It's one of the oldest and most revered sports in the world by its fans, but what might seem like a simple shoving contest is actually a hugely complex mix of tradition, spirituality, technique and raw physical power. Join us for a lesson as we step inside the sumo ring...

There are few sporting clichés more iconic than the Japanese sumo wrestler: hair drawn up into an elaborate topknot, oversized body crouched low onto his elephant-sized haunches, eyes fixed emotionlessly on an opponent he intends to shove sprawling, shame-faced out of the ring. Even if you’ve never seen a sumo match or know nothing of the sport, chances are you’re at least familiar with this image.

On the surface, your first impressions of sumo wrestling might suggest that there’s little more to it than this: crouch, glare, shove, repeat. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find there lies a deep, complex world of extreme discipline, grueling training conditions and labyrinthine etiquette. No other sport on earth features such a wild juxtaposition of quietly observed, sacred ritual and raw physical power. And for those who choose to enter its ranks, sumo isn’t simply a sport or a career; it’s an entire way of life. Here’s the first of a two-part guide to this ancient and highly revered national obsession.

Origins & Traditions

Sumo has its roots deep in Japan’s feudal past. In its oldest form, sumo wrestling was intended as entertainment for the gods of Japan’s Shinto Buddhist religion. Japanese books of myths and legends, written in the eighth century, say that sumo matches were performed during the rice-planting season to ensure a good crop for the year.

During Japan’s Nara and Heian periods (710 – 1192AD), sumo bouts were held at Japan’s imperial court in front of emperors and noblemen. The sport’s original rules and etiquette were shaped by the influence of traveling samurai mercenaries known as ronin. When not busy with their day jobs, these warriors needed a source of income. Wrestling for money in front of Japan’s elite was a good way to pay the bills.

Sumo as we know it today can trace its roots back to the early 1600s: the start of Japan’s Edo period. At this time, despite sumo’s popularity, the government disapproved of these semi-legitimate fighting competitions. In response to this, official rules for sumo were introduced. Bouts were required for the first time to take place in a ring. It was at this time that competitors began to make a decent living from their craft, and so the professional sumo wrestler was born. It was also, crucially, the point at which sumo wrestling became a public spectator sport.

These days, modern sumo hasn’t changed much since the original Edo period, and to watch a sumo match today is to watch centuries of Japanese history in motion.

Rules, Rituals & The Ring 

Sumo bouts are held in a ring called a dohyo. A modern dohyo is a circular area, 4.55 meters wide, made of rice-straw bales and mounted on a square clay platform. The tops of the bales are covered in a thick layer of sand, which forms the wrestling surface. Wrestlers – known as rikishi – are trained to imagine the dohyo as the top of a skyscraper, with a lethal plunge awaiting anyone pushed outside it.

Sumo bouts can be brief, often lasting as little as three seconds. However, before every match, there is a disproportionately long, ritualistic preamble that is a crucial part of the sport. As wrestlers enter the ring, they fling handfuls of rock salt around to purify it. They offer their upturned palms to the heavens to show they aren’t carrying concealed weapons – a throwback to the days when many sumo wrestlers were armed samurai outside the ring. They slap their bodies, glare at their opponents, and generally try to intimidate them into making an error during the very short window of the bout itself.

Shinto Buddhist symbolism is also woven into the fabric of these rituals. However, despite the religious pretext, their main purpose is to serve as an almighty pre-match psyche-out. After the ritual reaches a crescendo, the rikishi crouch onto their starting lines and touch their fists to the ground. At this point, the bout begins.

Sumo matches are presided over by referees, known as gyoji. It’s the referee’s job to adjudicate the bout, making sure the wrestlers respect the complicated pre-match etiquette, then decide who emerges victorious. Sometimes this can be a close call – when two 150kg wrestlers tumble out of a clay ring on top of each other, it can be difficult to see whose foot touches the floor first.

Furthermore, these decisions are not taken lightly. A referee, dressed in his elaborate silk or cotton uniform, also proudly carries a sword. This harks back to a time when he would have been required to commit seppuku (ritual disembowelment of himself) on the spot if he made the wrong call during a match. No pressure, then…

The referee’s decision-making process is aided by the work of a figure known as a yobidashi – similar to a groundsman in football. Dressed in an outfit loosely based on old-style Japanese workmen’s clothes, it’s his job to sweep the ring, keeping the sand pristine for each bout. The freshly-swept surface helps the referee make decisions: like physical calligraphy, the gouges left by wrestlers’ feet can show who fell where, and in what order.

How To Win

Boiled down to its most basic elements, sumo is a sport of satisfying simplicity. Wrestlers can win one of two ways: by forcing their opponent out of the ring, or by making them touch the ground with any part of their body except the soles of their feet.

Despite the apparent brevity of the sumo rulebook, there are around 70 legal moves by which wrestlers can throw, grapple or bulldoze their way to victory. One of the most effective techniques is to go for an opponent’s mawashi. The mawashi is the stiff loincloth-style garment that all wrestlers wear. It’s actually an eight-meter length of white silk (for senior wrestlers), or black cotton for juniors. The fabric is wound around and between the wrestler’s legs, over and over again, and then tied off at the back.

By trying to grab the mawashi, a wrestler intends to find the purchase and leverage necessary to, in some cases, literally pick his opponent up and toss him out of the ring. That’s not easy when your opponent weighs 330 lbs. (about the same as a giant panda!) and is trying to do exactly the same thing to you.

