Sumo (相撲)

Sumo is a Japanese traditional ritual ceremony or festival. At the same time, sumo is also a martial or military art (taking the original meaning of a yumitorishiki (victory bow ceremony held at the end of a sumo performance day) into consideration). In addition, chosen people have held performances called Ozumo (grand sumo tournament) in order to obtain money gifts (prize money) to make a living from olden times. In recent years, people in other countries have enjoyed sumo as a traditional Japanese martial art, military art, or sport.


Sumo is originally a ritual ceremony based on Shinto, which is the Japanese traditional religion, and local communities still have 'honozumo' (ritual sumo matches held at a shrine) as a festival in various regions throughout Japan. Healthy and vital men would offer their power to gods to let the people show their respect and give thanks to gods. For this purpose, they attached great importance to etiquette and formality. Accordingly, sumo wrestlers do not wear anything but a mawashi (a sumo wrestler's belt). The current sumo performances called ozumo retains traces of these traditional rules. The Imperial Family has had a close relationship to sumo since ancient times.

On the other hand, looking at sumo as a martial art, people find that it is a wrestling-type of sport in which an almost naked wrestler tries to grab and defeat his opponent without using any weapons. In English, the terms 'Sumo' and 'Sumo-Wrestling' are used. Sumo is unique when compared to similar types of martial arts in that sumo emphasizes having a wrestler to keep pushing forward.

There are similar fighting sports in Japan and other countries such as Bukh in Mongolia, Shuai Jiao in China, Shilm in the Korean Peninsula, Shima in Okinawa, and Yagli Gures in Turkey. These sports have their own names, but in Japan, people generally put a place name before the term "sumo" (sometimes pronounced as "zumo") to reference to such sports; for example, Okinawa-sumo (also known as Ryukyu-sumo), Mongolia-sumo, and Turkey-sumo.

In Japan, "sumo" is also used as a generic term which refers to fighting sports in which two players come to grips with each other. Ude-zumo (arm wrestling), ashi-zumo, (foot wrestling), and yubi-zumo (finger wrestling) are examples of this. In addition, there is a game called kami-zumo (paper sumo), which follows sumo rules.

History of sumo

Also refer to the section on the history of Ozumo for details about sumo in and after the Edo period.

Ancient times

Sumo has a long history, and is described in haniwa (hollow clay figures) and unglazed Sueki ware from the Kofun period (tumulus period).

The volume of Kamiyo (ages of gods) in the "Kojiki" (The Records of Ancient Matters), which refers to the Japanese myth, includes a story concerning Takeminakata (a Japanese god) saying to Takemikazuchi (a Japanese god) that he wanted to find out which of them was the stronger god, and attempting to grab Takemikazuchi's arm and throw him, when Takemikazuchi was dispatched to Ashihara no Nakatsukuni (the Central Land of Reed Plains) in order to conquer that place. Takeminakata could not grab Takemikazuchi's arm eventually because Takemikazuchi changed his arm into an icicle and then a sword. Moreover, Takemikazuchi crashed Takeminakata's hand in his hand as if it were a reed, and Takeminakata was no match for him. This is said to be the origin of sumo.

The Yayoi period

According to "Nihonshoki" (The Chronicles of Japan), the oldest fight between human fighters, not gods, was a fight between NOMI no Sukune and TAIMA no Kehaya at 'Sumaitorashimu' (also sometimes called 'Sumai') on August 26, B.C. 23 (this fight is also regarded as the origin of judo). This book says that the emperor heard that TAIMA no Kehaya was the greatest wrestler in the world and he also said that Sukume broke Kehaya's rib and hipbones with his kick technique and killed him. This is different from modern sumo, and was obviously a military or martial art. Sukume is worshiped as the father of sumo.


