fbpx

Ultimate Guide to Sumo Wrestling

By Team Japan Switch + Hei Kin Wong | January 31st, 2022 

Sumo wrestling in Japan is an ever-fascinating sport, one that many of our readers don’t know all that much about. In this article, we’re setting out to give you the ultimate definition and guide to sumo wrestling in Japan. In the sections below, we will look at what sumo wrestling is, what its backstory and origin looks like, as well as give you some insight into the life of a professional sumo wrestler.

This article is a part of our extensive series on Japanese Culture and Online Japanese Lessons at Japan Switch.

ebook on tablet

Stop wasting time.

Download your free copy of 29 TIPS + TRICKS TO HACK THE JLPT today and start preparing for the JLPT the right way!

Table of Contents
    Add a header to begin generating the table of contents

    What is sumo wrestling?

    Having originated in ancient times, sumo continues to be the national sport of Japan, featuring the very distinctive Japanese-style wrestling that we’ve all come to know. Much like other wrestling types across the world, sumo involves a two-wrestler match, and is, at heart, an endurance sport. It takes place on an elevated ring (called a dohyo), which is made of clay and covered in sand.

    In sumo, the wrestlers (known traditionally as rikishi) are only allowed to touch the floor of the arena with the soles of their feet, in order to still be in the game. Once a player touches the floor with any other body part, the match is awarded to their opponent. Sumo wrestling is entertaining not only as a basic endurance sport, but also through the culture that surrounds it (the lifestyle, the history, the sport’s religious ties).

    Sumo wrestlers are highly disciplined, and the sport is viewed with reverence and respect throughout Japan.

    Watching Sumo wrestling in Tokyo

    When did sumo wrestling first start?

    It originated in ancient times, and was for a long time considered a form of entertainment for the much-revered Shinto deities of the time. While that notion is no longer applicable, many customs from that time are still observed to this day, such as the symbolic purification of the sumo ring with salt. To this day, the wrestlers also clap and rub their hands, so as to command the attention of the gods.

    Originally, sumo matches were designed to humor the gods, and ensure plentiful crops for the harvest to come. During the Edo period (1603 - 1868), the sport started being regulated, and also became more mainstream, allowing the common people to attend the matches, also. It was also used to raise funds for shrines and temples for the Shinto religion.

    What does the  “sumo” in sumo wrestling mean?

    The word “sumo” (相撲) literally translates to “to mutually rush at [one another]”, which is an accurate description of the nature of the sport. The word can also be interpreted as “to compete”.

    What do sumo wrestlers wear, and why?

    The traditional garment worn by sumo wrestlers is called a “mawashi”, and has a rather interesting backstory. The mawashi, as many people know, only covers the wrestler’s groin area. In ancient times, this was taken as proof to the Gods and Goddesses spectating the match that the wrestlers were not cheating. The mawashi is essentially a long (30 feet) belt that wraps around the wrestler’s body, and groin, and ties around his back.

    During practice, sumo wrestlers may wear mawashi made of canvas, though during formal matches, they’re more likely to switch those for mawashi made of silk. Although this varies from wrestler to wrestler, some may opt for very tight mawashi (to make sure the opponent cannot grab it, and use it as an advantage), or looser ones, for improved mobility.

    How often do sumo wrestling matches take place?

    At present, there are six Grand Sumo tournaments still taking place in Japan every year, which typically consist of over 160 matches in a single day. Suffice to say that three are in Tokyo, while three take place in other traditional Japanese cities (Osaka, Nagoya, Fukuoka) (list cities here in brackets), and that the tournaments are spread across the year.

    Other than the Sumo tournaments, Japan has many more unique festivals and activities to offer all year round. Visit our Ultimate Guide to Japanese Festivals and Ultimate Guide to Summer Festival in Japan to learn more!

    Japanese-group-lessons-in-Shinjuku-600x400-1
    Group Lesson Student

    Affordable Online and Offline Morning Lessons in Tokyo

    Learn Japanese with us online or offline and make your Japan Switch.

