What is Sumo Wrestling in Japan?

Today we are answering the question, “What is sumo wrestling in Japan?”


First of all, I have to tell you that we love sumo wrestling! We watch every tournament. It is Japan’s national sport, and it’s very popular. The tournaments often sell out.

In today’s video, we’re going to talk about sumo rituals, rules, rankings, the Grand Sumo Tournament, and how to watch sumo outside of Japan.

Sumo Rituals

Sumo is full of rituals and ancient customs. The sport started about 1500 years ago as a Shinto ritual. The event was held once a year to pray for a good harvest. It became more of a spectator sport during the Edo period in the 1700s.

Only men can compete as professional sumo wrestlers. Apprentice wrestlers join a sumo stable as young as 15 years old. They are required to live in the stable and all aspects of their lives are dictated by the strict tradition of sumo.

Topknot Hairstyle

Sumo wrestlers wear a topknot hairstyle, which was popular during the Edo period. It is said that the hairstyle protects their head in case of an injury.


The dohyo is the name of the ring where the action takes place. The clay-packed ring is two feet tall, 15 feet in diameter, and outlined with rice straw. It is rebuilt for every tournament. There is a roof suspended over the ring, which represents a Shinto shrine.

Before each bout, the wrestlers purify the ring by tossing salt into it.


The gyoji is the referee. The gyoji wears a beautiful samurai kimono and holds a fan to symbolize his ranking authority. The color of the tassels on the fan indicate his rank. The gyoji sings the names of the opponents before each match and then sings the name of the winner after the match.

The Rules

The rules for sumo are pretty straightforward. There are two wrestlers called rikishi. They wear only a silken loincloth, called a mawashi. The mawashi is 10 yards long by two feet. It’s wrapped around the wrestler and tied into a fancy belt.

How to Win

The goal of each bout is to try to push one’s opponent out of the ring. The first person to step outside of the ring or touch the ground loses the bout. There are approximately 70 strategic moves to win.

Illegal Moves

There are only a few illegal moves. Wrestlers can’t hit with a closed fist, pull hair, gouge eyes, choke, or kick their opponent in the stomach.

Sumo wrestling is very real. It is not fake in any way, whatsoever. The wrestlers sometimes get injured and have to withdraw from a tournament.

Before the Bout

Most bouts are over in less than a minute, so there’s a lot of buildup beforehand. The sumo wrestlers try to intimidate each other by glaring at each other, stomping their feet, and throwing salt into the ring. This is allowed to go on for up to four minutes before the bout begins.

For the most exciting matches, there are colorful banners that parade around the ring. Each of these banners represents a sponsor, and there’s a monetary prize for the winner. The more banners that you see parading around the ring, the higher the potential earnings for the winner.


Let’s get into the rankings. What makes sumo wrestling so interesting is that there are no weight classes. There are approximately 800 professional sumo wrestlers, each weighing somewhere between 200 and 400 pounds. It’s not uncommon for a 200 pound wrestler to go up against a 400 pound wrestler, and win!


The rankings are called banzuke, and they are announced after each tournament. Wrestlers get promoted or demoted according to their performance in the previous tournament.

Wrestlers must win eight bouts or more in order to get promoted. Not winning at least eight bouts is considered a losing tournament, and the wrestler stands a good chance of getting demoted.

Upper Division

Maku-uchi is the upper division of sumo wrestlers. There are approximately 42 sumo wrestlers in the upper division, which has five ranks.

The top rank is the Yokozuna, the grand champion. There’s usually only one or two Yokozuna. In total, there have only been 73 Yokozuna. Since the 1990s, wrestlers from Mongolia have dominated the role.

Once a wrestler becomes Yokozuna, he can’t get demoted. If he starts losing tournaments and is not deserving of the title any longer, then he must retire.


The next three ranks are called sanyaku. The top rank of sanyaku is ozeki, the champion. An ozeki has to win two consecutive tournaments in order to be considered the title of Yokozuna. The next level is sekiwake, then komusubi, and last are maegashira.

Grand Sumo Tournament

The Grand Sumo Tournament is held six times a year. It takes place three times in Tokyo – January, May, and September. In March, it is in Osaka. In July, it’s in Nagoya. In November, it’s in Fukuoka.

The tournament lasts 15 days. Each day starts with the lowest ranked wrestlers and progressively gets more exciting. Around 3:00 pm, the higher ranked sumo wrestlers start competing against each other. The final bout takes place just before 6:00 pm with the Yokozuna and one of the leading wrestlers.

How to Watch Outside of Japan

If you’re interested in watching sumo outside of Japan, you can watch it via the NHK app. They show the Grand Sumo Highlights. It’s on demand and airs the following day.

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