Sumo dates back to almost 1,500 years and was initially more of a Shinto ritual than a combat sport.

Sumo is often described as a form of wrestling that originated in Japan, but it is also a profound sport that can only be fully appreciated through understanding its history and tradition. The charm of sumo lies in the vigor and seriousness with which wrestlers’ impressive bodies — weighing an average of more than 160 kg — clash with each other during matches.

History and tradition

The original form of sumo dates back to about 1,500 years ago. Sumo was initially more of a Shinto ritual than a combat sport, a method of fortunetelling and offering prayers for a year of rich harvest. It developed into its current form as an entertainment spectacle for the public during the Edo Period (1603–1868) after having been an Imperial court ceremony for about three centuries. However, some of the ritualistic formalities in the proceedings of sumo matches have remained unchanged.

One such example is chikaramizu, the water with which rikishi (sumo wrestlers) rinse their mouths to drive away impurities right before their matches. Scattering a handful of salt on the dohyō (sumo ring) is another ceremonial practice meant to purify the rikishi himself and the dohyō, as well as to pray for protection from injuries. Shiko, lifting one leg to the side from a crouching position and stomping hard on the dohyō, is an action that represents the crushing of malicious ogres.

Physical strength and techniques

Movements such as shiko where rikishi slowly and steadily lift their legs high above head level require exceptional flexibility. This is one of the most important qualities for rikishi, as they must endure the power and weight of their opponent as they face off in the dohyō.

During matches, the rikishi who remains inside the dohyō without any part of their body, other than the soles of their feet, touching the ground is the winner.

Sumo also has a variety of kimarite (winning techniques) where flexibility and remarkable core strength come into play. These include the ashitori where a rikishi grabs the opponent’s leg with both hands and lean forward to force him to fall down and the tsukidashi that involves pushing the opponent’s face or chest to force him out of the dohyō with one or several palm thrusts. Such techniques can easily injure rikishi if they are not flexible enough.

Additionally, there is no time to recover from injuries or muscle fatigue during the honbasho (Grand Sumo Tournament), which runs for 15 consecutive days.

The honbasho is held in Tokyo or the cities of Osaka, Nagoya or Fukuoka in odd-numbered months. During other months, regional tours called jungyō bring rikishi to various places across Japan to offer sumo fans an opportunity to watch sumo without having to travel to the four major urban areas where the honbasho take place.

Jungyō offer various entertaining events and chances to come into closer contact with rikishi and sumo matches.

Ashitori (left): Grabbing the opponent’s leg with both hands and leaning forward to force him to go off balance and fall down.
Tsukidashi (right): Pushing the opponent’s face or chest to force him out of the ring with one or a series of palm thrusts.

Lifestyle and hierarchy

There are about 650 rikishi across 42 sumo beya (stables run by former rikishi); the number of non-Japanese rikishi has been increasing over the years, with Kotooshu from Bulgaria and Baruto from Estonia among some of the most well-known rikishi in the sumo world.

Many of the younger and lower-ranking rikishi live together in the sumo beya they belong to when they are not touring. Sumo beya are where rikishi train themselves physically and mentally, as well as learn to help and respect each other through a strict and orderly lifestyle.

Rikishi, who go through rigorous practice, are told to build up their bodies by eating a lot. Chanko-nabe (one-pot dish with a variety of vegetables, fish, meat and tofu) is one of Japan’s most nutritious and well-known specialty dishes that rikishi eat regularly.

In the highly competitive world of sumo, the highest rank among rikishi is yokozuna, and 72 rikishi have been honored with the title since it was created about 300 years ago. In order to become a yokozuna, a rikishi typically must win two consecutive honbasho or be recognized for their dignity and abilities by the Yokozuna Deliberation Council.

Traditionally, once an athlete is granted the title of yokozuna, it is incredibly rare for them to be demoted; they bear the title in the dohyō and beyond until they retire, with every action inside and outside the dohyō being observed. Even the act of retirement generally calls for a certain amount of protocol in terms of the athlete’s demeanor and timing.

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The dohyō (sumo ring) where matches take place.