What I Wish I Knew Before I Went to a Sumo Match






My partner, who also studied abroad in Japan a few years ago, had one regret about their trip. They did not see a sumo match. When I got the opportunity to go, I jumped on it. Two of my friends and I attended the Commemorative 70th Anniversary Autumn Tour Tournament in Hirakata, Osaka on October 20th. Now, did I know anything about sumo before I went? No. I don’t even know a whole lot about Shintoism (Sumo matches are essentially tiny Shinto ceremonies) before I went, but I’m still so glad I did! If you get the opportunity to see one of these matches, take this as a sign: please go!

History of Sumo

So, it’s impossible to talk about sumo (or, Ozumou) without talking about Shinto. As I mentioned earlier, sumo matches are essentially tiny Shinto ceremonies performed in quick succession. Prior to becoming a professional sport in the Tokugawa period, sumo was originally performed on the grounds of a shrine or temple. Sumo can be traced back to ancient Shinto rituals to ensure a bountiful harvest and honor the spirits known as kami.

Matches were held to raise money to construct shrines and temples or to replace bridges. Sumo events were often held in Edo (now Tokyo), Osaka, and Kyoto, and the sport’s popularity grew with the sales of color woodblock prints featuring sumo scenes and pictures of wrestlers. The government of the time, though, disapproved of fighting and often issued orders banning sumo. For this reason, the organizers of sumo decided on a set of rules, including the creation of a list of 48 legal moves and the round ring that is still used today. A system of stables was created to train wrestlers, and that stable-system still exists today.

The present dohyō, or ring in which the wrestlers fight, is still considered sacred, is in honor of the days when matches were held on the sacred grounds of shrines and temples. The dohyō is freshly made for each new tournament from tightly compressed clay which is obtained from special areas of Japan, and consists of a raised platform about 2ft high and 18 ft in diameter. The surface of this platform is covered with a thin layer of sand, which is a symbol of purity in Shinto ritual. Purity plays an important part in Shinto, which is reflected in many aspects of the ceremonies performed.

Each day of the tournament the dohyō-iri, or ring-entering ceremonies performed by the top divisions before the start of their wrestling day are derived from sumo rituals. This ceremony involves them ascending the dohyō, walking around the edge and facing the audience. They then turn and face inwards, clap their hands, raise one hand, slightly lift the ceremonial aprons called kesho-mawashi, and raise both hands, then continue walking around the dohyō as they leave the same way they came in. This ceremony signifies a pledge to the dieties that the wrestlers will fight fairly and with the proper spirit. The clapping is reminiscent of the clapping in Shinto shrines designed to attract the attention of the gods.


Photo of a dohyo-iri in progress. Source: wikipedia commons

The top ranking Sumo, or yokozuna‘s ring-entering ceremony is regarded as a purification ritual in its own right, and is occasionally performed at Shinto shrines for this purpose. There are currently four active yokozuna and they each have their own personal dohyo-iri in which he wears a special Mawashi (apron) from which hang the five white zig-zag folded paper strips (tsuna or zuna), found at the entrance to Shinto shrines, and used in other Shinto rituals.


Sumo 2013 Tokyo
69th Yokozuna Hakuho’s dohyo-iri at a match in Tokyo 2013. He is in the middle of his two retainers wearing tsuna. The judge (jyoji) is also present. Source: wikipedia commons

More Shinto Symbolism in Sumo

The Bout

Before the match starts you’ll start to recognize a pre-fight pattern. Before the opponents enter the ring, the announcer or yodibashi announces, or rather sings, the names of the two wrestlers. It is aimed that each name takes about 10 seconds to sing. The two sumo wrestlers (or rikishi) enter the ring, look at each other in the eye, then turn to their corner of the ring. At the corner, they squat, rise, raise one leg and then slam it back down on the ground, followed by the other leg. This practice known as shiki derives from the archaic practice of warriors doing this before battle to frighten the enemy and is meant to drive away evil spirits.

While in their corner they rinse their mouths with a ladleful of purified water and then wipe their faces with a piece of paper. Before re-entering the ring, salt is thrown as part of the purification ritual. Some sumo wrestlers grabbed huge fistfuls of the salt, throwing it high into the air, eliciting cheers and shouts of approval from the audience. This is an act of purification, salt long being used for that purpose at Shinto shrines. After this procedure, they rejoin in the ring. Here, they squat down, clap their hands one time, and then raise their hands to show that they are not carrying a weapon. The higher rank the wrestlers are, the more times this ritual is performed, sometimes up to 3 or 4 times.


As soon as wrestlers join a stable they are expected to grow their hair in order to form a topknot, or chonmage, similar to the samurai hairstyles of the Edo Period. They retain this haircut until the special hair-cutting ceremony which also marks their retirement. They are expected to wear this hairstyle and traditional dress at all times when out in public. The specifics of that dress is also closely controlled. The less experienced wrestlers must wear lower-quality, thin yukata (a cotton robe) and geta (wooden sandals) even in winter, whilst higher ranked wrestlers can wear increasingly swanky robes and even get to choose their own.

Mawashi is like a loincloth, to which, for official bouts the sagari is added. This sagari consists of a fringe of twisted string which is tucked into the front of the belt. This sagari is significant in that it symbolizes the sacred ropes that hang in front of Shinto shrines. It consists of an odd number of strings, as it is lucky in Shinto custom, usually varying between 17 and 21.

The referee (gyoji) of a sumo match wears a robe based on those worn in the imperial court of Japan in medieval times and similar to that of a Shinto priest today.

Finally, here’s a video clip of one of the final matches I saw during the day tournament I attended. It’s two yokozuna, Hakuko vs Kisenosato, vs each other.