Sumo, Japan’s Thrilling National Sport

Sumo tournament at kokugikan

Sumo is one of the oldest sports in the world, dating back to the middle of the Yayoi Era over 2,000 years ago! 

Today, it is easily classified as the national sport of Japan. Sumo is almost completely a spectator sport. The crowd is always animated and professional wrestlers often become internationally famous and popular.

Sumo grand tournament in ryogoku kokugikan
Sumo Grand Tournament in Ryogoku Kokugikan

Sumo is one of the oldest sports in the world, dating back to the middle of the Yayoi Era, 2,000 years ago! Today, it is easily classified as the national sport of Japan. Sumo is almost completely a spectator sport, and the professional wrestlers become internationally famous and popular.

To the untrained eye, Sumo can seem boring, but it’s actually really exciting! Even people  from overseas are finding more and more to like about these bouts. 

So, let’s take a look at how this thrilling sport works.

What happens during a sumo match

Ryogoku Kokugikan

One of the first things you’ll notice about a live sumo match is the stage. 

Over the ring is a roof rooted in Shinto architecture called a Yakata, which first served as a protection from the weather and was supported by four pillars. After sumo bouts moved inside, the roof stayed, but the pillars were replaced by steel cables to hold it up from the ceiling.

Where the pillars had been are now four tassels which represent the seasons. Black is for winter, green is for spring, red is for summer, and white is for autumn.

To judge the matches is a man carrying a war fan and dressed in the ancient way. Around the ring are other judges called “Shimpan.” If they doubt the ring judge’s decision, they call for a mono ii (ring-center discussion), where they all discuss the match and make their final selection of the winner.

Sumo is a religious sport related to fascinating ancient Shamanistic and Shinto customs. Everything in Sumo is symbolic of something. 

The sumo ring is purified with sand and has to be set up in a particular, ritualistic way for each match. The square ring edge is made of 28 straw bundles sunk in the sand. The center ring is made of 20 other bundles and is 4.55 meters in diameter. There are two white lines in the center of the ring that are 1.2 meters apart and about 90 centimeters long. 

These lines are the points at which the wrestlers face each other to build up their spirits and strategies. 

Only their feet are allowed to touch the ground. The first wrestler to touch the ground, or be pushed out of the ring, loses.

Each sumo wrestler wears a belt. This belt signifies the straw Shimenawa (corded rope) in front of shrines and dispels evil.

Morning Sumo Practice
Sumo Morning Practice

The belt or sash is usually made of silk for the higher-ranked wrestlers. While lower ranks wear dark blue cotton, higher ranks can use any color. Some belts cost thousands of dollars! A string apron hangs from the belt and it always has an odd number of strings made of silk, twisted and starched.

Salt purifies the ring and stamping on the ground chases away evil spirits. The hair style is the Oichomage (ginkgo leaf knot).

The wrestlers we are most interested in are those in the Makuuchi division which has only 38 wrestlers. This division is further broken down into the Maegashira (senior wrestler), Komusubi (champion third-class), Sekiwake, (champion second-class), Ozeki (champion) and Yokozuna (grand champion).

Ryogoku Station

All ranks are based on ability and numbers of wins per tournament. Only the Yokozuna cannot be demoted, but they must maintain a high level of wins or retire. There are about 600 wrestlers in all the Sumo grades.

These days, the young wrestlers are gaining in popularity, and more and more young ladies are watching the tournaments.

Want to watch a Sumo tournament? Sumo takes places in Japan during January, May and September in Tokyo and during March in Osaka.

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