Other moves that are considered legal include slapping, shoving and head-butting. The list of illegal moves includes: pulling an opponent’s hair, striking him with a closed fist, gouging his eyes, or trying to grab him by the crotch. Any of these are grounds for immediate disqualification from a bout.

Different wrestlers adopt different styles. Some go for all out physical power, using sheer, blunt force to obliterate their opponents from of the ring; some use techniques reminiscent of judo, turning their opponent’s own speed and weight against them to lever them out of the dohyo by technique and strategy alone. Ultimately it all depends on a sumo wrestler’s skill level and how much he weighs – most of which is determined by his training routine.

Sumo Training Stables

Sumo wrestlers are trained in stables, known as heya. But these are not drop-in gyms or places wrestlers can turn up to when the mood takes them. Sumo stables are excruciatingly disciplined, high-pressure environments where wrestlers live full time and are worked to the bone in preparation for their ascension into the professional ranks. Each stable is presided over by a stablemaster, a one-time successful rikishi, now retired from his fighting days.

Often, the careers of sumo wrestlers begin when they are teenagers. As junior rikishi, it’s their responsibility to cook, clean, and generally shoulder all the odd-jobs around the heya. They are seen as subordinates to the stable’s senior wrestlers until they have risen to the point in the hierarchy where there are other, newer juniors beneath them.

A typical day in a heya for a junior wrestler might go something like this: rise at 5am and start training in the stable’s practice dohyo. The day’s first exercises include a stretching move where one foot is raised into the air, almost to the point where the wrestler is doing the splits vertically, and then stomped down into the sand of the dohyo with tremendous force. This is called a shiko. It improves flexibility and maximizes lower leg power. Wrestlers then begin sparring in a system known as a moshiai. Similar to a game of "winner stays on" pool, the victor from each bout stays in the dohyo until a challenger can defeat him.

Senior wrestlers are allowed to sleep until later into the morning, and as the practice session draws onwards they begin to arrive. They enter the moshiai, taking on the junior wrestlers – usually flattening them – sometimes offering words of advice, sometimes simply mocking their lack of skill or size. This is how aspiring wrestlers learn their craft: by getting pummeled out of a practice ring before breakfast every day, over and over again, by older wrestlers who have been ascending through sumo’s ranking system their whole lives.

At 8am, the junior wrestlers leave the practice session and head to the stable’s kitchen, where they prepare the first meal of the day: a nutritious meat, fish and vegetable hotpot called chanko-nabe. This high-protein stew, along with bowl after bowl of rice, is the traditional meal by which sumo wrestlers gain their immense bulk. Washed down with copious amounts of beer, a typical chanko lunch can hit the 10,000 calorie mark. A second round in the evening can take the day’s total intake to around 20,000 calories – which is roughly the same as eating 20 döner kebabs a day.

Practice for senior wrestlers ends when the chanko is ready to serve: usually around 10:30am. They take a pre-meal bath (which is, of course, run for them by a junior wrestler), and then eat their fill – again, getting first dibs on the food. After lunch, the junior wrestlers clean up, and then it’s nap time. Outside of the ring, much of a sumo wrestler’s life is spent either eating or dozing – both activities that help them pack on the mass they need to flatten their opponents in the ring.

Tournaments & Ranking

Training in sumo stables increases in intensity as the year’s big tournaments draw near. These tournaments are known as hon-basho; there are six held per year in Japan (in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka) and each tournament lasts 15 days.

Top-ranked wrestlers are required to face one other top-ranked wrestler per day. Those in the lower ranks wrestle seven times per day. The aim for each rikishi is to reach the end of the 15 days with more wins than losses. Sumo from the top ranks sometimes leave undefeated, with 15-0 records. These perfect scores are known as zensho-yusho. One of sumo’s greatest wrestlers, Hakuho, has achieved eleven perfect yusho scores during his tournament career.

The entire sumo world revolves around the hon-basho schedule. These tournaments are the only way rikishi can be promoted (or demoted) in the sport’s ranking system – which is called the banzuke. They also determine how much they earn. In sumo, there are no boxing-style weight classes. Instead, wrestlers are divided into six divisions, ordered by skill level, and then ranked individually within each division. Divisions are also split into wrestlers from West or East, with those wrestlers ranked as East seen as belonging to the slightly more prestigious group.

As a wrestler’s rank within a division increases, he faces stronger and stronger opponents at each tournament. This can be seen as an opportunity to prove his strength, or conversely, expose its upper limitations. It is by this process that sumo finds the wrestlers worthy of achieving sumo’s very top rank – known as yokozuna.

Yokozuna-level sumo wrestlers are an uncommon breed. They’re so rare that a mere 71 wrestlers have achieved this status since 1749. There are just three yokozuna currently active, all of whom are Mongolian (much to the shame of many traditionalist Japanese sumo fans). The last Japanese wrestler to achieve yokozuna status was the injury-plagued Wakanohana, in 1998. He retired from sumo in 2000, leaving a sizeable gap at the top of the table. One that has increasingly become filled with foreign talent…

We’ll be taking an in-depth look at why Japan has lost its grip on the top ranks of sumo in part II of our exposé, arriving next week. In the meantime, start practicing your shiko.

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