History of Sumo

(Source: Sumotalk.com)

Historians agree that the origins of sumo date back 2000 years; however, it never really flourished as a spectator sport until the early 1600's. Like any other social group in Japan, there are strict rules and traditions that are observed throughout the sport. The beginner watching his first sumo broadcast on television soon realizes that very little time is actually spent grappling. Rather, the rikishi spend most of their time performing pre-bout ceremonies steeped in Shinto tradition.

Shinto is the native religion of Japan and is more a set of rituals and ceremonies than a system of beliefs or a definite code of ethics. The word itself means "way of the gods." Sumo was originally performed to entertain the gods (kami) during festivals (matsuri). Sumo as part of Shinto ritual dates as far back as the Tumulus period (250-552), but it wasn't until the 17th century that it began adopting the intense purification rituals that we see in sumo today.

Most of the Shinto that we see in sumo occurs symbolically. To begin with, the sand that covers the clay of the dohyo is itself a symbol of purity in the Shinto religion. And the canopy above the ring (yakata) is made in the style of the roof of a Shinto shrine. The four tassels on each corner of the canopy represent the four seasons, the white one as autumn, black as winter, green as spring and red as summer. The purple bunting around the roof symbolizes the drifting of the clouds and the rotation of the seasons. The referee (gyoji) resembles a Shinto priest in his traditional robe. And kelp, cuttlefish, and chestnuts are placed in the ring along with prayers for safety.

Each day of the tournament (basho), a ring entering ceremony is held, wherein each wrestler's body and spirit undergoes purification. Yokozuna are dressed in mawashi with five white zigzag folded strips of paper on the front, the same as those found at the entrance of Shinto shrines. On the front of all mawashi are sagari, which are fringes of twisted string tucked into the belt, and they represent the sacred ropes in front of shrines. Numbers of strings are odd, between seventeen and twenty-one, which are lucky numbers in the Shinto tradition. And of course, the salt that is tossed before each bout is an agent for purification and one of sumo's most visible rituals.

As a religion of customs and not laws, Shinto developed as a religion to please the gods in order to ensure a good harvest and divine protection, but soon made headway into the sport of sumo as a way to entertain those same gods, purify the sport itself and protect the rikishi from harm.

The first ceremony of the day is the dohyo-iri, or ring ceremony performed by Juryo and Makuuchi rikishi before their bouts begin. The rikishi are grouped into two groups—East and West—and each group takes a turn entering the ring. The lowest-ranked rikishi enters first and walks a complete circle around the ring followed by the other rikishi in ascending order according the rank. Before the individual rikishi enter the ring, they are introduced to the spectators. Once the last rikishi in the group has been introduced, the rikishi, who are facing the spectators, turn inward and face each other around the ring. After clapping their hands once, they raise their right hand, lift their kesho-mawashi (decorative aprons created for the ring ceremony), and finally raise both hands in unison. This tradition goes back to the samurai days and represents the rikishi showing each other that none is armed. During the Makuuchi ring ceremony, the Yokozuna are notably absent from the group as they must perform their own individual ring ceremonies. When a Yokozuna performs his ring ceremony, he will wear a white tsuna, or zuna (braided rope with five zig-zag strips hanging from the front ), around his waist to signify his rank.

Once the actual bouts begin, the two rikishi spend several minutes before their match lifting their legs high in the air and stomping them down, a practice said to scare away any demons. They also throw several handfuls of salt into the ring, which is said to purify the ring. Many rikishi will also sprinkle salt around their bodies as a means of protecting them from injury. After the last bout of the day, the yumi-tori (bow twirling) ceremony is performed by a makushita-ranked rikishi from the same stable as a Yokozuna. True fans of the sport will not leave their seats until this ritual is performed.

Presently, sumo consists of six major tournaments a year called hon-basho. The tournament months and sites are as follows: January-Tokyo, March-Osaka, May-Tokyo, July-Nagoya, September-Tokyo, and November-Fukuoka. Up through the early 20th century, there were only two basho a year; however, as sumo's popularity grew, the number of major tournaments increased to four basho a year and then in 1958, the current six-basho-a-year format was established. Also, up until 1949 a basho only lasted for 10 days; currently a basho runs for 15 days. In between basho, the rikishi constantly keep busy by touring the outskirts of Japan giving exhibitions for fans who might otherwise not get a chance to see the sport up close and live. This touring is called jungyo, and while the rikishi do battle each other in front of the fans, they are more concerned about avoiding injury than winning. This type of exhibition sumo is called hana-sumo, or flower sumo.