    JapanSwitch Logo - LINEAR - 800 x 287
    • Affordable Japanese Lessons
    • Monthly Contracts
    • No Entrance Fees
    • No Hidden Fees
    • 200+ Students
    • Online or Offline Lessons

    The rules of sumo wrestling

    The rules of sumo wrestling are interesting, though they may appear a tad unusual at first, especially for the Western eye. First of all, there is no weight category in sumo, although it might seem like an obvious sport for such a delimitation. In fact, sumo allows wrestlers of different sizes to compete, with the idea that each size has its pros and cons. A more slender sumo wrestler can dodge more easily, and use his smaller size for agility. On the other hand, a larger wrestler can subdue his opponent with his massive weight. This is one of the many aspects that makes sumo wrestling such an exciting sport.

    Other than that, the rules themselves are simple. The first wrestler to touch the ground with any part of his body (except the soles of his feet), or to step outside the straw that lines the ring. That being said, there are a few prohibitions, such as eye gouging, hair pulling, crotch grabbing, choking, or punching (with a closed fist). Slapping and lunging at the opponent’s throat in a choking motion are allowed, however.

     A rikishi may exit the ring, retreating to his corner, but would have to re-purify it with salt upon re-entering. The belief that salt has purifying powers stems from ancient Shinto times, and is used in sumo to chase bad spirits away, and designate the ring as a sacred space. Once a winner is declared, the two wrestlers salute each other by bowing formally, and showing no emotion, after which the loser leaves, and the winner is crowned.

    The Sumo Rikishi Lifestyle

    The life of a rikishi is, in many ways, unusual. As we were saying, the wrestlers must lead very strict and disciplined lives, both inside the dohyo, and outside. This affects everything from diet, to sleeping patterns, to the way the wrestlers conduct themselves socially. In its own right, this is yet another fascinating aspect of Japan’s favorite national sport.

     

    How do sumo wrestlers gain weight and stay healthy?

    One of the biggest questions fans of the sport have is how exactly do the wrestlers gain so much weight, and yet manage to stay healthy? Sumo wrestling is a bit of a paradox, in that regard, since the very rules of the sport require its wrestlers to put on a lot of weight. At the same time, a rikishi is still an athlete, and a wrestler, often viewed as a paragon of healthy living in our culture. So how exactly do rikishi diets work?

    The first thing you need to understand about a sumo wrestler’s life is that it involves a lot of intense training. In some extreme cases, there have been allegations of abuse in their training regimen, with one notable case ending in the wrestler’s death after receiving a beating in his training stable.

    So, suffice to say that both the wrestlers themselves and their trainers take the sport very seriously. Traditionally, the wrestlers are housed in training stables starting with age 15. Here, they share their lives with other wrestlers, training, eating and sleeping alongside them, day in, and day out. Interestingly enough, whenever a wrestler from a particular stable wins, the prize money is split between himself and the stable he belongs to.

    Their average routine consists of training in the morning (often starting as early as 5 AM), after which they have lunch. This is followed by free time until dinner, during which the wrestlers can do as they please, with many electing to sleep, so as to encourage growth. Because of this balance between training and eating, the wrestlers manage to stay healthy.

    Sumo wrestling in action

    While a rikishi can weigh up to 400 pounds, and end up consuming a whopping 7,000 calories a day, their rigorous exercise prevents the accumulation of visceral fat (belly fat). It is the presence of this fat that leads to heart attacks, strokes, and other side effects in regular obese people.

    This is why it can be said that while sumo wrestlers are large and consume massive amounts of food, they still qualify as healthy.

    What do sumo wrestlers eat?

    So speaking of a sumo wrestler’s diet, what exactly do they eat on a daily basis? Here, again, there’s an interesting process to be followed inside the training stable. In the morning, at roughly 8.30 AM, young novice wrestlers go to the kitchens, and begin preparing the chanko-nabe for the higher-ranking wrestlers to eat during lunch, and dinner.

