SUMO: the National Sport of Japan | Guidable - Your Guide to a Sustainable, Wellbeing-centred Life in Japan

SUMO: the National Sport of Japan

By Guidable Writers Mar 4, 2017

Sumo is the Japanese national sport.  It is a Japanese style of wrestling and sumo wrestlers are called Rikishi (力士).  Two sumo wrestlers face off in a circular ring called Dohyo (土俵) and grapple with each other, throw the opponent on the ground and push him out of the ring.  Sumo has a long history and it was a form of Shinto ritual.  The characteristics of Shinto are still seen to this day.  For example, sumo wrestlers clap their hands like you do at a Shinto shrine before a match, Yokozuna (横綱/ the highest-ranked sumo wrestler) wears Shimenawa (注連縄), the rice straw rope which you see in a shrine), women are not allowed to get in the Dohyo and so on.


The current system of sumo tournament was originally developed in 1684, the Edo period.  Now the tournaments are held 6 times a year, in odd months, in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, and Fukuoka.  The tournament is called Basho (場所), and each tournament is known respectively as Hatsu-Basho (Opening tournament held in January in Tokyo), Haru-Basho (Spring tournament held in March in Osaka), Natsu-Basho (Summer tournament held in May in Tokyo), Nagoya-Basho (tournament held in July in Nagoya), Aki-Basho (autumn tournament held in September in Tokyo), and Kyushu-Basho (tournament held in November in Fukuoka).

There are ranks in sumo wrestlers and the tournament itself is also divided into some ranks.  Makuuchi (幕内) is the top division and followed by Juryo (十両), Makushita (幕下), Sandanme (三段目), Jonidan (序二段), and Jonokuchi (序ノ口).  This is a bit off topic but as Jonokuchi is the start for sumo wrestlers, the word is also used in general for the meaning of the beginning.  And at the Makuuchi division, put in order from the highest to lowest, there are Yokozuna (横綱), Ozeki (大関), Sekiwake (関脇), Komusubi (小結) and Maegashira (前頭).  Among Maegashira itself, they are ranked and numbered as well.  The lower number they have, the closer to Komusubi. But the number one doesn’t exist, instead, we call Maegashira-Hitto (前頭筆頭).

What is so unique about Sumo is its fighting style, and this probably makes Sumo so attractive.  There is no weight class, big, small, heavy and light wrestlers all fight on the same stage.  And they do not use any weapons.  What they use is only their body, pure power.  So you may think that big, heavy sumo wrestlers always win.  However, it doesn’t always go so simple.  With speed, technique, and good body balance, smaller wrestlers can beat bigger wrestlers.  Even lower-ranked sumo wrestlers can beat higher-ranked ones.   It may be also fun to see how they get promoted from low rank to high rank.

There is another person on the Dohyo you may find unique.  That is Gyoji (行司), a referee.  They wear the traditional Japanese clothing and even they have ranks.  The lower-ranked Gyoji wears much simpler outfit.  The highest ranked Gyoji called Tate-Gyoji (立行司) carries a Tanto (短刀/ a dagger).  Even though there are some opinions, this means that they are prepared to commit Seppuku if they made a mistake.  Of course, they wouldn’t do so in real life.  Gyoji has the family name, either Kimora (木村) or Shikimori (式守), as a professional name.  When you watch sumo, you may wonder what they are saying during a match.  They say “Hakkeyoi (はっけよい)”, ”Nokotta (のこった)” and those are an encouragement to the sumo wrestlers meaning “Use your full power”, “You are still in the Dohyo”, translated roughly. 

Not only the tournaments but also regional tours are taken place.  That is called Jungyo (巡業) and performed between tournaments.  If you visit this, you can actually meet sumo wrestlers, and see them practice and their matches.  You can also see little kids fighting against gigantic sumo wrestlers.

Even though it is the Japanese national sport, you see a lot of sumo wrestlers from many other countries.  A while ago, Hawaiian sumo wrestlers were dominant among non-Japanese wrestlers but nowadays there are many Mongolian sumo wrestlers and also other European wrestlers.  Three current Yokozunas are all from Mongolia.  There was a big change in January 2017.  Kisenosato (稀勢の里) won the Basho and became Yokozuna.  It is the first time in 19 years to have a Japanese Yokozuna.  People are excited and looking forward to his performance as Yokozuna in next Basho.

If you are interested in Sumo and if any chance, check out the next Basho, and find your favorite.