A Beginner's Guide to Sumo: An Easy Breakdown of the Basics and all the Best of Sumo

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Sumo is the national sport of Japan that embodies the soul of Japanese traditions at its core. With its long-staying history, it’s a surprise that many still haven’t unlocked the full idea of what sumo is. However, just like other sports and martial arts, there’s an undeniable draw that’s sure to stir you. In this article you’ll see into the basic fundamentals of what sumo really is, its many draws, and so much more in a breakdown that even novice fans will love.

Table of Contents

What is Sumo?

Sumo is a sport where two opponents donning “mawashi” loincloths around their waists grapple against each other in a clay-filled ring, or dohyo. The aim of the game is to push or throw their opponent out of the ring or force them to touch the dohyō with anything other than the soles of their feet. The sumo wrestlers, known as “rikishi”, spar in matches held as a part of “honbasho” events, with their ranking determined by their win-loss record. Unlike judo or boxing, there are no weight divisions in sumo, so it's not unusual to see bouts between a wrestler weighing over 200 kg and another who weighs about half as much.

The Sumo Dohyō
The Sumo Dohyō

The Ever-Evolving History of Sumo

Sumo is an esteemed Japanese sport whose deep, historic origins trace back as far as the age of myths. The earliest known accounts of sumo are the legends of contests of strength during the mythical era, as described in the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki, the oldest extant historical records of Japan. When rice cultivation began in Japan, sumo served as a ritual custom to predict the harvest, before later transforming into a court event that continued as such for some 300 years. During the Kamakura period (1185-1333) and the Sengoku period (1467-1573) when samurai were still prominent, sumo was weaved into an aspect of combat training. It’s said that even the historic figure, Oda Nobunaga was particularly fond of it.

With the advent of the Edo period (1603-1868), sumo evolved into a form of entertainment for the common people and even a sought after profession. Today you can even find ukiyo-e prints that depict sumo matches being held before audiences. Traced through the ages, sumo started as a contest of strength before transforming into a prayer ritual of good harvest, aspect of combat training, and form of popular entertainment, an evolution that truly followed the changes in Japan as a whole society over time. It is these same countless years that have refined the art and customs of sumo, which still vividly retains the rich core of Japanese traditions to this day.

Sumo in the Edo period was even depicted in Ukiyo-e prints.
Sumo in the Edo period was even depicted in Ukiyo-e prints.

The Main Takeaway! Three Highlights of Sumo

Like soccer or baseball, you can still enjoy sumo even if you don't fully understand the rules. That being said, knowing your way around the fundamentals will only make the experience that much better. Below we’ll kick off with a breakdown of the three main takeaways to remember in sumo.

1. The Power of Large-Sized Rikishi Colliding at Full Force

The sight of large rikishi, easily well over 100 kg, colliding head-on with full force is a thrill you won’t easily forget. The sound of the crashing boom as they collide is simply incredible, making for a sensory experience that you can enjoy on screen, but really must see live, and in the flesh to full appreciate.

2. Bouts Between Small and Large Rikishi

As sumo doesn't have weight classes, you might see bouts between a rikishi weighing over 200 kg and one weighing less than half of that. One of the major draws in this case is seeing a smaller rikishi use not only power but also speed and technique to push out or throw the larger opponent.

3. Japanese Traditional Culture Deeply Embedded in Sumo Rituals and Movements

Sumo’s long-staying history included three centuries of ritual tradition, as prayer for a bountiful harvest. The aspects of this are still very much alive in the movements of sumo today, such as “shiko”, the ritual stomping of feet on the dohyo to symbolize stamping out evil spirits from the earth for better health and harvest. There are countless other ritual gestures, like throwing salt onto the dohyō to purify the ring, that still carry a cultural significance. Seeing and knowing more about each of these gestures is one way to touch closer upon the history and culture of Japan.

Three Ways to Watch Sumo Live

For budding sumo fans, here are 3 ways to watch a match for yourself. The opportunities and chances to see sumo are limited, so do make sure to see an exclusive match for yourself if the chance does arrive.