The section on Suinin of "Kojiki" says as follows, the term 'chikarahito' (also pronounced as sumaihito) appeared in the description for the first time.
Then he selected and collected strong and nimble soldiers, and told them to catch the baby's mother as well when they receive that baby.'
He told them to grab any part of her body they can touch, like her hair or hand, to get her.'
This is what he said.'
"As the consort was suspicious of his intentions, she shaved off all of her hair and then covered her head with it; wound a rotten tamanoo (bead string) three times around her hand; and sprinkled alcohol on her clothes so that they would rot and then wore them as usual."
She got ready in that way, and then held her baby and stretched out her arms to the outside of the wall of the castle.'
After receiving the baby, the strong soldiers also grabbed the mother.'
However, her hair fell down to the ground as soon as they grabbed it, and the tamanoo broke when they grabbed her hand, and additionally, her clothes were torn when they grabbed her clothes.'

The Kofun period

Both "Kojiki" and "Nihonshoki" mention a story where Yamatotakeru no Mikoto entered Mt. Ibuki in Yamato Province (present-day Nara Prefecture) without the Kusanagi no Tsurugi (Sword of Kusanagi) in 110, in order to defeat the god of Mt. Ibuki (this god is thought to have been a local magnate) with his bare hands.

According to "Nihonshoki," Emperor Yuryaku told two uneme (Court ladies) to wear a loincloth and to wrestle in front of INABE no Mane, who was very proud of himself, in September 469. This is the oldest record of women's sumo.

The Asuka period

The "Nihonshoki" states 'The emperor entertained ambassadors from Paekche including Chishaku TAISAHEI at the Imperial Court, and he told strong men to have sumo matches in front of Gyogi,' kondei (regular soldiers guarding kokubu (ancient provincial offices)) had sumo matches to entertain a royal envoy from Paekche on August 15, 642.

In addition to "Kojiki" and "Nihonshoki," descriptions of sumo are seen in other materials such as "Shoku Nihongi" (The Chronicle of Japan Continued), "Nihon Koki" (The Later Chronicle of Japan), "Shoku Nihon Koki" (The Later Chronicle of Japan Continued), "Nihon Montoku Tenno Jitsuroku" (The Veritable Records of Emperor Montoku of Japan), "Nihon Sandai Jitsuroku" (The Veritable Records of Three Reigns of Japan), "Ruiju Kokushi" (The Classified National History), "Nihongi Ryaku" (The Summary of Japanese Chronologies), "Shoyuki" (The Diary of FUJIWARA no Sanesuke), and "Chuyuki" (The Diary of FUJIWARA no Munetada).

The Nara period

In 726, they defined a list of prohibited techniques, 48 major sumo techniques, etiquette, and good manners.
(Refer to the Yoshida Tsukasake family and SHIGA no Seirin)

The fifth volume of "Manyoshu" (The Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves) says people had sumo tournaments on May 1, 730, and on July 29 of the following year (731).

Emperor Shomu (whose reign was from 724 to 749) issued an Imperial order in order to almost forcibly recruit sumo wrestlers from rural communities throughout the country. This was because the Emperor enjoyed watching sumo matches in the garden of the Shishinden Hall (the Hall for State Ceremonies) of the Imperial Court during the annual ceremony of the Star Festival held on July 7. The sumo performances held at the Imperial Court were called 'tenran zumo' (sumo matches held in the presence of an emperor).

The Heian period

In the Heian period, sumo was already an important ceremony of the Imperial Court. The 'Sumai no Sechie' (Festival of Wrestling) was held regularly every year as one of 'sando sechi' (three annual Court ceremonies). Sumai no Sachie was based on ceremonies held during the Tang period in China. Sando sechi consisted of three events: jarai (arrow shooting), kisha (arrow shooing on horseback), and sumo. It is thought that those events were held on a large scale and were very large-scale ceremonies.

