demoted when they have more losses. While the yokozuna cannot be demoted, performance worthy of the name is expected.

A  Honbasho  stadium. ©TOKI

A Honbasho stadium. ©TOKI

Training to become a rikishi starts early. Many wrestlers enter a stable, called a heya, during high school or after graduating university. Not only are they trained physically through practice and their diet, but they are expected to acquire manners and discipline through strict schedules, rules, and code of conduct. Only the best performing rikishi can become a yokozuna. So far there has only been 72 yokozuna among the thousands of rikishi in sumo history. Rikishi train everyday aspiring to become the next yokozuna.


Why not experience watching Japan's national sport during your next visit?