    Chanko-nabe is a versatile serving of stew that often incorporates rice, vegetables, meats, and fish, depending on the wrestler’s personal preference. The chanko-nabe is usually served with copious servings of side dishes, including traditional foods, Chinese foods, and deep-fried dishes. It’s thanks to this high-calorie diet that sumo wrestlers manage to put on the copious amounts of weight needed to emerge as supreme champion in the ring.

    Because of the many benefits of chanko-nabe, some Japanese restaurants have started including the sumo dish on their menus, to cater to athletes and amateurs alike, looking to put on weight. However, without the sumo wrestler’s rigorous training regimen, such meals can prove a serious health hazard for the average person.

    Although sumo wrestlers manage to attain a careful balance between calorie intake and effort output, they need to be very careful once they retire, and significantly cut down calorie intake. Once a rikishi retires, he must also undergo serious weight loss, in order to evade the common dangers associated with obesity. On average, the retired sumo wrestler reportedly dies ten years earlier than the average Japanese man, because of this difficult diet.

    Japanese With Friends Podcast Cover

    Want to explore career options outside of teaching English?

    Break free from the teaching trap! Tune into the Japanese With Friends Podcast to hear from real professionals, CEOs, consultants, and experts on honing your Japanese, living in Japan, and building the right skills! 

    What does a sumo wrestling workout look like?

    Now that we’ve covered the most obvious aspect of a sumo wrestler’s life - the diet - let’s move on to their training regimen. As we were saying, training inside a sumo stable often begins as early as 5 AM, and ends at roughly 11 AM, thus spanning around six hours of continual training. A sumo wrestler’s workout is nothing like what you might imagine. None of your average cardio/endurance balance here. An average sumo workout begins with plenty of warm-up, to get the wrestler’s blood flowing. The six hours of training involve plenty of stretching and calisthenics exercises, as well as dozens of sumo matches with their fellow wrestlers. During a regular workout, a sumo wrestler will practice the traditional sumo match, with its outlined rules of not being allowed to touch the ground.

    During their workouts, sumo wrestlers practice exercises like koshi-wari (sumo squats), mata-wari (leg splits), chiri-chozu (an opening ritual, practiced in the squat position), and many others. Some of these have been adopted by many Western workouts. However, sumo wrestlers also train heavily in matters of endurance, with some more extreme stables indulging in intense beatings and assaults between wrestlers that usually end with the rikishi collapsing on the floor, exhausted.

    Speaking of diet, there are many unique dishes and food you can enjoy before or after a sumo wrestling match in Japan. Visit our Ultimate Guide to Japanese Nabe and Guide to Okinawan Food and Cuisine if you are interested in the great food Japan has to offer!

    The Sumo Wrestling Hall of Fame

    There are numerous places dedicated to sumo wrestling in Japan that act as tribute to the most prominent sumo wrestlers in history. One such example is the Rikishi Monument for Over 50 Wins, housed at the Tomioka Hachiman Shrine in Tokyo. It currently displays the carved names of wrestlers like:

    •     Hakuhō Shō, currently at 63 consecutive wins, is a retired sumo wrestler, who also holds the title of most undefeated championships in the sport, with a whopping 16 victories in his 14 years of active wrestling.
    •     Tanikaze Kajinosuke, also at 63 consecutive wins, was a wrestler from the Tokugawa period, who reached the highest rank of the sumo wrestling world, yokozuna, during his own lifetime (1750-1795).
    •     Umegatani Tōtarō I, one of the strongest wrestlers in the history of the sport, and the 15th yokozuna, with 58 consecutive wins.
    •     Tachiyama Mineemon (1877-1941), who scored 56 consecutive victories.
    •     Futabayama Sadaji, a 20th century sumo wrestler and yokozuna, with an impressive 69 consecutive victories.
    •     Chiyonofuji Mitsugu (1955-2016) with 53 undefeated victories.
    Start of a grand sumo tournament

    These men also occupy the top spots for the most career championships, most undefeated championships, and most championship playoffs, along with other still-living sumo wrestlers.

