The Origins of Sumo
Sumo (as we know it today) comes partially from the Shinto religion. The Shinto origins of Sumo can plainly be seen as many of the rituals in Sumo have been passed down directly from Shinto. These rituals are akin to Shinto rituals that ensure a bountiful harvest and honor spirits called kami. The dohyō itself resembles a Shinto shrine and the gyōji (referee) is dressed in garments similar to that of a Shinto priest. The throwing of salt before a bout is done to purify the dohyō.
Before Sumo became an official sport during the Tokugawa period, it had originally been performed on the grounds of either a shrine or temple. The dohyō that we know and love today (which is still held as sacred) is used in honor of the times in which Sumo was held on sacred grounds. The canopy above the dohyō was initially called the yakata and was meant to represent the sky in order to emphasize the dohyō, which represented the earth.
The day before a basho begins, a ring-blessing ceremony known as dohyō-matsuri is performed by the gyōji. During the dohyō-matsuri, the gyōji wear white Shinto priest robes and carry out the ceremony during which chestnuts, dried squid, kelp, and salt are buried at the very center of the dohyō. Observers are invited to drink sake as it is offered to them one by one. The remaining sake is poured over the tawara (rice-straw bales) that mark the boundary of the dohyō. This is done as an offering to the gods.
Each and every day of a basho, ring-entering ceremonies known as dohyō-iri are performed by the rikishi. During the dohyō-iri, the rikishi ascend the dohyō and walk around the edge, facing the audience. They turn inward to face one another and clap their hands. They then raise one hand, followed by slightly lifting their ceremonial kesho-mawashi, and they then raise both hands. Once this is done, they continue walking around the edge of the dohyō and leave the same way the entered. The dohyō-iri is an important element of Shinto in Sumo and it is similar to the clapping done in Shinto shrines to attract the gods’ attentions.
Aside from its steeping in Shinto influences, Sumo also has origins in the imperial court as a trial of strength. Representatives of each province were commanded to attend the tournament at court. This tournament was called sumai no sechie (or sumai party) and contestants were expected to pay their own travel fares.
Neighboring nations also had a hand in Sumo’s origins. Sumo is known to feature aspects of traditional wrestling that bear striking resemblance to those practiced in Chinese Shuai Jiao, Korean Ssireum, and Mongolian Wrestling.
Professional Sumo (as we know it today) can be traced back to the Edo period of Japan where it was a form of entertainment. The first professional rikishi were likely samurai or rōnin seeking an alternative or supplementary source of income. Modern, professional Sumo bashos began in 1684 in the Tomioka Hachiman Shrine. Western Japan also had Sumo bashos of its own and these were, predominantly, held in Osaka.
Sumo in Osaka continued all the way to the end of the Taishō period in 1926 at which point it merged with the Tokyo branch of Sumo and became one unified organization. For a time following this merger, four bashos were held each year. Two bashos were held in the west at locales such as Fukuoka, Nagoya, and Osaka. Two bashos were also held in the east in the legendary Ryōgoku Kokugikan in Tokyo.
Following 1933, bashos were held almost exclusively in the Ryōgoku Kokugikan until the occupying American military appropriated the venue. This event moved bashos to the Meiji Shrine until the 1950s came around. An alternate venue, the Kuramae Kokugikan, was also built for Sumo and the bashos were moved to that location.
It was also around this time in Sumo history that the venerable Sumo Association began expanding into western Japan once more. The current number of six bashos per year was reached in 1958; half of them were being held at the Kuramae Kokugikan. In 1984, the Ryōgoku Kokugikan that we’re all so fond of was able to be rebuilt and bashos have been held in Tokyo from that day until the present. Thanks for reading.
An Introduction to Sumo
Sumo is a full-contact wrestling sport where a rikishi (wrestler) attempts to force another rikishi out of a circular dohyō (ring) or get them to touch the ground with anything other than the soles of their feet. Bear in mind that almost anything goes inside the dohyō (with a few exceptions). Rikishi are not allowed to punch one another with a closed fist, pull one another’s hair, kick anywhere above the stomach or kick the stomach itself, grab the throat, or to gouge the eyes. When you’re dealing with 6’2″, 400 pound behemoths you need to have a few ground rules right?
Japan is the only country in the world in which sumo is practiced professionally. There are six official bashos (tournaments) held each year across Japan; one in every uneven numbered month. Each basho lasts for a total of 15 days, in which, every rikishi will wrestle 15 times. If a rikishi gets kachikoshi (a score of at least 8 wins during the basho), their performance at the basho is considered successful and they will find themselves climbing the ranks. If a rikishi fails to get kachikoshi (this is called makekoshi), they will most likely experience a downgrade in the rank.
Sumo is separated into six different divisions which are (in order of lowest to highest) Jonokuchi, Jonidan, Sandanme, Makushita, Juryo, and Makuuchi. The lower four ranks are something you’ll most likely want to avoid watching if you’re just getting into the sport. Juryo maintains a level of importance as the rikishi who do well in this division move up to the big time in Makuuchi. As I stated previously, Makuuchi is very much the big time when it comes to Sumo and, therefore, is always the most widely followed and easily the most exciting division to watch.
The Makuuchi division itself is divided into several different ranks of rikishi.
- At the bottom of the Makuuchi totem pole you have the Maegashira, of whom there are usually around 30. These guys make up the bulk of Makuuchi and have a much higher turn over than the upper echelon. The Maegashira are ranked among themselves (as stated above between 1 – 15/16). Lower ranked Maegashira who have unsuccessful bashos are in ever present danger of being demoted back down to the Juryo division.
- The next rung on the Makuuchi ladder are the Komusubi. There are only two of these fellows, one East and one West. (Those aren’t what part of the world they’re from, by the way. I wouldn’t really worry about it if you’re just getting into Sumo as it is more of an unimportant clarification at this point in time anyway with modern Sumo.) Maegashira getting promoted to Komusubi have a much easier time getting promoted than Komusubi who are looking to move up.
- The third highest rank in Makuuchi is Sekiwake. Again, there are two Sekiwake, one East and one West. Sekiwake are required to have a lot of success to get their next promotion. The general rule of thumb is that a Sekiwake needs around 33 wins in three consecutive bashos to be considered for promotion.
- Coming in at the number two rank are the Ozeki; close enough to the biggest of the big timers that they can practically taste their apotheosis into Sumo legend. However, the pressure is really on for the Ozeki to make sure they remain a real threat in the dohyō. It’s their job to keep the top dogs on their toes and the up-and-comers in their place. Demotions among the Ozeki are far more harsh than at any other rank in Makuuchi.
- Finally we have the crème de la crème of the rikishi that make up the Makuuchi division: the Yokozuna. These guys have paid their dues, proven themselves, and been placed on the pinnacle of sumo awesomeness. For a rikishi to be promoted to Yokozuna requires far more than any other promotion. There is no set amount of wins that is needed to advance, but rather, the candidate must be found worthy by the Yokozuna Deliberation Council. Once promoted to Yokozuna, a rikishi can never go down in rank. However, if a Yokozuna is performing poorly in bashos, they will begin receiving a lot of pressure to retire from the sport.
As you can probably tell, promotions are a big part of sumo. Not only do they earn a rikishi prestige and fame, but a bigger paycheck as well.