In addition to Sumai no Sechie at the Imperial Court, ordinary citizens also enjoyed sumo very much. Sumo matches among ordinary citizens were called 'tochizumo' (local sumo) or 'kusazumo' (sandlot sumo). Meanwhile, 'buke zumo' (samurai sumo) among samurai was training of wrestling for actual combat, and also referred to martial arts which allowed them to train their body and mind. Also 'shinji sumo' (Shinto ritual sumo) was held as an agricultural rite in order to find out if they would have a rich or poor harvest, or pray for a rich harvest, and to thank for divine protection. This was held among ordinary citizens as well as at the Imperial Court. Although sumo was held among both samurai and ordinary citizens, Sumai no Sechie is thought to have been especially established based off of wrestling performed in the ancient Chinese Court, which was introduced into Japan before Japanese envoys to China during the Sui and the Tang Dynasties were dispatched, and it is also believed that envoys from Balhae who visited Japan multiple times influenced Sumai no Sachie.

Literature from those days such as "Konjaku Monogatari Shu" (The Tale of Times Now Past) includes some episodes about sumo wrestlers who went to the Imperial Court to attend Sumai no Sachie from various regions throughout Japan.

The Kamakura period, the period of the Northern and Southern Courts, and the Muromachi period

During the Kamakura period, MINAMOTO no Yoritomo encouraged sumo. It is said that Shigetada HATAKEYAMA was the strongest sumo wrestler among his vassals. The Soga brothers' Revenge took place in the same age.

Also, it is said that Tsunemori WADA and his brother Yoshihide ASAHINA had a sumo match to allow the winner to obtain an Oshu (Mutsu Province) horse.

There's a picture of people enjoying sumo with their clothes on and without a dohyo (sumo ring) before the Muromachi period.

The Sengoku Period (period of warring states), the Azuchi-Momoyama period, the Edo period, and after the Edo period

In the Sengoku Period, Nobunaga ODA encouraged sumo. It is also said Nobunaga designed the prototype for a dohyo.

In the Edo period, Ozumo became a professional occupation.
Additionally, zato zumo (blind men's sumo) and onna zumo (women's sumo), which was derived from zato zumo began, and lasted until the beginning of World War II

In June 1936, sumo was added to the regular curriculum of primary schools.

In the later Showa period, women's amateur sumo (called shin sumo, which literally means "new sumo") was held and there is now an organization called 'New Japan Sumo Federation.'

Sumo as a Shinto rite

Sumo cannot be separated from its role as a Shinto rite. It is thought that there were sumo rituals held as a funeral ceremony which was introduced from China and another type of sumo rituals as a fertility cult introduced from Southeast Asia, but these two functions are currently mixed up and it is hard to distinguish these.

Many Shinto shrines carry out sumo at festivals in order to pray for universal peace, family prosperity, rich harvest, a good haul of fish, and so on. Some such sumo matches also function as fortune-telling, and people try to find out if they have a rich harvest or haul based on the results of a match. Therefore most sumo matches are held until each wrestler has one win and one loss. Additionally, some shrines in Wakayama Prefecture and Omishima Island in Ehime Prefecture have a Shinto rite called hitori sumo (one-man sumo) in which a wrestler is supposed to have a sumo match against a spirit of rice, and the wrestler should always lose because they believe that victory of the spirit will bring a rich harvest. A wrestler sometimes intentionally loses against his opponent who is from a place that is believed to bring a poor harvest or a poor haul. Shiko (a sumo wrestler's ceremonial leg raising and stomping) is important as it is believed to get rid of evil from the ground, and great importance is attached to many Shinto ritual sumo matches. Shiko was gradually stylized and affected by Onmyodo (the way of Yin and Yang) and Shinto.

Examples of shinji sumo

Karatoyama shinji sumo, held at Hakui-jinja Shrine in Hakui City, Ishikawa Prefecture

Nobukata sumo, held at Kashima Yoshida-jinja Shrine in Nobukata, Itako City, Ibaraki Prefecture

Kotohira sumo, held at Kotohira-jinja Shrine in Nunokawa, Tone-machi, Kitasoma-gun, Ibaraki Prefecture

Shinto rites at Ozumo

In and after the mid Edo period, Ozumo was strongly influenced especially by Shinto. The Yoshida Tsukasake family, who was the head family of the sumo world, allowed sumo wrestlers to follow the manner of visiting Shinto shrines (kashiwade (clapping one's hands in prayer)) when they entered a dohyo, and the yokozuna (sumo grand champion) also began to wear shimenawa (a sacred rope) according to the manner prescribed by the Yoshida Tsukasake family. Senior members of Nihon Sumo Kyokai (Japan Sumo Association), senior members of the referee department, and some other relevant people from sumo-jaya (sumo teahouses) will gather at Nominosukune-jinja Shrine in Sumida Ward, Tokyo Prefecture two days before an official sumo tournament starts in Tokyo, and a Shinto priest from the Izumo Oyashiro-kyo (sect of Shinto) will conduct a Shinto rite.

