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Definition: sumo from Collins English Dictionary


1 the national style of wrestling of Japan, the object of which is to force one's opponent to touch the ground with any part of his body except the soles of his feet or to step out of the ring

[from Japanese sumō]

Summary Article: JAPAN: SUMO
from Martial Arts of the World: An Encyclopedia of History and Innovation

Sumo is Japanese wrestling. An individual wrestler is called rikishi, sekitori, or sumotori. Rikishi means “strong man.” The name originally referred to fierce bare-chested statues (ni-o) installed at many Buddhist temples. Sekitori means “taken the barrier” and refers to high-ranking wrestlers, while sumotori means “someone who does sumo” and refers to wrestlers in general.

A sumo contest is straightforward. Two wrestlers, dressed only in reinforced silk or cotton belts (mawashi), enter a sand-filled ring. Following preliminary rituals, the wrestlers rush together, and the first to be thrown from the ring or to have any part of his body other than his feet touch the ground is judged the loser.

Although usually presented as complex, the history and tradition of sumo is actually straight-forward—it is simply the oldest form of professional wrestling in Japan.


Wrestling styles mentioned in old Japanese texts include amagoi-zumo (wrestling as a petition for rain), buke-zumo (warrior wrestling), kanjin-zumo (benefit sumo, meaning wrestling acts staged by shrines and temples to raise money for construction projects), kogyo-zumo (“spectacle wrestling,” meaning theatrical wrestling), kusa-zumo (literally “grass wrestling,” but meaning village wrestling), onna-zumo (women's wrestling), sechie-zumo (court wrestling, meaning the wrestlers kept on salary by aristocrats) and tsuji-zumo (street-corner wrestling).

The codification of these various styles into modern sumo occurred during the Tokugawa era (1603-1868). The Tokugawa government wanted public order. Thus, it did not promote street corner wrestling, or encourage bands of wrestlers (yo-sekata) to travel from town to town and fair to fair, challenging all comers. On the contrary, in 1648 and 1661, it enacted laws prohibiting unregulated wrestling. Of course these laws did not stop wrestling, but they certainly limited it.

Meanwhile, the cities of Edo (modern Tokyo), Osaka, and Kyoto were growing into megalopolises. Their hundreds of thousands of residents, aristocrats, samurai, merchants, and commoners alike, wanted—needed—entertainment. Consequently, there were negotiations between wrestling promoters and government officials, and between 1684 and 1699, a series of agreements were reached.

Part of the agreement involved defining the fighting area (dohyo) and allowable techniques (kimarite). Because safety was a concern, the fighting area was sand surrounded by bales of straw. The list of allowable techniques has changed over time, but hair pulling, eye gouging, and blows with closed fists have always been considered fouls (kinjite).

Another part of the agreement included ensuring outward decorum. The government was not in favor of people stripping to their underwear in the street, and then going into alleys to wrestle. Therefore, referees and other officials were introduced, and wrestlers were encouraged to wear special belts and elaborately coiffed hair. Finally, so that the government could appear properly pious in all this, promoters were told to advertise their tournaments as raising money for benefit projects rather than as commercial activities.

A third part of the agreement involved controlling the numbers of trainers and wrestlers. Toward this end, a system for licensing and regulating training facilities (sumobeya, literally, “wrestling rooms,” but usually translated as “stables”) was developed. During the 1790s, there were 38 licensed stables, while by the 1840s there were 45 (Bolitho 1988, 25). As of October 2008, there were 52 active stables in Japan. Although all 52 present-day stables were organized after 1862 (with most dating to the 1980s or later), their owners often claim direct lineage to Tokugawa-era stables.

Major regional tournaments (honbasho) date to the late seventeenth century. In Edo, the first tournament was held at Tomioka Hachiman Shrine in 1684. In Osaka, the first sumo tournaments date to 1691. In Kyoto, wrestling tournaments date to 1699. Tournaments were restricted to certain times of the year.