    If you’re interested in delving deeper into the history of sumo wrestlers, their titles, wins, and careers, as well as the evolution of the game, you can visit the Ryōgoku Kokugikan, one of the largest sumo venues in Japan, as well as the home of a sumo museum.

    Sumo Wrestlers to Look Out For Now

    If you’re heading towards a sumo wrestling event, there are some names you want to keep an eye on. While the above champions all belong to the past, with Hakuho having retired in 2021, there are still plenty of great sumo wrestlers to follow.

    1. Terunofuji

    Originally from the Ulaanbaatar region of Mongolia, Terunofuji is currently the top-ranking active sumo wrestler today. At 30 years old, his career has seen quite a roller-coaster. Reaching the high rank of ozeki, Terunofuji was forced to step back from the sport due to health reasons, yet eventually managed to win his way back, ranking as the 73rd yokozuna in 2021.

    2. Takakeishō

     At 25, Takakeishō is a two-time makuuchi champion, and currently holds the rank of East Ozeki. Originally from the Hyōgo Prefecture, Takakeishō saw a demotion due to injury, but was repromoted to Ozeki, thanks to his performance.

    3. Shōdai

    A member of the prestigious Tokitsukaze stable, Shōdai made a name for himself as a talented wrestler after rising very quickly through the ranks. Currently, he is a one-time makuuchi champion, and holds the title of West Ozeki.

    Where to see sumo wrestling matches

    If your interest in the fascinating world of wrestling has been piqued, you’re in luck, because there are plenty of places where you can see a match in person. While you may find smaller local sumo events, we recommend opting for one of the six major sumo wrestling tournaments, to round out your experience.

    Sumo tournament in Tokyo

    If you are visiting Japan outside of the tournament season, there are some special exhibition tournaments, where you might enjoy a live match. Alternatively, you could try finding a local university with a sumo club, where outside spectators might be accepted. Here and there, you may find a sumo stable that welcomes visitors to come and witness their morning training sessions, so you might get your sumo fix here. Though bear in mind that the number of stables doing this is fairly small.

    But if you are in Japan during one of the tournament periods, we strongly suggest attending those, as they are jam-packed with exciting matches.

    If you're in the mood of watching sumo wrestling matches, why not plan your vacation around it? Our Ultimate Guide to Planning a Day trip from Tokyo will tell you how to plan your perfect day trip!

    The Six Sumo Wrestling Tournaments

    All of the below events are governed by the Japan Sumo Association, with three of the tournaments (honbasho) being held in Tokyo (in January, May and September), and the other three in Osaka in March, in Nagoya in July, and in Fukuoka in November.  All tournaments follow a similar schedule, with all of them lasting for 15 days.

    The three Tokyo tournaments in January, May and September are all hosted at the Kokugikan, while the March tournament in Osaka takes place at the EDION Arena Osaka (Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium). The July Tournament in Nagoya is housed at the DOLPHINS ARENA (Aichi Prefectural Gymnasium), and the November Tournament at the Fukuoka Kokusai Center in Fukuoka.

    A sumo tournament plays out in individual categories, with the lowest ranking sumo wrestlers fighting the earliest (from 8.30, respectively 10, in the morning). Juryo sumo wrestlers (second division) begin fighting at 15:00, and the top division (Makuuchi) commences fighting at 16.00.

    In-between the fights themselves, you can also watch the ring entering ceremonies. With their ancient traditions and rites, these can really round out your sumo experience. 

    When spectating a sumo wrestling match, you can choose from three types of seats:

    Ringside seats - obviously the best, but most expensive seating available. Ringside seats involve sitting on a pillow right next to the ring, and can be a little dangerous, with the ever-present threat of a fighter flying off into the crowd.