Throughout the history of the sport, there is record of only 68 rikishi having been crowned as Yokozuna. Often, sumo eras are defined by the Yokozuna who fought in them. In order to receive promotion to the rank of Yokozuna nowadays, a rikishi must win two tournaments in a row. To emphasize how difficult this task is, out of the hundreds of thousands of youngsters to have ever stepped in the ring only 68 have ever reached the pinnacle. In times past when there were no active Yokozuna, exceptions to the two tournament rule were made if a rikishi won one tournament and then followed that performance up with a record "worthy" of a Yokozuna.

Another fascinating aspect of sumo are the daily practice sessions (called keiko) just prior to and during the major tournaments. Practice begins around 5:00 am for the lowest ranked rikishi and starts with stretching followed by actual practice bouts in a makeshift ring. The most common form of keiko is called moshi-ai-geiko. This form of keiko is basically winner stays in the ring until someone can beat him. As soon as one bout ends, every rikishi at the practice session is expected to rush into the ring towards the winner in hopes that he will be chosen as his next opponent. There is no formal teaching of holds or maneuvers; rather, the rikishi learn these themselves by watching their seniors and practicing endlessly. The higher-ranked a rikishi is, the later in the morning he may enter the practice ring. The Makuuchi rikishi usually arrive at the practice session at 8:30 am and bark out instructions to their inferiors as they stretch ringside. As the higher-ranked rikishi begin their practice, those of lower ranks are busy in the kitchen preparing the first meal of the day.

At around 11:00 am the rikishi sit down to this meal. The higher-ranked rikishi eat first while the others stand at attention around the table waiting to serve their superiors. The main meal of the day consists of a stew dish called chanko-nabe. The broth is derived from seaweed, and different meats, fish, vegetables, and noodles are added to create a high-calorie meal. Chanko-nabe is eaten with rice and washed down with bottles of beer. The higher-ranked rikishi eat and eat sometimes only leaving scraps for the younger rikishi to finish up. After the mid-morning meal, the rikishi lie down for afternoon naps as there are no more official duties to be taken care of at the stable.


The Structure of Sumo

Professional sumo consists of approximately 550 rikishi divided into 6 divisions. The top division, called Makuuchi, includes the top 42 wrestlers in the sport. The Makuuchi rank receives the most attention and media coverage.

The second highest division is called Juryo. Juryo consists of 28 rikishi. Rikishi in the top two divisions--Makuuchi and Juryo--are called "sekitori." Sekitori are easily distinguished by their colorful mawashi (belts) and the topknot of their hair, which is fanned out into the shape of a ginkgo leaf. Sekitori are also assigned a tsukeibito, a lower-ranked wrestler that acts as a servant performing such acts as carrying the sekitori's belongings, toweling him off during practice, and answering his every beck and call. Reaching sekitori status is the first major goal of any rikishi.

The third division is called Makushita. This division consists of 120 rikishi all fighting to be promoted to Juryo, thus becoming a sekitori.

The fourth division is Sandanme, which consists of approximately 200 rikishi.

The fifth division is Jonidan, which consists of approximately 260 rikishi.

The sixth and final division is Jonokuchi, which consists of approximately 80 rikishi. When a new rikishi enters professional sumo, he will usually enter the sport at the age of 16 ranked as a low Jonokuchi. Some aspiring rikishi choose not to become professionals at 16, rather they develop their sumo technique during junior high, high school, and college. Once graduating from college, they can begin their professional careers at the Makushita 15 level if their accomplishments during their amateur days prove them worthy of this rank.

There is only one method whereby a rikishi can rise through the sumo ranks: win a majority of his bouts at the major tournaments. Major tournaments, called hon-basho (or basho for short), occur six times a year in the odd months. A hon-basho lasts 15 days spanning the two middle weeks of the month. It begins on a Sunday and ends on the Sunday two weeks later. Rikishi from the top two divisions compete everyday of the tournament; whereas, the rikishi in the four lower divisions compete seven of the 15 days. Rikishi in the four lower divisions will wrestle an opponent who has the same record as himself. For example, if rikishi A is 2-3 after his first five bouts, his next opponent will also have the same record. In this way, a rikishi cannot rise to the top of his division by consistently beating up on lesser opponents.

Each division produces an eventual champion for the tournament. In order to be crowned champion for the four lower ranks, a rikishi usually has to win all seven of his bouts. If two or more rikishi are tied at the end of the tournament, they will have a playoff to determine the winner. As for the two top divisions, the rikishi with the best record at the end of the tournament is crowned the winner. If two or more rikishi are tied at the end of 15 days, they will have a playoff to determine the winner. It is extremely difficult to go 15-0 in the top two divisions, although it has been done.

