Japanese Traditions: Sumo Basics

grayscale photo of a sumo wrestling match
Photo by Alan Stoddard on Pexels.com

Sumo is the official sport of Japan and one of the most ancient. For those in the West, the word sumo is considered to be one of the most well known. There is a lot more to the sport than meets the eye. While its roots date back to the 1100s, but didn’t officially become all that popular until after the Meiji Restoration. Did you know that Japanese officials were so frustrated with sumo wrestling demonstrations on the streets of Edo (ancient Tokyo) that they outright banned sumo at one point?

Shinto and Sumo

Shinto is the only native Japanese religion. Sumo began as a way to appease many of the nature spirits of the Japan. As I have written about in a previous post on Ise, purity is one of the fundamental cornerstones to the Shinto religion.

This is the reason as one of the pre-match rituals, salt is thrown into a sumo ring. The thought process is to drive out any evil spirits. You may see the wrestlers lifting their legs and stopping before the bout. This is also thought to scare away angry-demons. The ‘strength-water’ a sumo wrestler drinks before a bout can also be attributed to sumo. You may notice the officiant of the match dressing in the robes of a Shinto priest.

A Sumo Match

A traditional sumo match will not last more than maybe 30 seconds. The goal is for one of the wrestlers to push the other outside of the ring of to have a body part, other than the soles of the feet, touch the ground. The ring of the match is made up of sand and clay. There are no weight-classes or restrictions.

Throughout a calendar year, there are approximately six sumo tournaments held in Japan. The largest two are held in Osaka and Tokyo. Tournaments average about two weeks where the wrestlers participate in one match per day. A typical tournament begins at around 8:30 in the morning and may go until 6 in the evening.

Wrestlers in sumo are ranked based on how many matches they may have won or lost. The rank can change daily on the lower level, but tends to stay the same for those more well-known wrestlers.

Sumo Training Stables

If you are visiting Japan, visitors are welcomes into the sumo wrestler training stables. This is where the wrestlers eat, live and train. The morning session is the best time to visit. There are many located throughout Tokyo. Note that you may need to check with a tourist office or with a native Japanese speaker. Many of the training stables request to have a person to explain the daily rituals. The fee is typically only about 10,000 yen (~$10 USD).

What they Wear

A sumo wrestlers hair is styled after the samurai topknot from the Edo period. It is not cut until a wrestler retires. There is not much room for change or differences in style. The hair is strictly regulated.

When outside of the ring, lower level wrestlers will wear cotton yukata. The higher your rank, the more intricate the yukata can become. Shoes are traditional Japanese geta.

Inside the ring, the belt of the sumo wrestler is called the mawashi. This literally translates to loincloth. In a tournament, or official match, the strings that decorate and tuck into the belt are called sagari. They are made up of an odd number ranging from 17 to 21. These numbers are the most auspicious and lucky in the Shinto religion.

Wrapping Up

I’ve probably missed some key information about sumo, but I hope this post provides you with some of the basic background info. Please let me know if you have further questions. I’d be happy to try to answer them for you. I did want to note wrestlers can be native or foreign born these days. Below I’ve linked a video from a recent match. ENjoy!