Sumo Q&A

Hiro Morita
NHK WORLD's play-by-play announcer, Hiro Morita, covers the basics to help you enjoy the action.

Level 1 Komusubi 小結

What is the origin of sumo?

According to ancient texts, sumo goes back about 1,500 years. Originally, it was a court function, closely tied to the Shinto religion. In the old days, it was performed at shrines, to pray for bountiful harvests and world peace. Sumo began to take its present form in the 18th century, as commercial tournaments were organized across the country.

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What are the rules of sumo? How is the winner determined?

The rules of sumo are simple. A rikishi (wrestler) wins a bout by forcing his opponent out of the ring or by making him touch the ground with any part of the body except the soles of the feet, using a technique such as a throw.

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How many tournaments are held in a year, and where?

Six grand tournaments take place each year, starting with the New Year's tourney in January in Tokyo. The Spring tourney is held in March in Osaka, the Summer tourney in May in Tokyo, the Nagoya tourney in July, the Autumn tourney in September in Tokyo, and the final one of the year--the Kyushu tourney-- is held in Fukuoka in November.
Each grand tournament lasts 15 days. All the hard work and dedication of the rikishi is aimed at these 90 matches per year.

  • photoSumo Stadium in Tokyo

Level 2 Sekiwake 関脇

Does sumo have weight classes?

No. No matter how small and light a rikishi may be, he fights his scheduled opponent. That's one of the intriguing aspects of the sport.
According to data for the July 2016 tournament, the heaviest rikishi in the Makunouchi division is Ichinojo. He tips the scales at 211 kilograms. The tallest is Ikioi, who measures 194 centimeters. At the other end are Kitaharima at 126 kg and Takekaze at 171 cm.

  • photoLeft: Ichinojo (The heaviest rikishi)
    Right: Kitaharima (The lightest rikishi)
How are the rikishi ranked?

The rankings are all written on a sheet of thin paper called the Banzuke, the official listing. At the top stand the Yokozuna grand champions, followed by the Ozeki, Sekiwake, Komusubi and Maegashira. Rikishi who are in these five ranks compete in Makunouchi, the highest division. Below Makunouchi are Juryo, Makushita, Sandanme, Jonidan and Jonokuchi. Thus, six divisions in all. Only the rikishi who compete in the top two divisions, Makunouchi and Juryo, are called sekitori and considered full-fledged rikishi. They're also the only ones who receive monthly salaries. Those in the other four divisions are apprentices.

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How big is the dohyo ring, and who makes it?

The dohyo ring is 4.55 meters across. It rises 66 centimeters above the ground. A new dohyo is made prior to each grand tournament by the Yobidashi, sumo's all-purpose working staff. It takes three days.

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Who can become a professional sumo rikishi?

Entry is limited to boys and men who have finished nine years of schooling. They must be at least 167 centimeters tall and weigh at least 67 kilograms. Anything less fails the physical exam.

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How does a sumo rikishi get promoted?  NEW

In order to move up to the higher ranks, a rikishi has to finish grand tournaments with kachikoshi, more wins than losses. Conversely, a losing record lead to demotion.

Professional sumo has a total of six divisions. The top Makunouchi division is subdivided into five ranks: Yokozuna at the pinnacle, followed by Ozeki, Sekiwake, Komusubi, and Maegashira.

  • photoRanks of the top Makunouchi division

Becoming a Yokozuna or Ozeki is especially difficult.
A candidate has to put up impressive records for several consecutive tournaments. A potential Ozeki, for example, must score double digit winning records for at least three consecutive tournaments. Making it from Ozeki to Yokozuna is harder still, generally requiring two consecutive tournament championships or something equally impressive.

  • photoCeremony to announce promotion to ozeki

Once a rikishi joins the elite corps of Yokozuna, he’ll never face demotion, even if he ends up with a losing record in a tournament or withdraws due to injury. However, if a Yokozuna can’t maintain his supremacy and fails to win a championship within a reasonable period of time, he’ll be expected to resign. To stay at the top, a Yokozuna has to continually prove he deserves to be there.

An Ozeki has a little more breathing room. He won’t lose his status because of just one losing tournament. Two in a row, though, will send him back down to the rank of Sekiwake.

In general, when a rikishi who’s yet to secure a kachikoshi withdraws because of injury, he gets demoted. Even after a good showing, a rikishi can’t rest on his laurels. The next tournament will always determine which way he’s headed.

Level 3 Ozeki 大関

Can a non-Japanese become a pro sumo rikishi?

Yes, nothing in the Japan Sumo Association rules prohibits a person from another country from becoming a pro. The first foreign-born rikishi to make the top division was Takamiyama, from Hawaii. He made his debut in the 1968 January tournament and, in July of 1972, became the first rikishi from outside Japan to win a Makunouchi top division championship. Since then, other rikishi have come from a variety of places, including Bulgaria, Brazil, and Egypt.

  • photoHakuho (Mongolia)
  • photoKakuryu (Mongolia)
  • photoKaisei (Brazil)
  • photoAoiyama (Bulgaria)
What, and when, do sumo rikishi eat?

Sumo rikishi generally eat only twice a day. The schedule is said to enable them to ingest more food and calories in each meal, thus helping them get bigger quickly. The morning practice starts around 6. When it ends at 11, the rikishi eat their first meal of the day. Invariably, it's chanko-nabe, a hot pot stew filled with nutritious ingredients such as meat and vegetables. Big bowls of rice are also necessary to make their bodies bigger.