By the 1750s, sumo was popular enough that there was a national tournament circuit, with spring and autumn tournaments in Edo, summer tournaments in Kyoto, autumn tournaments in Osaka, and regional tournaments in between. Wrestlers competed for both individual and team honors, and no matter where the tournament took place, the local wrestlers tended to win the team championships. As Guttmann and Thompson (2001, 23) explain, “It was good business to let the hometown heroes win.”


During the 1790s, sumo acquired a very influential patron, namely Shogun Tokugawa Ienari (1773-1841). An important tournament was organized for Tokugawa's amusement in 1791, and he saw other command performances in 1794, 1802, 1823, and 1830. His successor, Tokugawa Ieyoshi (1793-1853), also liked sumo, and he witnessed command performances in 1843 and 1849 (Bolitho 1988, 26-27).

The people who designed the rituals for these Tokugawa court performances were mostly members of the Yoshida lineage (iemoto). The Yoshida lineage was not originally associated with wrestling; instead, it was associated with Shinto rituals. The Yoshida lineage's subsequent authority over sumo ritual was based mostly on a license (menkyo) granted by the Tokugawa government in 1789. By 1951, the sumo association had stripped all power from the Yoshida lineage, but people in that linage still have some ceremonial roles (Bolitho 1988; Guttmann and Thompson 2001, 24; Thompson 1998, 176).

By the 1790s, sumo began changing from something done on the outskirts of town into something done in urban entertainment districts. Tokugawa-era entertainment districts were essentially amusement parks. That is, they had vendors (teahouses, toothpick shops, and candy shops), main events (comedy acts, magic shows, animal acts, and acrobats), and midway acts (jugglers, archery booths, and athletic shows), all interspersed with snake-oil salesmen, jugglers, and so on. Some of the athletic shows on the midway featured fencers and stick fighters, and others featured wrestlers. In the wrestling acts, there were ugly wrestlers, over-sized wrestlers, very short wrestlers, female wrestlers, and blind wrestlers; sometimes, they even had the blind man wrestle the woman. Such acts were typically shrouded in religious piety. “Disabled humans were exploited to underscore one of the best-known Buddhist teachings—a sinful act in this life will result in deformity in the next” (Hur 2000, 61).


In 1854, Commodore Matthew Perry (1794-1858) took a U.S. naval squadron into Edo Bay for the second time in six months. In an attempt to impress the Americans with Japanese power, Japanese officials arranged for sumotori, in full regalia, to deliver 135-pound sacks of rice to the American ships. Perry's men reported that “two or three of the huge monsters were the most famous wrestlers in Japan … Koyanagi [1791-1858], the reputed bully of the capital, was one of these, and paraded himself with conscious pride of superior immensity and strength” (Harper's 1856, 740-741). For his part, Perry responded by giving the Japanese officials a telegraph and a miniature railway, and having the rice delivered to his 6 foot 4 inch (190 centimeter), 300-pound (140 kilogram) African American cook, William Grose (1835-1898).

During the decade following Perry's arrival in Edo Bay, the Tokugawa government collapsed. During the mid-1860s, there was a civil war in Japan, and afterwards, the Japanese economy was in shambles. However, as the Japanese economy recovered, so did sumo. Moreover, during the 1870s and 1880s, the new Japanese government decided that sumo could be used to help it revive “true” Japanese culture (Bolitho 1988, 26; Light and Kinnaird 2002, 151; Maeda 2007, 8).

During the Meiji emperor's reign (1868-1912), sumo was used to show the Japanese flag overseas. In 1885, sumo was among the events staged to celebrate the arrival of the first Japanese agricultural workers in the Kingdom of Hawai'i. In 1905, a sumo tournament was staged in British Columbia to celebrate a Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. In 1907, the reigning champion Hitachiyama (Tani Ichige, 1874-1922) went to the United States, where he met President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919). From May to October 1910, a group of 36 sumotori gave daily exhibitions at the Japan-British Exhibition in London. And, in 1912, a sumo tournament was organized in São Paulo, Brazil, to mark the establishment of the first Japanese settlers' association in that city. Subsequently, however, the Japanese government tended to use judo rather than sumo for these nationalistic purposes; apparently its officials were insufficiently rewarded by foreign newspaper headlines announcing, “Japan's ‘Mountain of Fat and Muscle' to Visit America” (San Francisco Call 1907) and “Japan's Fat Wrestlers: The More Adipose They Have the More They Are Admired” (Los Angeles Times 1914).

