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Sumo: The Traditional National Sport Of Japan

An introduction into the world of Japan’s oldest martial art!

Sumo sept 2013The Founding of Sumo

Nomi no Sukune was a potter from Izumo and ancestor of Sugawara no Michizane. His famous fight with Taima no Kehaya under the patronage of Emperor Suinin resulted in the death of Taima no Kehaya and the founding of Sumo, the traditional national sport of Japan. An influential figure Nomi no Sukune also proposed to Emperor Suinin an alternative to Junshi (following the Emperor into death by committing suicide) for the Emperor’s followers by substituting Haniwa (Dōgu – clay figures). As a consequence Nomi no Sukune was promoted by the Emperor to Haji no Muraji a traditional high class title for the Haji clan which bore the responsibility for the burial of rulers.

National Sumo Venues

Sumo

Meiji Era Sumo photograph (author’s collection)

Sumo tournaments were held at the Tomioka Hachiman-gu Shrine in Eastern Edo in the late 1600s.

Tomioka Hachiman-gu Meiji Era Sumo photograph (author’s collection)

Tomioka Hachiman-gu Meiji Era Sumo photograph (author’s collection)

Ekō-in held its first Sumo tournament in 1768 and was adopted as the National Sumo venue from 1833-1909 after which they were held in the first Ryogoku Kokugikan building constructed in the temple precincts from 1909-1985.

The Dohyo (fighting area) at the former Ryogoku Kokugikan in 1936

The Dohyo (fighting area) at the former Ryogoku Kokugikan in 1936
(https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dohyo_at_Former_Ryogoku_Kokugikan_Hall_in_1936.JPG)

It was replaced by the modern arena which opened in 1985, a half a kilometre away from and replacing the site at Ekō-in.

The modern 13,000 seater Ryogoku Kokugikan (Steve Cadman)

The modern 13,000 seater Ryogoku Kokugikan (Steve Cadman)

Sumo is still remembered at Ekō-in where there is a Chikarazuka (Mound of Strength) in remembrance of historical Sumo and where apprentice Sumo come to pray for success. The characters on the Chikarazuka stone read ‘Rikishi’. The upkeep of the mound and its enclosure is sponsored by various Sumo Beya (stables)

Chikarazuka (Mound of Strength) at Ekō-in

Chikarazuka (Mound of Strength) at Ekō-in

Sumo is managed and administered by Nihon Sumo kyo-kai – the Japan Sumo Association which, for the benefit of foreign fans, also manages an English language website which contains a lot of information on Sumo, Rikishi, the tournaments, Rikishi rankings, Beya (Sumo stables), and tournament statistics. It also provides links to ticket purchasing and on-line live streaming access for tournaments which can be watched anywhere in the world where there are adequate Internet access, bandwidth and speeds.

Six 15 day long tournaments take place throughout the year on alternate months; three in Tōkyō, and one each in Ōsaka, Kyushu and Nagoya.

Rankings

Senior ranks are made up of the Makuuchi and Juryo.  The Yokozuna are the Grand Champions and the Ozeki the Champions. Promotion to Yokozuna is achieved after two consecutive tournament wins at Ozeki level and is also based on performance consistency and personal character.

Gyojis are referees whose ranks are indicated by the tassle on the fan held and the colour of the traditional costume.

Tate-gyoji (Yokozuna referees) – most senior, purple or purple and white

Sanyaku referees – vermillion

Maku-uchi referees – red and white

Juryo referees – blue and white

Lesser rank referees – blue or black

A visit to the September 2015 Basho

Banners at the Ryogoku Kokugikan and inside the stadium

Banners at the Ryogoku Kokugikan and inside the stadium

The stadium opens at 8am with the lower ranking Rikishi facing off against each other from 830am. During this period the stadium is fairly empty with only the serious fans in attendance. At about 2pm the stadium starts to fill up and the senior Rikishi arrive at the south gate where avid fans wait for the opportunity to greet and photograph them.

The arrival of the senior ranking Rikishi at the south gate – September 20th 2015 – including Ōsuna-arashi, the Great Sandstorm, the only African Sumo originally from Egypt in the kimono with the ancient Egyptian design

The arrival of the senior ranking Rikishi at the south gate – September 20th 2015 – including Ōsuna-arashi, the Great Sandstorm, the only African Sumo originally from Egypt in the kimono with the ancient Egyptian design

Both Makuuchi and Juryo wear elaborate o-icho-mage (Ginko leaf style) hairstyles whilst the lower ranking Rishiki wear cho-mage tied with string.

At about 220pm the Juryo make their ceremonial entrance onto the Dohyo wearing ceremonial aprons, Kesho-mawashi. This is usually done in two sessions to allow all the Juryo to make their entrance.

juryo entrance

The Juryo ceremonial entrance September 2015 Basho

…with the Juryo bouts commencing at around 240pm.

