25 Fast Facts about Sumo Wrestling

The September Sumo in Tokyo is in full swing. Whether you are planning to visit or just catch a glimpse on TV, here are 25 fast facts to help you understand what you are seeing! But first, some basic terminology.  Wrestlers are known as rikishi, the circle the match takes place in is the dohyo and the 15 day competition itself is known as the basho.

Here we go!
1. Origins
the origins of sumo date back over 1500 years and are steeped in Shinto tradition. However the rules and rituals around sumo in its current form were mostly developed in the 20th century.

2. Mawashi
The loincloth worn by the rikishi are around 10 yards (9 metres) long and 2 feet (60cm) wide. After being folded into 6, the heavy silk is wrapped around the wrestler’s waist between 4 - 7 times. 

3. Hairstyle 
The sumo’s hair is oiled and combed into the shape of a ginkgo leaf. Apparently this hairstyle also provides some cushioning for their heads in the case of a fall.

4. The dohyo
The dohyo is 18 x 18 feet and two feet high. The ring itself has a diameter of 15 feet.

5. Ring construction
The dohyo, the place where all the action happens is made from clay and he surface covered with sand. It takes a week to construct. The circle and borders are rice bales which are buried in the clay. In the case of the Nagoya tournament, at the end of the competition some fans will break off a piece of clay to take as a souvenir

6. The roof
The roof suspended over the dohyo represents a shrine roof and the large tassles on each corner represent the seasons of the year.
via https://www.instagram.com/p/BZLpxTvhon0
7. East and west
During the basho, sumo are grouped as east or west which refers to which side of the ring they enter and begin the match from. This has no correspondence to the stables they come from, nor is there any ‘team’ benefit if more east rikishi win their bouts than west or vice versa.

8. Rules
Eye gouging, hair pulling, choking, hitting with closed fists and kicking the chest or abdomen are all off limits, as is taking hold of the part of the mawashi that covers the groin area.
9. What is a win?
The rikishi who touches the ground in the circle, with any part of his body other than his feet, inlcuding his hair, loses the bout. Alternately, the rikishi who puts any part of his foot or body on the ground outside the circle loses the match.
A winning move
10. Strategies
There are 70 winning strategies, many of which make use of an opponents mawashi however the two most common strategies are the yori-kiri and the oshi-dashi. The yori-kiri is executed when a rikishi is facing his opponent and pushes him out of the ring while holding his opponents mawashi. When a rikishi pushes his opponent out of the ring with one or both hands on the opponents body, this is termed oshi-dashi.

11. Ranking
Rikishi are ranked in 6 main divisions, but there are also rankings within these divisions. Here’s the breakdown from highest ranked to lowest.
Makuuchui is the top division, within this the rankings are Yokozuna, ozeki, sekiwake, komusubi, maegashira.
The next division is the Juryo.
Under the juryo come the Makushita. Wrestlers in the Makushita and below are considered to be still training. Then come the Sandanme, Jonidan and Jonokuchi who are the lowest ranked and have only just begun in the sport.

12. Yokozuna
The Yokozuna is the highest ranking in sumo. It is conferred on rikishi who are not only highly successful in the ring, they must have one their previous two tournaments to be considered, but also who make exceptional representatives for the sport. Unlike other rankings, Yokozuna are not demoted as a result of poor form, however, in the case of continued poor form they are expected to retire.
via https://www.instagram.com/p/BZA4dPnhFL9
13. Current Yokozuna
There are currently 4 yokozuna and have only been 72 in the 300 years since the ranking was introduced. The most recently promoted, Kisenosato was the first Japanese born yokozuna in 20 years.

14. Promotions
Rikishi are promoted or demoted through the ranks depending on their performance at the official tournaments. The more tournaments a rikishi wins, the better of course. Winning a at least 8 of the 15 matches is enough for a wrestler to maintain his current ranking, if not gain a promotion.

15. Nationality
Despite having Japanese origins, many rikishi are not Japanese. Many top ranking wrestlers are Mongolian and there are currently also sumo from Georgia and Bulgaria to name just two. 

16. Entering the ring ceremonies
During the dohyo-iri (ring entering) ceremony the makuuchi will enter the ring wearing their ceremonial aprons. The ceremony they perform attracts the attention of the gods. The lift of their apron as they turn to leave shows that they do not have any weapons. The Yokozuna then follow with a variation of the same but each will enter separately with two supporting rikishi.
The 'dohyo-iri' ceremony

17. Before the bout
The pre match grandstanding, a ritual consisting of salt throwing, leg stretching, squatting and stamping can continue for 4-5 minutes before the match must begin.
Part of the pre match warm up, sumo wrestlers are surprisingly agile

18. Salt throwing
The salt thrown before the start of a bout is done so both to purify the dohyo and protect the wrestler from injury.
via https://www.instagram.com/p/BZDqAFWhhgK Salt throwing purifies the ring and adds to the drama for spectators
19. Starting the match
When the referee indicates that it is time for the match to begin, both rikishi will put one fist on the ground, when both wrestlers have touched their second fist on the ground, the match begins.

20. Finishing the day ceremonies
The bow dance is performed to finish the day and shows the rikishi satisfaction with the day’s matches.

21. Kesho-mawashi
The Ceremonial aprons worn by the high ranking rikishi are made of heavy embroidered silk and are worth upwards of Y400,000! 
The intricately detailed kesho-mawashi are worn as the makuuchi enter the stadium for the 'entering the ring' ceremony

22. Judges
The judges wear black and are positioned on each side of the dohyo. If there is any question about a referee's call, they will enter the ring and confer to make the final decision. Once made, they announce and explain their decision

23. Referees
The referees are distinctive in their colourful costume and stand in the dohyo during the bout. After introducing the contestants the referee watches the match carefully and apparently calls out words of encouragement.
A referee watches the match progress closely

24. Sponsors
The banners you see paraded around the ring prior to higher ranking bouts are advertising the sponsors of the match who have provided prize money, see point 25.

25. Prize money
The envelopes you see the winning rikishi collect at the end of his bout are called kensho and contain money from sponsors of the match. This money supplements any official prize money the winners or recipients of special prizes (such as for upsetting the highest number of Yokozuna or ozeki) receive.


Finally, heres the essential information for visitors wanting to get to see the sumo for themselves
There are 6 tournaments a year. Three in Tokyo in January, May and September. A tournament is held in Osaka in March, Nagoya in July and Fukuoka in November. Each tournament lasts 15 days. With a little preparation or an early morning, it is certainly possible for foreign tourists to be able to visit the sumo and it is well worth it if you have the chance. For more detailed information on how to get tickets, check out this article.

Do you have any burning questions left about sumo? Let me know what they are in the comments section below!

All unattributed photographs taken by the author

Travelling Firefly