    Box seats - most of the rest of the arena is filled with Japanese-style boxes that accommodate four people each. Here, as with ringside, you will have to take your shoes off, and watch the match from a pillow. Box seats are ideal for viewing the match with more people, since tickets are only sold per box, meaning you will have to pay for all four tickets, even if your party is smaller. Typically, a box costs around ¥38,000 (approx. $332).

    Balcony seats - these are Western-type seats, where you don’t have to take your shoes off. The balcony is furthest from the ring, and generally doesn’t offer such a good view, yet makes up for that in price. Usually, a balcony seat, also referred to as an arena seat, costs about ¥3,800 (approx. $33).

    Meet & Greet a Sumo Wrestler in Tokyo

    There are several places across Japan offering you the unique experience of meeting and interacting with a real sumo wrestler. In Asakusa, for instance, you can talk to a sumo wrestler, and get behind-the-scenes insight into a wrestler’s life, over a hot dish of chanko-nabe. You will also get to witness 3 real-life sumo matches between professional wrestlers.

    Such an opportunity allows you to ask sumo wrestlers questions you’ve always wanted to know the answer to, watch sumo matches with a restricted audience, or alternatively, the wrestlers’ morning practice, and enjoy traditional chanko-nabe.

    Speaking of Asakusa, one cannot mention it without talking about the stunning Senso-Ji temple. There are, of course, more wonderful temples and shrines in Tokyo. Visit our Ultimate Guide to Shrine and Temple in Tokyo to find more fascinating structures like Senso-Ji in Tokyo!

    Want to train in sumo wrestling with a real wrestler?

    For the more adventurous types among you, there are also training sessions available with professional sumo wrestlers. In Tokyo, you can actually participate in a professional sumo wrestling school. Here, you will learn and practice some of the most basic sumo moves, like suriashi or shiko.

    Sumo wrestling up close

    10 Sumo Wrestling terms worth remembering

    Japanese

    Romaji

    English

    勝ち越し

    Kachi-koshi

    the winning record in a tournament

    技能賞

    Ginō-shō

    money prize for exceptional technique

    殊勲賞

    Shukun-shō

    money prize for outstanding performance

    掛け手

    Kakete

    a technique involving tripping your opponent

    非技

    Hiwaza

    the way a rikishi wins a match without technique

    基本技

    Kihonwaza

    basic sumo finishing technique

    関脇

    Sekiwake

    rank under Ozeki, literally translates to “by his side”. Requires a kachi-koshi

    大関

    Ōzeki

    the rank under yokozuna, requiring 33 wins over the last 3 tournaments competed in

    横綱

    Yokozuna

    the highest tier in sumo wrestling

    Can you bet on sumo wrestling?

    Last but not least, yes, betting on sumo wrestling is a very popular practice in Japan, where there are lots of sites and bookmakers that take gambles on sumo matches. However, betting from outside Japan might be more limited, so we recommend sticking to accredited local betting shops while in Japan.

    Aside from Sumo wrestling, Horse racing is also another Japanese staple that has quite the following. If you are interested in betting on something other than sumo wrestling, check out our Ultimate Guide to Horse Racing in Japan to learn more!

    Final Thoughts

    Sumo wrestling is a wonderful sport unlike any other! If you're looking to dive in, keep the above terms in mind and start by catching an old match on YouTube. If you're already in Japan, now is as good a time as any to head out to a venue and see the sport in person!  

    While sumo wrestling is an integral part of Japanese culture, it is only one but many activities and customs that made Japanese culture so fascinating. To learn more about the culture surrounding this wonderful nation check out our Ultimate Guide to Japanese Culture and our Guide to Japanese Customs!

    Archer

    From Beginner to Pro

    Our bi-weekly emails for beginners to low intermediate students will give you the tips and motivation to self-study Japanese your way to Japanese fluency.

    Scroll to Top