Sumo Wrestling: A Traditional Japanese Martial Art

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Sumo wrestling, also known as "Sumō" in Japanese, is a traditional form of martial arts that originated in Japan.

With its rich history and cultural significance, Sumo has become one of the most popular sports in the country.

In this article, we will explore the origins, rules, and traditions of Sumo wrestling, as well as the training and lifestyle of Sumo wrestlers.

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Origins of Sumo Wrestling

Sumo wrestling has a long and storied history, dating back to ancient times in Japan.

The sport's name, "Sumō," is derived from the Japanese verb "sumau/sumafu," which means "to compete" or "to fight."

The written form of Sumo, 相撲, originally referred to a wrestling competition held at the imperial court during the Heian period.

During Japan's early history, Sumo wrestling was depicted in the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters), a text from 712 that recounts a mythical wrestling match between gods to determine the ownership of the Japanese islands.

The Nihonshoki (Chronicles of Japan), written in 720, documents the first recorded mortal Sumo match, which took place in 23 BCE between Nomi-no-Sukune and Taima-no-Kuehaya.

Early History and Japanese Antiquity

During Japan's early history and antiquity, Sumo wrestling was an integral part of cultural festivals and religious events known as "Matsuri."

It was not a regulated sport during this time, and the rules and structure of the matches varied.

Archaeological evidence suggests that Sumo matches were held as early as the 5th century, but they lacked the formalized rules and dedicated arenas seen in modern Sumo.

The exact origins of Sumo wrestling remain unclear, but it is believed to have been influenced by wrestling traditions in China and Korea.

Both countries had long-standing wrestling traditions, such as Shuai Jiao in China and Ssireum in Korea, and had a significant cultural influence on early Japan.

Sumo matches during this period were often held outdoors and featured loosely defined rules.

The Evolution During the Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages in Japan, Sumo wrestling underwent significant changes.

As the central authority of the emperor declined, Sumo lost its status as a courtly activity and transformed into a practical martial art for samurai warriors.

Samurai were encouraged to practice Sumo as a means of developing physical strength and combat skills.

The popularity of Sumo wrestling also spread beyond the samurai class and became a form of entertainment for the masses.

Daimyō, or feudal lords, began sponsoring wrestlers, offering them generous support and granting them the status of samurai.

One of the biggest Sumo enthusiasts during this time was Oda Nobunaga, a powerful warlord who held a tournament with 1,500 wrestlers in 1578.

Sumo Wrestling in the Edo Period

During the Edo period (1603-1867), Sumo wrestling faced challenges due to its association with street fights and disturbances.

In Edo (now Tokyo), the sport was temporarily banned due to its rowdiness.

However, in 1684, communal Sumo matches called "Kanjin-zumō" were permitted to be held on the grounds of shrines, similar to the practices in Kyoto and Osaka.

The Edo period also marked the establishment of an official Sumo organization and the introduction of the "Dohyō," the elevated ring where Sumo matches take place.

The Dohyō became a defining feature of Sumo wrestling and evolved into its current form.

Prominent wrestlers emerged during this period, including Raiden Tameimon and Onogawa Kisaburo, who became the first historically recognized Yokozuna, the highest rank in Sumo.

Sumo Wrestling in the Modern Era

The Meiji Restoration in 1868 brought significant changes to Sumo wrestling.

With the abolition of the feudal system, Sumo lost its wealthy feudal lords as sponsors.

Additionally, the influence of Western culture led to Sumo being viewed as an outdated and embarrassing relic.

However, in 1884, Emperor Meiji hosted a Sumo tournament, which revitalized the sport and restored its national popularity.

Since the late 19th century, women have been allowed to attend Sumo tournaments, and the sport has largely maintained its modern form.

The Japan Sumo Association, established in 1926, introduced changes such as increasing the number of tournaments and extending their duration.

Today, Sumo wrestling continues to be a highly regarded and revered sport in Japan.

The Rules and Format of Sumo Wrestling

Sumo wrestling has simple yet precise rules that are easy for spectators to understand.

The objective of a match is to force the opponent out of the ring or make them touch the ground with a body part other than their feet.

Wrestlers employ various techniques, including pushing, throwing, and striking, to achieve this objective.

The Nihon Sumō Kyōkai, the official governing body of Sumo in Japan, recognizes 82 winning techniques, some of which are derived from Judo.

These techniques range from gripping the opponent's mawashi (belt) and pushing them out of the ring (Yotsu-zumō) to forcing the opponent out without a firm grip (Oshi-zumō).

Certain moves, such as choking, hair-pulling, and striking, are prohibited.

Matches take place on a dohyō, an elevated ring with a 4.55-meter diameter.

The ring is surrounded by sand to clearly indicate when a wrestler has stepped out.

Matches begin with the wrestlers taking their positions behind starting lines called shikirisen.

A gyōji, the referee, officiates the match, supported by five judges known as shimpan.

The duration of a match varies depending on the division, with the top division lasting a maximum of four minutes.

The Life of a Sumo Wrestler

Becoming a Sumo wrestler involves rigorous training and a unique way of life.

Sumo wrestlers, also known as Rikishi, start their training at specialized Sumo stables called Heya.

They live and train in the stables, where they undergo intensive physical conditioning and practice Sumo techniques.

Sumo wrestlers generally begin their careers in the lower divisions around the age of 15.

Attaining a high body weight with a low center of gravity is considered advantageous in Sumo wrestling.

Wrestlers follow a specific diet and training regimen to achieve and maintain their weight.

They consume a protein and fat-rich stew called Chankonabe, which they cook themselves.

In addition to physical training, Sumo wrestlers focus on developing explosive power, agility, and flexibility.

The Rituals and Traditions of Sumo

Sumo wrestling is known for its rich traditions and ceremonies, which have been passed down for centuries.

Before each match, wrestlers perform a ring-entering ceremony called Dohyō-iri.

During Dohyō-iri, wrestlers wear elaborate Keshō-mawashi, decorative aprons representing their stable, and perform specific rituals.

These ceremonies, along with other rituals like throwing salt into the ring for purification, add to the spectacle of Sumo wrestling.

The Internationalization of Sumo Wrestling

While Sumo wrestling remains deeply rooted in Japanese culture, it has gained international recognition and popularity.

International Sumo tournaments and exhibitions have been held in various countries, allowing non-Japanese wrestlers to participate.

Sumo has also attracted a global fan base, and international wrestlers have achieved great success in professional Sumo.


Sumo wrestling is not just a martial art; it is a testament to Japan's rich cultural heritage and traditions.

With its ancient origins, strict rules, and unique rituals, Sumo wrestling continues to captivate audiences worldwide.

Whether it's the intense matches, the larger-than-life wrestlers, or the symbolic ceremonies, Sumo wrestling offers a fascinating glimpse into the world of Japanese martial arts.

Finally, I'd like to introduce you to an article written by a former sumo wrestler, offering a unique perspective and insider's view into the world of sumo.

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