Making sense of Sumo


Watching a sumo match.

By Russ Tyler

So, I came to Japan last year, and the first joke I got from an old rugby team mate on MSN went like this:

Russ: Hey you fat #$%! Long time, eh?

Matt: Yeah, so how’s the sumo going?

Russ: Oh, I haven’t been yet.

Matt: No, I mean, are you doing any?

Russ: No.

Matt: Yeah, I heard you weren’t allowed to enter because it would be unfair.

Russ: How come?

Matt: Because you’re too fat!

Joking aside, sumo does look like two fat guys trying to push each other out of a ring while dressed in diapers. That’s halfway right, but it’s a lot more fun to watch than it sounds. Let’s fill in the gaps:


Pro sumo can be traced back to the Edo period. At this point, the entertainers were Samurai or Ronin (samurai with no master) who were keen to make some extra cash. Sumo is based around a very strict hierarchy with very strong traditions:

OYAKATA: Former wrestlers, the only guys entitled to train new wrestlers. They also run the Japan Sumo Association– the governing body for the sport.

MAKUUCHI: These are the 42 big guns. They get paid a lot.

JURYO: 28 guys are in the second division, and they are also pro.

MAKUSHITA: 120 wrestlers

SANDANME: 200 wrestlers

JONIDAN: 230 wrestlers

JONOKUCHI: 80 wrestlers

All the boys in the bottom four ranks are regarded as being ‘in training’ and receive a subsistence allowance, in return for which they must perform various chores in their training stable. They’re not really very important.

All wrestlers can be referred to simply as rikishi (wrestler) regardless of their ranking.

Let’s break down the top two divisions – they’re the ones you see competing.

The guys who reach these divisions become sekitori, and are salaried. On top of that, they get performance-related bonuses and other benefits too. Just to name a few, they can have a supporter’s club, wear high quality men’s kimono and other items of attire, have a private room in the training stable, get married and live away from the training stable, and (my personal favourite) have junior rikishi as their personal servants.

The top division, makuuchi, is broken down further into sub-ranks: At the top of the division are the sanyaku (the champions or title holders) comprised of: yokozuna, ozeki, sekiwake and komusubi.

There are typically 8-12 wrestlers in these ranks, with the rest, called maegashira, ranked in order from 1 downward. Furthermore, these rikishi are separated into East and West divisions. According to tradition, an East maegashira is slightly higher in rank than his West counterpart.


The promotion and relegation process between divisions is complicated, but boils down to how many bouts you win. Unlike other eastern martial arts (for example, karate), it is possible to be relegated to a lower rank and, also unlike other martial arts, a wrestler’s position is based solely on his performance in competition, not by performing kata (forms).

There is one exception, though – a wrestler elevated to yokozuna (the top division) cannot be relegated. If his performance is not good enough, he is expected to retire from the sport – hence, promotion to this rank is very strict. There is no limit to the number of yokozuna or ozeki.


There are six Grand Sumo tournaments (honbasho) each year: three at the Sumo Hall in Tokyo (January, May, and September), and one each in Osaka (March), Nagoya (July) and Fukuoka (November). A banzuke, which lists the current rank- ings, is published two weeks prior to each sumo tournament. Wrestlers fight on the dohyo (the ring), which is made of clay. A new one is made for every tournament.

Tournaments begin on a Sunday and run for 15 days, ending also on a Sunday. On a tournament day, the higher ranked wrestlers compete at the end of the day, so even though your ticket allows you access all day, it’s not common for the stadium to begin filling up until well after lunch.

The wrestler who wins the most matches over the fifteen days wins the tournament championship. If two rikishi are tied for the top spot, they wrestle each other in a single bout and the winner takes the title. All sekitori have a single bout each day.


These ones are easy to spot because they’re foreign:

Asashoryu: Yokozuna since March 2003, Mongolian, 148 kg. Known for his fiery temper. Not hugely popular.

Kotooshu: Ozeki since January 2006, Bulgarian, 150 kg. Very popular. Loves J-Pop and smiles far more than most wrestlers. Although never during a tournament. Obviously.

Hakuho: Ozeki since May 2006, Mongolian, 154 kg

Baruto: Maegashira since May 2006, Estonian, 174 kg. Expect big things from this big kid, who has shot up the rankings at record pace.

That’s all I’m going to say on the subject – there’s so much to learn about sumo, but hopefully this brief explanation will lessen confusion on the day. Take some beers and food, find your seat, and watch top quality sport with top quality friends.