Juryo bouts – September 2015 Basho

Juryo bouts – September 2015 Basho

During bouts Rikishi wear a mawashi, a silk loincloth. They rinse their mouths with water for purification and dry their bodies with a paper towel. Salt is thrown to purify ring but this is only done by Makuuchi, Juryo, and Makushita Rikishi.

A Rikishi will enter the Dohyo from one of two directions, Higashi (East) and Nishi (West). It can also indicate the ranking of the Rikishi with Higashi (East) being the most prestigious. The bouts commence with the Tachiai face off and then the Shikiri crouch and glare which can be as long as four minutes maximum for Makuuchi, three minutes for Juryo, and any others must begin straight away, followed by the Torikumi grasp and wrestle. A Rikishi wins by forcing his opponent out of the ring or forcing him to fall and touch the floor with any part of his body. After the bout the winning technique is announced.

At about 345pm the Makuuchi make their ceremonial entrance, again in two sessions. During ceremonies hand clapping attracts the attention of the Gods, the arms are extended palms upwards to show there are no concealed weapons, and foot stamping drives away evil.

Makuuchi ceremonial entrance – September 2015 Basho

Makuuchi ceremonial entrance – September 2015 Basho

…and at 350pm the Yokozuna Champion makes the ceremonial Dohyo-iri entrance into the Dohyo accompanied by two Makuuchi Rikishi.

Yokozuna ceremonial entrance – September 2015 Basho

Yokozuna ceremonial entrance – September 2015 Basho

If watching online captions are included for the Makuuchi bouts only. Though these are in Japanese they are matched on the Sumo Association website in English in live time with links to the Rikishi’s profiles. At the stadium radios can be hired for an English commentary though this doesn’t commence till 4pm.

sumo TV captions

July 2015 Nagoya tournament captions (Ustream)

The final bout on the final day of the tournament is between the two highest scoring Makuuchi Rikishi to decide the tournament champion. 

September 2015 Basho Yumitori-shiki bow twirling ceremony (Ustream)

September 2015 Basho Yumitori-shiki bow twirling ceremony (Ustream)

The end of each day’s proceedings are marked by Yumitori-shiki twirling bow ceremony which originates from when the winning Rikishi’s prize was a bow.

Cash prizes are awarded to the winning top ranking Rikishi in envelopes on a fan. These days the prizes are generally determined by the amount of sponsorship. Preceding many of the top ranking bouts sponsored banners are paraded around the ring. For some of the senior most bouts this may be as many as 60 banners. Each banner is worth around 60,000 ¥ which is about £300, so 60 banners is around £18,000 worth of sponsorship. Half this, about £9,000, goes to the winning Rikishi for the bout the banners have been paraded for. The other half goes to the Sumo Association.

Match sponsorship banners (Ustream)

Match sponsorship banners (Ustream)

After all the bouts have finished prizes are awarded the most prestigious of which are the Emperor’s Cup for the tournament Grand Champion, shunkun-sho for the Rikishi who has upset the most Yokozuna (Grand Champions) and Ozeki (Champions), kanto-sho for fighting spirit, and gino-sho for technique.

Other

There is a Sumo Museum within the precincts of the stadium which can be visited by the general public except when there is a tournament on when only those attending the Basho are allowed access.

Visiting a Beya Sumo Stable can usually be arranged through some of the travel agencies. There are quite strict somewhat formulaic behaviours that must be observed. The travel agency will advise on this. During tournaments visits to the stables are suspended.

Around the area are a number of Sumo restaurants where dishes such as the traditional Sumo meal of Chanko-nabe are served though because the dishes are of substantial proportions the restaurants stipulate a minimal number of diners per booking.

Foreign Sumo have been a somewhat contentious issue for the Sumo Association. At this time the restriction is for one foreign born Rikishi per stable which can also apply to naturalised Japanese born outside of Japan. A question has also been asked as to why foreign Rikishi are so successful and the response is generally that they are hungrier for success than Japanese Rikishi.

Useful Links

Nihon Sumo kyo-kai – the Japan Sumo Association English language pages

http://www.sumo.or.jp/en/

Ustream – watching on line. Cost – about £6 per tournament day for live viewing and subsequent access to a recording of the day

https://sumo.smartbrain.info/elm/index.php

Bout sequence, names in Romaji and winners and losers in real time

http://www.sumo.or.jp/en/honbasho/main/torikumi

Japan Times reports

http://www.japantimes.co.jp/sports_category/sumo/

Nomi no Sukune

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nomi_no_Sukune

Yokozuna

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_yokozuna

List of Foreign Sumo

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Miwasatoshi/List_of_non-Japanese_sumo_wrestlers

Sumo techniques

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kimarite

  • Photographic images published before December 31st 1956, or photographed before 1946 and not published for 10 years thereafter, under jurisdiction of the Government of Japan, are considered to be public domain according to article 23 of old copyright law of Japan and article 2 of supplemental provision of copyright law of Japan

Author Profile:

Trevor Skingle was born and lives in London where he works in the field of Humanitarian Disaster Relief. He is a Japanophile and his hobbies are Kabuki, painting and drawing and learning Japanese.

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