Dohyo-matsuri festival

Dohyo-matsuri Festival is a sacred rite conducted by tategyoji (the head referee in sumo) the day before an official tournament begins. After an assistant gyoji (sumo referee) recites kiyomeharae no norito (Shinto ritual prayer for purification), the master of the festival conducts a rite and then he recites a prayer called katayakaiko while holding a military leader's fan. After that, yobidashiren (sumo ushers who call the names of wrestlers, sweep a dohyo, and so on) walk around the dohyo three times while beating a drum as a purification ceremony before the finish of the rite. This is based on a ceremony called 'katayabiraki,' which was started by Oikaze YOSHIDA when a sumo tournament was held in the presence of Seii Taishogun (literally, "great general who subdues the barbarians") Ienari TOKUGAWA in 1791.

Women were not allowed to enter any sumo areas until the mid Meiji period, and were not even allowed to watch sumo matches. Even now, women are prevented from stepping up into a dohyo.


How to read the term "sumo"

The term 'sumo' used to be pronounced as 'sumahi' in ancient times, and then became 'sumahu' followed by 'sumo.'

The term was written as '捔力' (seen in "Nihonshoki") or '角觝' (some people used this in the Edo period) in Japanese, and both were pronounced as sumo. Another combination of kanji characters "角力" is used due to the limited number of kanji characters designated for daily use (daily-use kanji, kanji for common use, and kanji taught in Japanese primary schools).

Some people think sumo was called tegoi in ancient times.
(The term "tegoi" is thought to be another name for sumo, and this term means grabbing an opponent's hand or having a match with bare hands.)

Wrestlers of Ozumo are called 'rikishi' or 'sumo-tori,' and the term 'osumo-san' is also used in conversations. They are sometimes called 'sumo wrestler' in English-speaking countries.

How to have a sumo match

Basically, two persons wearing a sumo wrestler's belt stand on a dohyo in the shape of a circle with a diameter of 4.55 meters (15 shaku) or a square, and they wrestle with each other to fight to the finish. A wrestler loses when he goes out of the dohyo, when his body parts except for his soles touch the ground, or when he commits a foul. A gyoji (called referee in amateur tournaments) produces a decision.

Traditionally, a wrestler's age, height, and weight do not affect sumo matches.
(open-weight class)

According to the kojitsu (old customs and manners) of the Yoshida Tsukasake family, who was the head family of the sumo world, a push, a punch, and a kick used to be the three traditional techniques of sumo before the rules of prohibited techniques were established.

A sumo match generally consists of the following steps.

Shikiri (the crouching posture at the start of a sumo bout)

Two wrestlers stand facing each other with a short distance between them on a circle-shaped dohyo, and they bend their knees until they can touch the starting line with their fists. This step is called shikiri, and the wrestlers should repeat this until their tachiai (rising from a crouch to attack) was successfully made. Wrestlers can have shikiri as many times as they want (before time runs out if a time limit is set), but they do not have to repeat shikiri unless they need to.

When Japan Broadcasting Corporation began to broadcast Ozumo over the radio on January 12, 1928, they set a time limit of 10 minutes for makuuchi (senior-grade) sumo wrestlers, a time limit of 7 for juryo (an intermediate division) sumo wrestlers, and starting lines such that all matches would finish before the end of the program. Currently makuuchi sumo wrestlers have four minutes and juryo sumo wrestlers have three minutes for shikiri.