1. “Honbasho“: The Most Tense and Exciting Sumo Experience

In the 'Honbasho', the grand sumo tournaments held by the Japan Sumo Association, bouts are held to determine the top of sumo. The rankings of the rikishi are determined based on the results of these 'Honbasho'. There are six tournaments held throughout the year. The official names and venues are as follows:

Month of Holding Official Name Common Name Venue Location
January January Tournament Hatsu Basho Ryogoku Kokugikan Tokyo
March March Tournament Haru Basho Edion Arena Osaka Osaka
May May Tournament Natsu Basho Ryogoku Kokugikan Tokyo
July July Tournament Nagoya Basho Dolphin's Arena Aichi
September September Tournament Aki Basho Ryogoku Kokugikan Tokyo
November November Tournament Kyushu Basho Fukuoka International Center Fukuoka

Each tournament runs continuously for 15 days.

The first day is called "Shonichi", the eighth day is "Nakabi", and the final fifteenth day is "Senshuraku".
Although the timings vary slightly by day, bouts generally start around 8:30 am and end around 6 pm.

Image of a bout taking place during Honbasho
Image of a bout taking place during Honbasho

2. Engage with Rikishi at "Jungyo"

"Jungyo", or provincial tours, are also an opportunity to watch sumo. The tours are conducted with the purpose of promoting sumo, invigorating local communities, and fostering youth development. The rikishi affiliated with the Japan Sumo Association, which operates the "Honbasho", tour various locations and perform practice and bouts in front of the public. Unlike the "Honbasho", which determines the rikishi's ranking, there are opportunities to interact with the rikishi, such as taking commemorative photos or shaking hands.

"Jungyo", a valuable opportunity to watch sumo practice
"Jungyo", a valuable opportunity to watch sumo practice

3. Witness the Rikishi's Daily Life and Serious Training at "Sumo Stable Visits"

At "sumo stables", which are the training institutes for rikishi, you can observe their training sessions. Some stables not only allow you to observe the training, but also to taste the stable's specialty, "chanko nabe". Whether you can visit or not depends on the stable, and the application methods, such as reservations or first-come-first-served, also vary by stable. If you want to visit, it is recommended to apply for an "Online Sumo Stable Tour", which you can reserve online.

Sumo Stable Training Image
Sumo Stable Training Image

Essential Sumo Basics You Need to Know

To truly enjoy sumo, there are some key facts you should be aware of. For those interested in sumo, this overview can serve as an introduction as you delve deeper into the fascinating sport.

1. The “Banzuke“ ranking system that determines everything from salary to clothing

Sumo wrestlers, known as rikishi, are ranked based on their performance in official tournaments, known as honbasho. This ranking, known as a banzuke, dictates not only a rikishi's salary and treatment but even their attire.
The ranking system follows the order below, starting from the highest.

Banzuke Monthly salary
Yokozuna Approximately 3,000,000 yen
Ozeki Approximately 2,500,000 yen
Sekiwake Approximately 1,800,000 yen
Komusubi Approximately 1,800,000 yen
Maegashira Approximately 1,400,000 yen
Juryo Approximately 1,100,000 yen
Makushita There is no fixed monthly salary, only allowances per location.
Sandanme There is no fixed monthly salary, only allowances per location.
Jonidan There is no fixed monthly salary, only allowances per location.
Jonokuchi There is no fixed monthly salary, only allowances per location.

The higher a rikishi is in the ranking, the better their salary and treatment. And their clothing is also determined by their rank. Once a rikishi reaches or surpasses the “Juryo“ rank, they are officially recognized as a professional rikishi, and they can wear their hair in the iconic “Oicho-mage“ topknot hairstyle, a mark of a full-fledged rikishi.

The iconic “Oicho-mage“ hairstyle, a mark of a professional rikishi
The iconic “Oicho-mage“ hairstyle, a mark of a professional rikishi

2. The Sumo Training Stables, known as “Sumo-beya“

“Sumo-beya“, the sumo stables, are training centers managed by instructors known as “Oyakata“ or “Toshiyori“. Here, rikishi live and train in a disciplined environment, honing their skills for their career. To participate in official tournaments, “Honbasho“, one must belong to a “Heya“, making it a necessary step for those aspiring to become rikishi.

Image of a “Sumo-beya“, where rikishi train under the guidance of instructors
Image of a “Sumo-beya“, where rikishi train under the guidance of instructors

3. Understanding “Kimarite“ makes sumo more enjoyable

The winning techniques used by rikishi in bouts are referred to as “Kimarite“. There are eighty-two established techniques, known as “Kimarite Hachijuni Te“, as determined by the Japan Sumo Association. The types of Kimarite are categorized into basic techniques, throw techniques, hook techniques, bend-back techniques, twist-down techniques, and special techniques. Additionally, there are five types of match results. Knowing about these types of Kimarite can enhance your sumo-watching experience. According to a ranking of Kimarite in the past five years compiled by the Japan Sumo Association, 50% of the wins were secured by “Oshidashi“ (Frontal Push Out) and “Yorikiri“(Frontal Force Out).

