Sumo Style

About Sumo

“The dream of every young wrestler is to become Yokozuna, or Grand Champion. But most of those dreams will burst…. It’s a very harsh world.”
— Wakamatsu Oyakata, sumo coach and elder
Aerial perspective painting of two sumo wrestlers inside a ring, pushing up against each other, locked in a wrestler’s hold.

Woodcut ilustration of a sumo “stable” with various wrestlers training and onlookers watching.
The sumo stable from the Edo period

Sumo History

According to Japanese legend, a sumo match between the gods Takemikazuchi and Takeminakata determined the origin of the Japanese islands. In ancient Japan, sumo was a ritual act, a dedication to the gods to pray for a good harvest.

The earliest written records of sumo date back to the 712 A.D. In the eighth century, sumo was introduced into the ceremonies of the imperial court. Annual sumo festivals featured music and dancing, with the matches themselves combining no-holds-barred elements of wrestling and boxing. Eventually, the court formulated rules and techniques so that the sport came to resemble the form of sumo we know today.

After Japan became a military dictatorship in 1192, sumo was used mainly as a means for military training. Under the influence of the samurai, sumo also spawned an offshoot: jujitsu. In the 1600s, a time of peace of prosperity in Japan, professional sumo groups were established to provide entertainment for the rapidly growing middle class. Sumo soon became the country’s national sport.

Sumo Lifestyle

Sumo Glossary

The official tournament ranking list of sumo wrestlers, maintained by the Nihon Sumo Kyokai (the Japan Sumo Association).

A sumo tournament, usually consisting of 15 matches held over a 15-day period.

The sumo ring.

A formal ceremony that wrestlers perform before entering the ring.

The referees. There are eight ranks, with promotions based on a combination of seniority and competence. Each gyoji will take one of two "clan" names as his family name: Kimura or Shikimori.

The ceremonial apron worn by wrestlers in the top two divisions of sumo during the dohyo-iri.

The traditional silk belt worn by a sumo wrestler. Made of heavy silk, it is folded and wrapped around the waist.

A sumo wrestler.

One of the basic actions of sumo, this move involves stamping down each leg and is used in practice and warm-ups.

A stable master, or coach.

Introduced during the Edo-period, the concluding rite of the day is this bow-twirling ceremony performed by one of the wrestlers.

Assuming the classis sumo stance, a young boy puts on his best “game face” during competition.

The sumo lifestyle requires strict discipline and devotion. By the time they are 15 years old, most novices enter a “stable” run by retired top wrestlers, who provide training, guidance and wisdom. A stable’s income rises in accordance with the success of its wrestlers, so stable masters are invested in training their protégées well.

Young wrestlers are only given room and board at the stable and have no additional income. Nearly all their time is devoted to training for the sport and preparing for competition. Daily practices begin at 4:30 a.m. Currently, there are about 800 rikishi, or wrestlers, in the professional sumo world, from the youngest trainees to the top champion, or yokozuna.

Sumo wrestlers bulk up with a diet that is heavy in protein and rice. The traditional sumo stew, chanko nabe, is composed of fatty pork, cabbage, eggs and bean sprouts. Wrestlers gorge themselves after morning practice, followed with a nap (to ensure slow digestion) and then again at dinner.

There are six 15-day-long sumo Grand Tournaments held in Japan each year, during the odd-numbered months. Each wrestler in the top divisions fights once every day, with a different opponent. After each tournament, they are either promoted or demoted on the banzuke, or ranking list, depending on their performance. The Japan Sumo Association then issues a new official banzuke, printed in an ancient form of calligraphy.

Sumo is mental as well as physical: the goal is to break your opponent’s concentration and either make him fall or force him out of the dohyo, or ring. But even if a wrestler touches the ground with any part of his body but his feet, he loses the match. It is against the rules to use fists, pull hair, or grab any part of the band covering a wrestler’s stomach. Tripping, slapping and pushing are common techniques and bouts are generally short, lasting only seconds or a few minutes at the very most. In Japan, sumo wrestlers are given celebrity treatment and are followed closely by the media. The yokozuna are also seen as acolytes of the Shinto faith, and carry out ritualistic obligations.

Sumo Today

Sumo is changing rapidly, and some view this as a metaphor for Japanese society’s own rapid changes, or as a result of globalization. As shown in SUMO EAST AND WEST, there is a sharp division between professional sumo in Japan and amateur sumo both in Japan and around the world. Amateur sumo has introduced elements to the game that provoke shock within the pro sumo world: a non-dirt ring, weight classes, wearing shorts beneath the traditional loin cloth, and most radically, women’s sumo. No woman has ever stepped foot in a professional sumo ring, and as Wakamatsu Oyakata says in SUMO EAST AND WEST, “we hope… that no woman ever will.” It is said that if a woman even touches the dohyo, the ring will become impure and the wrestlers who use it will be injured.

Part of professional sumo’s insular nature is maintained by the Japan Sumo Association, or the Nihon Sumo Kyokai. Run entirely by sumo wrestlers, the association is fighting to preserve sumo’s ancient traditions against the modern trappings of amateur sumo and its Olympic ambitions. Fearing foreign encroachment on its national sport, the Kyokai has lately imposed restrictions on the number of foreigners who may be in any one professional stable, as well as requiring wrestlers to know the Japanese language. With the demographic of its fans aging and dwindling interest among potential trainees, these sumo guardians have grown increasingly vigilant to preventing further erosion of their sport, even as the pressure of foreign interests demand for more, not less, internationalism.


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