Wrestlers with their fists touching the ground lock eyes with each other, and then rise to the attack at the same time. They usually attack the opponent from the front, but it does not mean they always have to do this. This initial charge is called tachiai.

Tachiai is unique to Japan and no other countries start their matches in this way. Only a tacit understanding between the wrestlers can determine the starting time for wrestling. The ideal tachiai is such that two spirited wrestlers stand up when both wrestlers are fully motivated after repeating shikiri. A gyoji simply confirms the wrestlers' tachiai, and he does not declare the start of the match, unlike referees and umpires of other sports. In reality, wrestlers have a time limit.

An Ozumo wrestler named Okinoemon KAGAMIYAMA, who lived during the Genroku era in the Edo period, started a tachiai style of touching a dohyo with his fist, and other wrestlers began to adopt this style.

The spread of the use of starting lines developed this style. As pictures from those days show, the distance between two wrestlers was not designated at a tachiai before starting lines were set up, and two wrestlers had a tachiai with their foreheads touching each other in many matches.

Judgment criteria

A match is decided when one of the following occurs.

When any of the opponent's body parts except for his soles touch the dohyo. The opponent loses if he is thrown down and his back touches the ground, he is pulled and his fist touches the ground, or even his hair touches the ground in an extreme case.

When the opponent is pushed out of the dohyo. The wrestler wins as soon as a part of his opponent's body touches the outside of the dohyo.

In many sumo-like Japanese fighting sports except for sumo, a player wins if his or her opponent's back touches the ground just like a fall in wrestling. Additionally, while going out of a fighting area is an offense in such sports, the player often does not lose the match straight after in most cases. For these two reasons, a sumo match can be concluded in a short period of time, and no one can expect the result of a match until just before it actually ends. This is one of the reasons why sumo tournaments can have fair matches without weight categories.

Means of sumo attack

A wrestler standing at a short distance from his opponent attempts to have a tachiai with aggressive styles such as buchikamashi (butting with a head), nodowa (throat attack), tsuppari (thrust), harite (slapping of an opponent's face), and ashibarai (foot sweep) in order to gain an advantage over an opponent.

A wrestler pushes his opponent after his hands or body touches his opponent's body. He places his hands on the opponent's chest, or grabs the opponent's belt to push the opponent.

A wrestler grabs the opponent's belt to pull him and the opponent does the same thing. When two wrestlers grab the backside of each other's belt from the same side (one wrester uses his right arm and his opponent uses his left arm), their arms cross each other. The inside arm is called shimote (underarm grip) and the outside arm is called uwate (outside grip).

A sumo wrestler makes his opponent lose his balance by stepping back quickly or standing upright with arms opened.

Pushing is the most important thing in sumo. A sumo wrestler pulls his hand and arm when he grabs his opponent belt, but even in that case, the wrestler tries to keep going forward eventually with his arms pulling back.
Some people say, 'Whether or not your opponent pushes, just keep going forward.'
There are some pulling techniques such as hikiotoshi (hand pull-down) in fact, but many people do not like such techniques. In addition, people think that, even if the opponent steps back, the wrestler should go forward faster than his opponent's step.

Sumo clinches

Major kumi-kata (clinches) styles are migi-yotsu (right-hand grip), hidari-yotsu (left-hand grip), kenka-yotsu (a sumo bout between two wrestlers who both try to get an underarm belt grip on the same side), te-yotsu (hand-to-hand posture), zu-yotsu (head-to-head posture), and gappuri-yotsu (the sumo hold to be locked together, each with a firm hold with both hands on his opponent's belt, or be locked in battle).

Winning moves

When a sumo wrestler wins a match, referees judge which technique has decided the sumo match, and that winning technique is called kimarite. There are various kimarite as a matter of course, but kimarite are officially classified into some groups such as throw, footsweep, drop, and twisting. Although there used to be 48 kimarite, Japan Sumo Association defines 77 technique names and 5 non-winning trick names (such as isamiashi (stepping out of the ring)) at present, and every move should be one of these.

Prohibited techniques

Refer to the sections of SHIGA no Seirin and the Yoshida Tsukasake family.