Inside Japan, both the government and the newspapers promoted sumo. The promotion proved popular, and by the early 1900s, the old tournament facilities were no longer suitable. Transportation in and out was a problem. Fans in the back could not see. Rain could disrupt events. And perhaps worst of all, people could sneak in free. Consequently, in May 1906, construction began on an indoor sumo stadium in Tokyo. This concrete-and-steel structure, called National Stadium (Kokugikan), was completed in December 1908. At the time, National Stadium was the largest athletic stadium in East Asia. In 1919, a smaller (but taller) sumo stadium was built in Osaka. After World War II, both stadiums were replaced by even larger structures.


During the late 1890s and early 1900s, Japanese journalists discovered that it was easier to sell stories about individual champions than it was to sell stories about schools and lineages. To take advantage of this discovery, individual wrestlers began getting presented (and promoted) differently. Part of this process involved codifying the ranks of yokozuna, sanyaku, and maegashira (Guttmann and Thompson 2001, 111-112; Thompson 1998, 177).

The word yokozuna means “transverse cord” and refers to the ropes that some wrestlers wore around their waists during prematch rituals. Although the term dates to November 1789, it was used only occasionally between 1789 and 1909. It began to be used regularly after 1909, and today, it means “grand champion.”

Sanyaku (“three positions”) refers to wrestlers who rank below the yokozuna. From highest to lowest, the three positions are ozeki (“great barrier”), sekiwake (“to the side of the barrier”), and komusubi (“small knots”).

Maegashira (“those ahead”) refers to all lower-ranked wrestlers. There are at least fifteen grades in the maegashira division, and today these wrestlers' first matches in a tournament usually pit them against elite wrestlers. Thus, winning a match is hardest for junior wrestlers (they start out facing much better opposition), while competition is fiercest in the middle, where the wrestlers are generally matched against opponents of comparable skill and desire.

Sumo underwent many other changes during the period 1885-1923. For example, referees (gyoji) began to wear special costumes said to have associations with ancient court dress, wrestlers began to wear old-style clothing in public, and canopies (tsuriyane) having alleged Shinto symbolism began to be constructed over sumo rings. According to Lee Thompson (1998, 178), “The new emphasis on tradition was an integral part of a more fundamental process of the modernization of sumo as a spectator sport.”


Historically, few of sumo's monetary profits trickled down to active wrestlers. Therefore, between 1923 and 1932, Japan's professional wrestlers struck several times for better pay and benefits. Although these strikes did not lead to significant increases in wages for wrestlers, they did lead to the establishment of retirement pensions and a mutual aid society.

In 1926, the Tokyo and Osaka sumo organizations merged. The resulting corporation is known today as the Japan Sumo Association (Nihon Sumo Kyokai).

Structurally, the Japan Sumo Association is a closely held corporation (West 1997). Control generally resides in the hands of 105 “elders” (toshiyori). The chief exception to this rule occurred between May 1939 and November 1945, when the association chairman (rijicho) was a retired admiral (Takeshita Isamu, 1869-1949).

Funding sources for the Japan Sumo Association include “support groups” (koenkai). Benefits that accrue from membership in a support group include better seats, access to special souvenirs, and opportunities to meet the athletes. Cost for membership currently (2009) ranges from around ¥10,000 (about US$100, in 2009 dollars) for “ordinary” memberships to as much as ¥100,000 for “special” memberships.

