Japan: A Beginner’s Guide to Sumo Wrestling Rules

A famous Japanese Sumo wrestler pictured at one of his restaurants in Tokyo. Max Hartshorne photo.
A famous Japanese Sumo wrestler pictured at one of his restaurants in Tokyo. Max Hartshorne photo.

Sumo Wrestling is Complex and Fascinating

By Lucy Corne

Fans turn up in hordes to watch the top sumo wrestlers clashing. Photos by Lucy Corne
Fans turn up in hordes to watch the top sumo wrestlers clashing. Photos by Lucy Corne

I have always wondered about sumo wrestling. Why do sumo wrestlers slap themselves? What about sumo etiquette? What are the sumo wrestling rules?

It came as a fabulous shock to discover that my short trip to Japan coincided with one of Tokyo’s sumo wrestling tournaments, of which there are only three a year (plus three more in other Japanese cities). I finally got a chance to answer my questions about this famous Japanese tradition.

On arrival in the capital, we started to worry that although we were there at the right time the tickets, like so many things in Japan, would be prohibitively expensive – and that’s if there were any at all.

Last-Minute-Tickets to Sumo Wrestling

Luckily, we discovered a way for those with an excess of time but a lack of money to get last minute tickets, though it did mean vying with a couple of hundred other like-minded folk first thing in the morning.

Relishing the thought of a little early morning wrestling ourselves, we set out to join the throngs at the Kokugikan Hall in Ryogoku, west of the Sumida River. Rounding the corner at a little after 7:30 we were surprised and a little vexed to see that a sizeable queue had already started to form.

Waiting for discount tickets to a sumo wrestling match
Waiting for discount tickets for a sumo wrestling match

Having spent plenty of time in Asia we were expected a heaving mass of bodies pushing each other out of the way but found a quiet, orderly queue of respectable Japanese sumo enthusiasts, peppered with the odd group of foreign visitors.

Each day of the tournament at 8 am, a final batch of tickets goes on sale, offering back row views for affordable prices. If you arrive early enough you’ll be allotted a ticket for that day’s fights, although not a reserved seat – it’s up to you to head to the stadium early and mark your territory with coats, bags, and newspapers.

Although, as a non-morning person, I wasn’t overjoyed at waking up early, waiting out in the crisp winter air was actually quite enjoyable. We passed the time looking out for junior wrestlers clad in the traditional kimono and wooden sandals, a sight that is commonplace for Tokyo citizens but quite exciting for a couple of tourists.

At 8.30, just after we’d gleefully got hold of a pair of tickets, a drummer atop the stadium’s turret began to beat out a tune, heralding the start of that day’s tournament.

Junior sumo wrestlers arrive for their morning fights.
Junior sumo wrestlers arrive for their morning fights.

Until lunchtime, only junior wrestlers compete and although they are equally photogenic to the traveler’s eye, they fail to pull in much of a crowd.

We decided to mooch around some of Tokyo’s temples until we got hungry, then headed back to the stadium for a sumo-sized lunch.

Genuine Adulation

Our arrival coincided with that of the top wrestlers, including one of the yokozuna (grand champions). These men are at the top of their field – the David Beckham of sumo wrestling if you will – and are revered among Japanese people.

We were surprised to see them walk up to the stadium through the throngs of admiring fans and receive none of the mobbing that a western sports star might experience. Then again, I guess guys this big don’t need bodyguards and no-one in their right mind would get in their way.

But it wasn’t through fear that people didn’t approach them; it was through respect, or more than that – genuine adulation.

Chanko - the traditional sumo lunch
Chanko – the traditional sumo lunch

We watched the wrestlers stop for the occasional photo or autograph, then moved into the stadium in search of the restaurant, where we ordered chanko, a hearty stew.

The mixture of meat, tofu, and vegetables served with rice and the ubiquitous raw egg, was far from the tastiest dish we sampled in Japan, but our guidebook insisted this was what the champions ate and we were determined to get the full sumo experience.