Taking a nap after the meal is important to bulking up. The next meal comes in the evening. For dinner, some rikishi eat chanko-nabe again, but most go for ordinary dishes. Rikishi who want to increase their weight quickly may add a late-night snack.

Although a rikishi ingests lots of calories from the meals, he maintains fitness and mobility by engaging in long and hard workouts on a daily basis.

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What are some typical techniques?

Sumo has 82 kimarite, winning techniques. Among the most frequently used are Yorikiri (frontal force out), Oshidashi (frontal push out), Uwatenage (over-arm throw), Shitatenage (under-arm throw), Hatakikomi (hand slap down), and Hikiotoshi (hand pull down).
Some offensive moves are prohibited, such as pulling a topknot. A rikishi who commits that sort of foul is penalized with a loss.

  • photoYorikiri (frontal force out)
  • photoShitatenage (under-arm throw)
  • photoHatakikomi (hand slap down)
What is the white stuff the rikishi throw before they fight, and why do they do it?

They're throwing salt. The sumo dohyo, the ring, is considered to be a sanctuary for the deity. Salt is thought to have cleansing power, and rikishi throw it to purify the ring. About 45 kilograms of salt are used on each day of a grand tournament.

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Is the tachiai initial charge subject to any rules?

Before two rikishi engage in a tachiai, they repeat what's called shikiri a few times. Shikiri is a preparation routine. Four minutes of shikiri time is allowed in the top Makunouchi division; three minutes in the second-tier Juryo division. When the time expires, the timekeeper—one of the five judges—will raise his hand to let the gyoji referee know. Then, the gyoji will nod to the rikishi.
The most important rule of the tachiai is that the wrestlers must put both hands/fists on the dohyo to start. If they don't, the gyoji or the judges will stop the bout and have them do the tachiai again, until they get it right. Also, the rikishi themselves start the match by mutual consent; no one orders them to begin.
At tachiai, you'll see many approaches. For example, a rikishi might slap an opponent's face, step to the side, try a leg trip, and apply a brutal forearm to the chin or a stiff arm to the throat . . . all in the first few seconds. He does this to gain full advantage at the get-go, because it's said that 80 to 90 percent of the time, the outcome of a match is decided by the initial charge.

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Level 4 Yokozuna 横綱

What is the white envelope a rikishi receives after winning a bout?

Inside the envelope is Kenshokin, the prize money given to the winner. The money is usually provided by businesses. It's a way to publicize a company and its products. The company names are announced inside the arena, and their corporate banners are shown on the dohyo before a bout. A popular rikishi such as a Yokozuna grand champion, who attracts a lot of attention on TV, gets a substantial amount for a victory. 1.5 million yen is not at all unusual.

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How large is the cash prize that a grand tournament champion receives?

In the Makunouchi top division, the tournament champion is rewarded with 10 million yen. The winner of Shukunsho (the Outstanding Performance Award), Kantosho (the Fighting Spirit Prize), and Ginosho (the Technique Prize) each receive 2 million.

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How are the torikumi (match-ups) decided?

Officials from the judges division decide who faces whom at the Bout Composition meetings. During a grand tournament, they gather every morning around 11. The following day's pairings are announced around noon and posted on sumo association web site. The final day's matches are decided at a much later hour on Day 14, as officials try to come up with the best possible match-ups.

A rikishi doesn't fight the same opponent twice in a tournament except in a playoff, when two men are tied for first place after the 15 regulation bouts. Each rikishi usually takes on opponents of similar ranks. So, a Yokozuna faces off against fellow Yokozuna, Ozeki, and others near the top of the banzuke, the official listing of ranks. In the same way, those near the bottom of the division usually confront rikishi in that area. If they're in contention for the title late in the tournament, they'll be pitted against some of the top wrestlers. That ensures that anyone who wins the championship really earns it.

What happens to a rikishi when he retires?

All the rikishi aim to become an Oyakata, stable master. However, not everyone can reach that goal. The number of positions is limited to 105. Also, an Oyakata must be a Japanese citizen. So, anyone not born that way must naturalize. Three foreign-born former rikishi are currently stable masters: Musashimaru from the US, Kotooshu from Bulgaria, and Kyokutenho from Mongolia. All three are now Japanese nationals.

That's not all. Only those who had impressive rikishi careers can aspire to Oyagata status. Ozeki or Yokozuna are eligible, as are those who fought at least one tournament at sanyaku: Sekiwake or Komusubi. Competing in at least 20 tournaments in the top Makunouchi division is another route. Fighting either in the top division and/or the second-tier Juryo division for a combined 30 tournaments is yet another.
Those who can't make it to stable master might become Wakaimonogashira, the men who take care of young apprentices, or Sewanin, who work to make the grand tournaments go smoothly. Here too, though, the number of positions is limited. As a result, most rikishi are unable to stay in the sumo association after they call it quits. One popular calling is opening a chanko restaurant. Chanko is the hotpot stew that wrestlers eat to get bigger and stronger. It's delicious and nutritious, making it popular with other people too.

The scarcity of jobs within the sumo association puts even more pressure on wrestlers during the years they're in the ring. Their record affects what happens then and the rest of their lives.

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