Sumo postures

A traditional sumo posture called 'teai' had been used until the mid Edo period, and a current sumo posture called 'sandan gamae' (three postures made on a special occasion) retains traces of teai.
(Teai and sandan gamae are Japanese unique postures and such postures are not seen in any other countries)

Okinoemon KAGAMIYAMA, a sumo wrestler who lived during the mid Edo period and was from Kii Province, developed a tachiai starting with both hands (fists) touching the dohyo. This style gradually spread because it was fit for sumo matches using a dohyo.

The sumo posture called 'ottsuke no kamae' is preserved even today since it is good for both offense and defense.

Sumo grades

Japan Sumo Federation adopts a grading system. Wrestlers in the first dan (the lowest grade of the senior class) or higher grades are allowed to use a black belt.

Sumo terminology

Refer to the list of the sumo terminology.

Anko and soppu

Heavyweight sumo wrestlers are called anko, and lightweight sumo wrestlers are called soppu. Lightweight sumo wrestlers are generally thought to be at a disadvantage, but a lightweight wrestler can defeat a heavyweight superior sumo wrestler with a move that takes advantage of his weight, and such a match can be a highlight at a sumo tournament.

Sumo and Japanese emigrants

Japanese emigrants brought sumo to Brazil and some other countries in South America.

The first sumo tournament in Brazil was held on August 31, 1914, at a cultivated field in Guadabara, Sao Paulo, to celebrate the Tencho-setsu (the Emperor's birthday festival). Over 30 young men who were originally from Fukuoka Prefecture and Kumamoto Prefecture participated in the tournament, and they used a formal Japanese style dohyo.

Brazilian Sumo Federation was established in 1962 to develop and spread amateur sumo. This sport association gained official approval from Brazilian government in 1966. The estimated number of sumo wrestlers in this county is approximately 4000, and the headquarters of the association is located in Sao Paulo.

In 1983, Japanese and Brazilian sumo federations promoted International Sumo Federation.

In 1985, the sumo federations of Paraguay and Argentina joined this federation.

In 1986, the all-Paraguay sumo tournament was held as a commemorative project of the 50th anniversary of Japanese immigration to Paraguay. The tournament had sumo wrestlers from four countries: Japan Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay.

Japanese sumo wrestlers have visited South America since 1951 when a group of Katsuichi KASAGIYAMA was invited by Brazilian Sumo Youth Federation, and now, Ozumo professional sumo wrestlers and selected amateur sumo wrestlers visited there.

Gyoji (referee) families

In addition to the Yoshida Tsukasake family, the head family of the sumo world, there were gyoji families throughout Japan. There existed many gyoji families such as the Gojo family, the Yoshioka family, the Hattori family, the Shakushi family, the Isshiki family, the Iwai family, the Shikimori family, the Kimura family, the Kise family, the Kagamiyama family, the Nagase family, and so on.

The only gyoji families that exist today are the Kimura family and the Shikimori family at present.
(Refer to the section on gyoji.)

Although the Yoshida Tsukasake family is generally said to be a deputy of the Gojo family, they have nothing to do with the Gojo family in fact, and the Nijo family is actually related to them.

The 19th head of the Yoshida family named Oikaze YOSHIDA submitted a report on records of the past to the Tokugawa shogunate in the Kansei era, and it says the family business of the Gojo family was to issue passes and luggage tags for travelers. As the report also says that a memorandum of Shonosuke KIMURA said he traveled on an important mission and the Kyoto Gojo family issued a tag for him, it is difficult to say that the Gojo family is the head family of the sumo world.

Future issues surrounding sumo

Refer to the section on Ozumo for Ozumo issues.

Researches and studies of reports and books handed down in the leading families in sumo, the Yoshida family and the Gojo family.

Research, reports and books handed down in gyoji families.

Reinstatement of the Yoshida Tsukasake family in the sumo world.

Further training of sumo instructors and successors.

Introduction of sumo into education at schools.

Prevention of crimes.

[Original Japanese]