The high point of lunch was when three senior wrestlers came into the canteen, taking a seat together by the window. The low point came soon after, as they shunned the stew in favor of some considerably more appetizing pork cutlets with salad.

Some Burning Sumo Wrestling Questions

Before lunch, we had shrewdly left our jackets reserving some reasonable seats in the upper circle, and were pleased with our spot as the makuuchi (senior wrestlers) filed in to perform their opening ceremony.

The cheap seats are a considerable distance from the ring, but we could easily see what was going on. Now understanding what was going on – that was a whole different story.

It then occurred to me that while having had the good fortune to be visiting Tokyo while a tournament was taking place and scoring some bargain seats, I had overlooked a somewhat important fact. I actually had close to no idea what the rules to this bizarre sport were.

The gyoji (referee) prepares for the start of another sumo wrestling bout.
The gyoji (referee) prepares for the start of another sumo wrestling bout.

Why do the wrestlers stamp their feet and slap their stomachs so much? Why do they all have the same hairdo? What’s with those oversized g-strings? And how do you win about anyway?

I had read somewhere that a vital part of the sport is intimidating your opponent, which went a long way to explaining why several minutes were devoted to stamping, glaring, and belly slapping, and only a few seconds were generally used for the fight itself.

A Sumo Museum

After watching half a dozen baffling bouts, we decided to stretch our legs and explore the rest of the stadium, which includes a small museum and a selection of souvenir and junk food stands. Just as we were heading back to our seats I spotted an English booklet on the sport – or as I would soon discover, the art – of sumo.

Getting Clued Up

Spectators start to arrive as the middle-ranked sumo wrestlers meet in Japan.
Spectators start to arrive as the middle-ranked sumo wrestlers meet.

Witnessing something like sumo is always going to be a thrill. It’s weird and unique, you’ve seen it on TV and it seems to epitomize the culture of a nation.

But in truth, if you don’t really understand what’s going on, sumo wrestling can soon become pretty dull. The pomp and ceremony take up around 90 percent of the day, with some of the bouts being so short you can easily miss them if your mind wanders for a moment.

Once the novelty of actually being at a real sumo tournament wore off, I felt the need to get a little clued up so that I could really enjoy the last few bouts of the day – the crucial ones featuring the yokozuna.

Having read up a little, I felt a new respect for a sport that I had previously considered somewhat ridiculous. For those that hold a similar opinion, or are simply bewildered by the whole flesh-baring, thigh-slapping event, here’s a total beginner’s guide to the art-cum-sport that is so revered in the Land of the Rising Sun:

Junior sumo wrestlers begin a bout.
Junior sumo wrestlers begin a bout.

Sumo is not a new sport, is it?

It certainly isn’t. Sumo goes back around 1500 years and much of it stems from religious practices. Legend even has it that the origin of the Japanese race actually depended on the outcome of a sumo match, though that’s up for debate!

They’re quite flexible for such big guys aren’t they? But why do they lift their legs up and stamp their feet before they fight?

Well, the routine the wrestlers (rikishi) go through before they get down to business illustrates sumo’s strong religious roots. First, they clap their hands together to attract the attention of the gods, just as the devout do when they visit a Shinto shrine.

Next, they turn their hands to the skies, palms up, to prove that they are carrying no weapons. The final step is the ritual that most people visualize when they think of sumo – the impressive leg lifts and stamping. This is meant to squash any evil spirits that might be lurking in the ring.

At lunchtime the makuuchi (senior wrestlers) arrive.
At lunchtime, the makuuchi (senior wrestlers) arrive.

And yes, some of the wrestlers are surprisingly flexible, almost doing the splits as they lift their legs above their head!

What’s that white stuff they keep throwing into the ring?

It’s salt! Before each bout, the rikishi sprinkles salt around to purify the ring (actually called the dohyo) and protect the fighters against injury.

Why don’t they just get on with it?

It’s true that to the untrained eye the wrestlers do seem to waste a lot of time, but to a sumo aficionado, this is all part of the fun. The idea is to whip your opponent into a frenzy of fear before the fight begins.

