Sumo 101


Words by Emily Gwyther
Photos by Aleck Skeie

Sumo lineup

The first time I saw a sumo match on TV was years before I first set foot in Japan. When I was in high school, the final days of the September Grand Sumo Tournament in Tokyo were broadcast in America. My dad and I happened to discover the broadcast, and I found that I greatly enjoyed watching sumo. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much sumo coverage to be found, and I wouldn’t really get to watch it again until I came to Japan.

When I arrived in Hiroshima and found out that AJET does a yearly trip to Fukuoka to watch sumo, I was ecstatic. Going to a live sumo tournament was on the top of my to do list while in Japan, and it was going to be much easier to check off than I had anticipated. This year will be my third year going on the trip, and I’m just as excited (if not more so) than I was before the first time. Fukuoka is a fun city, and the trip is one of the best all-around, but for me the sumo is definitely the main draw. Like most sports, watching sumo on TV is enjoyable, but being there live, watching with hundreds of other fans, is even better.

Sumo stomp

While I’ve watched as much sumo as possible since coming to Japan, I’m by no means an expert. But, I’ve been asked to help beginners learn a little about the sport so that they can enjoy watching it, and that’s what I’ll try to do.

First, sumo is a very old sport (over 1,500 years) and is still closely tied to its Shinto origins. The bouts themselves can be very short, lasting only seconds. However, the pre-bout rituals last a few minutes, and are just as important to the wrestlers. Originally, these pre-bout rituals could go on for hours, but they are now limited to about four minutes. The wrestlers will lift their legs up one at a time and slam them to the ground in order to scare their opponents (and scare demons away from the ring). They also throw salt, thus purifying the ring, each time they re-enter after retreating to their sideline. Wrestlers are also given “power water” if the wrestler from their side won the previous bout.

There are over 70 specific ways (kimarite) that a bout can be won, but each way either involves a wrestler leaving the ring, or having any part of his body (other than the soles of the feet) touch the ground. Three of the most common kimarite are: yorikiri (holding onto the opponent’s belt and forcing him out of the ring), oshidashi (pushing the opponent out without grabbing the belt or fully extending your arms), and hatakikomi (slapping the opponent down). Things like pulling hair, choking, or using closed fists, are illegal.

Sumo push

 There are many different ranks, from the most junior wrestlers, to the top-ranked yokozuna. There have only been 70 yokozuna to date, and currently there are two active yokozuna: Hakuho and Harumafuji, both from Mongolia.

Every year there are six Grand Tournaments, each lasting for 15 days. There are winners for the different classes, with the winner of the highest ranked group (makuuchi) being declared the Grand Champion.

There is so much more to learn about sumo, but I hope this is enough to get you novices interested, and maybe inspire another fanatic like myself. Just don’t tell your students how much you love sumo. They’ll never stop making fun of you.

Sumo starburst


  1. Great article, thanks. 😀 I’m thrilled to be seeing my first live match this coming weekend!

    But I’m new to Japan and curious please: why would your students make fun of you if you like sumo? Does it have a bad reputation?

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