O Sumo

A change of pace now, away from temples and shrines. Sumo, one of Japan’s oldest sports but one of the least know. I love Sumo.  I have been following sumo for about 20 years now.  I love the history and tradition associated with the sport.  I have been to the Kokugikan a couple of times and every year the sumo comes to Fukuoka I go watch it. 



According to Japanese legend the very origin of the Japanese race depended on the outcome of a sumo match. The supremacy of the Japanese people on the islands of Japan was supposedly established when the god, Take-mikazuchi, won a sumo bout with the leader of a rival tribe. Apart from legend, however, sumo is an ancient sport dating back some 1500 years.

Its origins were religious. The first sumo matches were a form of ritual dedicated to the gods with prayers for a bountiful harvest and were performed together with sacred dancing and dramas within the precincts of shrines.

During the Nara Period(The 8th century) sumo was introduced into the ceremonies of the Imperial Court.  A wrestling festival was held annually which included music and dancing and victorious wrestlers celebrated.  Early sumo was a rough-and-tumble affair combining elements of boxing and wrestling with few or no holds barred matches.  However, under the continued patronage of the Imperial Court, rules were formulated and techniques developed so that it came more nearly to resemble the sumo of today.

A military dictatorship was established in Kamakura in 1192 and a long period of intense warfare ensued.  Sumo, quite naturally, was regarded chiefly for its military usefulness and as a means of increasing the efficiency of the fighting men. Later in the hands of the samurai, jujitsu was developed as an offshoot of sumo.  Peace was finally restored when the different warring factions were united under the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1603. A period of prosperity followed, marked by the rise to power of the new merchant classes.

Ancient Sumo pictures are usually portrayed through Ukiyo-E wood block prints such as these shown above.

Professional sumo groups were organised to entertain the rapidly expanding working class and sumo came into its own as the national sport of Japan. The present Japan Sumo Association has its origins in these groups first formed during the Edo Period.


Sumo has managed to survive with its formalised ritual and traditional etiquette intact making it unique among sports. On each day of the tournament immediately before the makuuchi matches are scheduled, the colourful doyo-iri or “entering the ring ” ceremony take place. Down one aisle in reverse order of their rank comes one team of makuuchi
wearing kesho-mawashi or ceremonial aprons. These aprons, beautifully made of silk, richly embroidered with different designs and hemmed with gold fringe cost anywhere from 400,000 to 500,000 yen.

The rikishi climb into the dohyo and go through a short ritual ancient in sumo tradition after which they depart to be followed by the other team entering from the opposite aisle to repeat the ritual. Earlier in the day the juryo perform a similar ceremony before their matches.

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The leading roles in the dohyo-iri are reserved for the yokozuna who have not taken any part in the ceremony up to now. A yokozuna comes down the aisle attended by a senior gyoji and two makuuchi  rikishi in kesho-mawashi one bearing a sword. Over his kesho-mawashi the yokozuna wears a massive braided hemp rope weighing from 25 to 35 pounds tied in a bow at the back and ornamented in the front with strips of paper hanging in zigzag patterns. This is a familiar religious symbol in Japan. It can be found hanging in Shinto shrines and in the home over the “shelf” of the gods where offering are made at New Year.

While the gyoji and two attendants crouch in the dohyo, the yokozuna performs the dohyo-iri ceremony with the greatest dignity.  After first clapping his hands together to attract the attention of the gods, he extends his arms to the sides and turns palms upward to show he is concealing no weapons. Then at the climax he lifts first one leg to the side high in the air, then the other, bringing each down with a resounding stomp on the ground symbolically driving evil from the dohyo. After he has finished the other yokozuna enter, in turn, and repeat the ceremony.



Shikri (bout)

After entering the dohyo each rikishi goes through a series of symbolic movements.  To cleanse his mind and body, he symbolically rinses his mouth with water, the source of purity, and wipes his body with a paper towel. Certain motions are repeated from the yokozuna‘s dohyo-iri, the raising of the arms to the side as well as the stamping of feet. Each rikishi also scatters a handful of salt (some more than others) to purify the ring.  This is further supposed to insure him against injuries. The salt-throwing is, however, the privilege only of makuuchi, juryo and makushita rikishi.

  The rikishi then squat and face each other in the center of the ring, crouch forward in a “get set” position supporting themselves with their fists on the ground and proceed to glare fiercely at each other.  This portion of the ritual is called the shikiri.  They do not begin the match at once, however, but ingage in a kind of “cold warfare”. They go back to their corners for more salt, scatter it and return to glare. They repeat the process again and again, usually for the full four minutes allowed by the rules. (juryo rikishi have only three minutes and the lowest ranks must begin at once).


Theoretically they wait for the psychological moment when they both feel ready. At any rate it gives the rikishi time to work themselves and the spectators up to the proper pitch of excitement.  For those who find the matches slow in getting underway, it may be of interest to note that it was not until recently that a time limit was fixed. In early sumo the start of a match could be delayed indefinitely. A ten minute limit was first introduced in 1928, later reduced to seven, then to five down to the present four minutes. The bout, itself, is usually over in a matter of minutes, sometimes seconds, less time than it took for warming up, but for the sumo aficionado those brief moments are packed with thrills.


This is what all sumo are trying to get their hands on.

Text and photos by Stuart.


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