Once the salt is sprinkled and the stamping is done, the wrestler’s crouch down, fists on the floor and glare at each other. Then just as you think they’re about to fight, one or both stands up and the whole ritual is repeated a few more times before the fight gets underway.

Flags bearing the competing sumo wrestlers' names
Flags bearing the competing sumo wrestlers’ names

You should think yourself lucky though – these days there is a four-minute time limit for pre-fight shenanigans but in days of yore the intimidation could have lasted for hours!

What’s with those oversized g-strings and matching hairdos?

I suppose the sumo wrestlers’ attire does look a little odd. The loincloth is called a mawashi and is far more complicated than it looks. It’s made of a huge piece of silk around 10 yards long and two feet wide and folding it is quite a skill.

The mawashi is a vital piece of equipment since many of sumo’s maneuvers involve grabbing hold of the silk band.

As for the hairstyle, like most aspects of sumo, it has historical origins and comes from styles fashionable in Japan’s Edo period (1600-1868). As well as being traditional, the topknot is supposed to offer some protection to the wrestlers’ heads should they suffer a bad fall.

Fans never mob the arriving older wrestlers. It's not Japanese to do that!
Fans never mob the arriving older wrestlers. It’s not Japanese to do that!

How many bouts are there each day?

It varies, though you can expect more than 30 bouts (including the junior wrestlers). Each wrestler faces a different opponent on each day of the tournament and since there are no weight divisions, you might see a seven stone weakling pitted against a fighter twice his size.

But is there any skill to it? They look like they’re just pushing and shoving.

To a novice sumo spectator, the bouts can sometimes look like a playground scuffle, but in fact, there are more than 80 winning tricks that a wrestler can perform during a bout.

And there are plenty of things you can’t do – striking with fists, choking, kicking in the stomach or chest and hair pulling are all no-nos. Oh, and you can’t grab on to the band covering the, um, sensitive region.

Who’s the winner anyway?

There are a couple of ways to win a bout. Most people think you have to push your opponent out of the dohyo or make him fall on the floor in order to win, but that’s not quite true.

Name banners flank the turret where a drummer marks the start and end of each day.
Name banners flank the turret where a drummer marks the start and end of each day.

You would win either of those ways, but the rules are strict – if one toe goes out of the ring you will be declared the loser. Likewise, if you touch the floor with any part of the body other than the soles of the feet your opponent will emerge victoriously.

At the end of the tournament, the rikishi with the best win-loss record takes home the trophy.

Sounds like fun! Where can I see a tournament?

There are three tournaments a year in Tokyo (in January, May, and September). In March the action moves south to Osaka, up to Nagoya in July and the season winds up in Fukuoka in November. Tournaments last for 15 days and always start on the second Sunday of the month.

And how do I get tickets?

Well, unfortunately, to book tickets in advance, you need to speak Japanese, but if you can, then call the box office on +81 (0) 3 3622 1100.

For cheap seats at the Tokyo tournaments you just need to turn up at the stadium before 8 am (quite a bit before if you want to guarantee a ticket). Be aware that you can only get one ticket per person queuing, so bagging seats for those pals still snoring at the hostel is a no go.

But isn’t it really expensive?

Ringside seats will set you back 14,300 yen ($135), but you probably won’t be able to get hold of those anyway. Reserved seats range from 3,600 yen ($35) to 45,200 yen ($425) for a box seating four people.

If you’re a bargain hunter and you don’t mind an early morning the back row seats are only 2,100 yen ($20) and offer a perfectly decent view. (Prices for Tokyo tournament only).

For more information on sumo wrestling see the Grand Sumo Homepage.

Lucy CorneLucy Corne is a freelance writer specializing in two of life’s finest pleasures: beer and travel. Her itchy feet have taken her to nearly 50 countries across every continent bar Antarctica – and that’s largely because there are no microbreweries there. Lucy has written two books on the South African craft beer scene and also pens a popular blog – www.brewmistress.co.za 

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