“Special members” frequently include gangsters (yakuza). The gamblers are not trying to get the wrestlers to throw matches; they just want to be seen with wrestlers, and they are willing to pay handsomely for the privilege (Maeda 2007, 50). Nonetheless, there is considerable betting in sumo. Bets can be placed on each bout, or whether a certain wrestler will advance to the next bout, or whether he will become champion.

In sumo, smart bettors do not bet on the last day, because on that day, the odds are that the wrestler with the higher rating will lose (Benjamin 1991, 231-254; Duggan and Levitt 2002). The explanation is this: Wrestlers who do not achieve overall winning totals in a tournament are demoted. Knowing this, a wrestler who has nothing to gain by winning another match on the last day of the tournament may take a dive, thereby helping another wrestler retain his rank and status. Here, an example from Japanese military sumo is instructive. As the World War II fighter pilot Sakai Saburo (1916-2000) explained it, cadets at pre-World War II Japanese military academies were made to wrestle every other cadet, one after another in rapid succession, and if a cadet failed to throw at least one opponent despite two tries through the line, then he was washed out of school. In other words, if the peers of a wrestler (or aviation cadet) like him, then they will consider sacrificing to help him keep his job. But if they do not like him, then out he goes (Sakai 1978, 12).

Product endorsements are another way that the association, stables, and wrestlers earn money. Commonly endorsed products include toys, food and drink, and autographed handprints (tegata). At restaurants and clubs, wrestlers eat and drink free, because their appearances draw crowds. At tournaments, walls are festooned with sponsors' banners (kensho), and wrestlers' skirts (kesho-mawashi) and fans' tournament ranking sheets (banzuke) all carry logos or advertisements. None of these practices is particularly modern. The oldest surviving banzuke was created for a sumo tournament held in Kyoto in 1733. Besides listing the wrestlers, referees, and promoters, that ranking sheet also listed the tournament's financial sponsors.

Drum towers (yagura) are another form of advertising associated with sumo. During the nineteenth century, family-owned businesses made and constructed these drum towers, which they transported from tournament to tournament. The purpose of these drum towers was advertising—the noise of the drumming (taiko-uchiwake) told townspeople that a tournament was at hand, or audiences that the main event was about to begin, while the raised scaffolding served as a place to hang the advertising banners of the sponsors.

Artwork, photographs, and videos are also sold. From the 1780s through the 1860s, woodblock prints (ukiyo-e, pictures of the floating world) of sumo champions were popular in Japan. The odd poses sometimes seen in prints of sumo matches were usually the result of business needs. Sometimes, artists made the main block before the match and then added faces after the results were known; other times, the face of last year's champion was cut out and replaced with the face of this year's champion. The Katsukawa School was a major source of eighteenth-century sumo prints, whereas from the 1810s to the 1860s the Utagawa School was preeminent. During the 1860s, photographs and lithographs started replacing woodblock prints for the mass market, mostly because they were faster to make and cheaper to reproduce.

Commercial demands drive sumo's rituals in other, less obvious ways. When radio broadcasts began in 1928, wrestlers were told to limit their prematch rituals to ten minutes. The present-day preparation time of four minutes dates to 1950. The wrestlers know when it is time to stop the posturing and start the match by watching how the referee moves his fan (gunbai) (Maeda 2007, 49).

From 1909 until 1952, the six-ton canopy (tsuriyane) that covered the sumo ring in Tokyo was held up by huge wooden pillars. From 1909 until 1952, those pillars were said to have great cosmological import. Then, in 1952, sumo matches began to be televised. The pillars blocked the cameras' view. The pillars were promptly chopped down, and henceforth, the canopy hung suspended from the ceiling (Gould 2008).


Sumo training takes place in schools called sumobeya. The root word is heya. Although usually translated into English as “stable,” heya actually means “room.” The owner of the stable (oyokata) is one of the 105 elders of the sumo association. The stable provides wrestlers with training, room, board, and small cash allowances. In return, its owner receives most of the money that its wrestlers receive via endorsements and gifts.