Ranking Kimarite Percentage
1st place Oshidashi 25.8%
2nd place Yorikiri 24.5%
3rd place Hatakikomi 8.5%
4th place Tsukidashi 5.7%
5th place Yoritaoshi 4.7%

The official website of the Japan Sumo Association has detailed descriptions of Kimarite, complete with photos and illustrations. Feel free to look them up.

Remembering all eighty-two Kimarite could also be a fun challenge.
Remembering all eighty-two Kimarite could also be a fun challenge.

4. Rules to Keep in Mind: ”Foul Play”

In sumo, a bout is determined by forcing an opponent out of the ring, or making any part of their body, other than the soles of their feet, touch the ground. However, a match can also be determined if one engages in 'prohibited acts' or fouls. The following eight acts are considered prohibited:

  1. Striking with a clenched fist.
  2. Deliberately pulling the opponent's hair.
  3. Poking at vital points such as the eyes or solar plexus.
  4. Grabbing both ears of the opponent simultaneously with both hands.
  5. Grabbing or pulling at the mawashi (belt) covering the private parts.
  6. Grabbing the throat.
  7. Kicking the chest or abdomen.
  8. Bending the fingers of the hand backward.
In sumo rules, a bout can be determined by acts of foul play.
In sumo rules, a bout can be determined by acts of foul play.

5. "Chanko Nabe": Experiencing the Dietary Culture of Sumo Wrestlers

The most accessible way to experience the culture of sumo is through "Chanko Nabe". "Chanko" refers to the meals of sumo wrestlers, and their nabe, or hot pot, is called "Chanko Nabe". The pot is typically filled with a broth made from chicken bones, flavored with soy sauce or miso, and filled with meatballs, napa cabbage, and other meats and vegetables. There's no fixed ingredients or flavoring - it varies by each sumo stable.

Sumo doesn't divide competitors by weight, making it a sport where larger body sizes have an advantage. Therefore, not only training but also meals are given great importance, and "Chanko Nabe", a dish that allows for a well-balanced and easily absorbable nutrient intake, is commonly consumed. Many retired wrestlers open restaurants where you can enjoy "Chanko Nabe". If you ever visit Japan, don’t miss the chance to eat this dish at a place where a former wrestler prepares and serves "Chanko Nabe".

"Chanko Nabe": A well-balanced source of nutrition
"Chanko Nabe": A well-balanced source of nutrition

If You're Touring Tokyo, Don't Miss the Sumo Mecca, "Ryogoku Kokugikan"

Ryogoku Kokugikan is the holy land of sumo, where the Tokyo Grand Sumo Tournament is held three times a year. At the main entrance of Ryogoku Kokugikan, you can find pictures and championship trophies from past sumo bouts, letting you enjoy the history of sumo. Even when there's no sumo tournament going on, there's plenty to see, such as souvenir shops, restaurants serving chanko nabe supervised by sumo stables, and museums. If you're interested in sumo and have the chance to tour Tokyo, you should definitely pay a visit.

Ryogoku Kokugikan
Ryogoku Kokugikan

Frequently Asked Questions about Sumo


What are the rules of sumo?


It's simple: the wrestler who pushes their opponent out of the ring, or makes them touch the ring with anything other than the soles of their feet, wins.


Can you explain the ranking of wrestlers?


Wrestlers are ranked based on their performance in the grand tournaments, and this ranking is called "banzuke". From top to bottom, the ranks are: Yokozuna, Ozeki, Sekiwake, Komusubi, Maegashira, Juryo, Makushita, Sandanme, Jonidan, and Jonokuchi.


What is a Shikona?


It's a ring name that a wrestler uses, separate from their real name.


How is a wrestler's salary determined?


Salaries are determined by the wrestler's banzuke ranking. In addition to that, they can earn income in various forms, such as prize money from tournaments and congratulatory gifts from supporters and other parties.


After covering the fundamentals in this article, we hope you’ll continue your search into the depths of sumo and keep learning more on your own. Sumo bouts are also uploaded as videos, so watching those can be a great starting point. If you're planning to tour Japan, try to attend a grand tournament or a tour, or visit a sumo stable's training session to feel the sheer force and power of sumo.