Makuuchi, the top division in the sport, consists of different levels. The highest level a rikishi can achieve is called Yokozuna, or Grand Champion. In order to attain this rank, a rikishi must win two major tournaments in a row. On the average, only 1 in every 1,000 rikishi will ever achieve this rank. In fact, there have only been 69 rikishi crowned Yokozuna in the entire history of the sport. Yokozuna is the ultimate goal in sumo and is a rank greatly respected by everyone associated with the sport.

Below the Yokozuna are the Ozeki. A general rule in attaining Ozeki status is winning 33 bouts over three consecutive tournaments while ranked from the sanyaku (see graphic below). There are usually 3-5 Ozeki at any given time, and an Ozeki usually has at least one tournament championship under his belt.

Below the Ozeki are the Sekiwake and Komusubi ranks respectively. These two ranks are called the sanyaku, which literally means three upper tiers (the Ozeki have been classified as sanyaku in the past). There are usually 2 Sekiwake and 2 Komusubi each for every major tournament. The remaining rikishi in the Makuuchi division are all called Maegashira and are all ranked from 1 to 15 or 16 depending on their performance at the previous tournament.

It should be noted here that all ranks and divisions in sumo are divided into the East group and the West group. For example, in the Juryo rank there are 28 rikishi. Instead of ranking these rikishi 1 through 28, they are divided into two groups, East and West, and the rikishi in each group are ranked 1 through 14 with the East rank being the most prestigious. The top two rikishi in Juryo will be ranked 1 East and 1 West respectively. The East-West aspect of sumo is rather meaningless; it mainly determines from which side the rikishi will enter the ring before his bout.

Each rikishi belongs to a stable, or sumo-beya. A stable can consist of anywhere from three to 20 rikishi (there is no set rule) of all different ranks. The lower rikishi live at the stable full-time, and here is where they will practice and receive their training. Each stable has a master, or shisho, who is a former rikishi himself. The shisho is in charge of the daily operations of the stable and usually keeps a sharp eye on the progress of each rikishi in his stable. Rikishi who belong to the same stable do not fight each other at major tournaments.


The Rules of Sumo

The sport of sumo has very few rules, which can result in some exciting bouts. Sumo takes place in a ring approximately 15 feet in diameter that is raised about 2 1/2 feet off the ground on a huge block of clay called a dohyo. A light sprinkling of sand is applied inside of the ring. The edge of the ring is made of tightly wound straw bands called tawara and rises up about 3 inches out of the dohyo. A new dohyo is created for each tournament. Five judges, or shinpan dressed in black kimono, sit below the dohyo and around the ring. These judges are former rikishi themselves. A referee, or gyoji, dressed in an elaborate kimono stands at the edge of the ring and officiates the bout. At the end of the bout, the gyoji points to the winner. In a particularly close bout, any of the five judges can dispute the call made by the referee. In this case, a conference, called a mono-ii, is held inside the ring with the gyoji and five shinpan to discuss the match. In modern times, television instant replay is used to determine the actual outcome of a match when in dispute.

A rikishi loses a match when any part of his body other than the bottoms of his feet touches the dohyo or when he is pushed or thrown outside of the ring. In the middle of the ring are two white lines called shikirisen. These lines are the starting points of each rikishi for each bout. When a judge gives the signal for the rikishi to fight, both rikishi crouch behind their respective shikirisen and face each other. When both rikishi place both hands clenched in fists on or behind the shikirisen, the bout begins. The tachi-ai, or initial charge, is extremely important in gaining the advantage and momentum over your opponent.

During the actual bout, a rikishi may use any technique or maneuver except pulling his opponent's hair, hitting his opponent with a closed fist, boxing his opponent's ears, choking his opponent (although he may push at the throat), or grabbing his opponent's mawashi in the crotch area. Rikishi use all sorts of techniques during the bout; however, a rikishi's style can usually be classified as one of two styles: oshi-zumo, or a tendency to push your opponent out of the ring, and yotsu-zumo, a tendency to grab your opponent's belt and force him out of the ring. The truly best rikishi are adept at using both styles to beat their opponents.

At the end of each bout, a kimarite, or winning technique, is announced informing the spectators exactly what method was used to win the bout. While there are over 60 official kimarite, only a dozen or so are seen regularly. Perhaps the greatest advantage a rikishi can gain over his opponent is to reach around and grab his opponent's belt thus keeping his opponent's arm pinned near his body. This technique is called uwate, or outside grip. Maintaining the outside grip, a rikishi commonly throws his opponent down (uwate-nage), or uses his position to force his opponent outside of the ring (yorikiri). As a sumo fan, understanding the different kimarite and techniques used by the rikishi, greatly enhances the viewing experience.