Sumo training is physically and emotionally demanding, and there is much hazing. Inside the stable, rank is all that matters. “Those guys in the bottom division,” wrestler Cal Martin (Araiwa, 1949-) remembered (Maeda 2007, 44), “they are like slaves. They do all of the [menial work], they do everything else.” Higher-ranked wrestlers are often physically abusive toward lower-ranked wrestlers. Martin remembered one morning when some intoxicated senior wrestlers “started beating up on the little ones really bad. Bamboo poles, just beating them up. That was it. I just hauled off. I took all three of them on.” After that, “My boss was the only one who hit me and he did not do it often” (Maeda 2007, 47-48). In 2007, three journeyman wrestlers were arrested following the beating death of an apprentice wrestler. The three journeymen were convicted of manslaughter, their trainer was fired, and the stable owner had to make a public apology (Harden 2008).


Like any corporation, the Japan Sumo Association works to burnish its image. Thus, it presents the media with scripted and orchestrated presentations (Benjamin 1991, 201-207; Maeda 2007, 28).

Individual stable owners and wrestlers can tell stories that diverge from the official image, but not too far. When American wrestler Cal Martin told a reporter on live national television that the only thing he needed to do to prepare himself mentally for a sumo match was remember Pearl Harbor, he was told to never say that again (Maeda 2007, 52-53). Presentation also involves staying in character. This includes wrestlers speaking to reporters using vocabulary that is sufficiently different from standard Japanese that, in Martin's words, “Those guys can sit there and talk in front of the media, and they [the reporters] don't have a clue what they are talking about” (Maeda 2007, 49; see also: Benjamin 1991, 201-202).

Official stories show keen awareness of commercial considerations. Consider the sumo association's presentation of foreign wrestlers. There have been foreign wrestlers in sumo since the 1930s. In the 1930s, sumo was promoted as uniquely Japanese, so the stable owners created fictional back stories for their foreign wrestlers. Thus, Colorado's Harley Ozaki (1920-1988) became Toyonishiki Kichiro, while Korea's Kim Sin-nak (1924-1963) became Rikidozan.

After World War II, Japanese wrestlers of Korean ethnicity continued to be presented as ethnic Japanese, as did wrestlers from Northern Japan whose parents included Russians (Maeda 2007, 46, 54). However, blatantly foreign wrestlers, such as California's Cal Martin (Araiwa) and Hawai'i's Jesse Kuhaulua (Takamiyama Daigoro, 1944-) were openly acknowledged as foreign (gaijin) sumotori. In 1972, Kuhaulua became the first foreign-born sumotori to achieve championship status. The problem with foreigners achieving championship status is that audiences rarely stand in line to watch foreign champions defeat local heroes. For that reason, the Japan Sumo Association began publicly establishing quotas on the number of foreign wrestlers that a stable could have. At the same time, the association knew that its members were having a harder time recruiting sufficient numbers of ethnically Japanese wrestlers. Indeed, in March 2007, no Japanese youths applied to a sumo recruiting draft (Maeda 2007, 36). Despite what Japanese audiences wanted, the number of foreign wrestlers had to increase if sumo was going to continue competing with other sport entertainment options ranging from auto racing to video games. To balance these conflicting requirements, early twenty-first century foreign wrestlers tend to come from Mongolia and China rather than the United States (Maeda 2007, 1).

A separate storyline involves women. Although there were female sumotori from the Tokugawa era through World War II (Kaneda 1999), women's sumo went into rapid decline during the 1950s. The reason was the postwar development of American-style pro wrestling in Japan; women's professional wrestling started in Japan in 1948 and was widespread by 1955. Then, in 2000, Osaka Prefecture got its first female governor, Ota Fusae (1951-). For decades, the ceremonial duties of the Osaka governor had included handing sumo champions the Governor's Cup trophy. So, every year from 2000 until 2007 (when she was voted out of office), Ota told the press that she wanted to award the trophy, and, every year from 2000 until 2007, the Japan Sumo Association told reporters that she could not. In Japan, this resulted in favorable publicity all the way around. For the governor, the story allowed her to present herself as a champion of Japanese feminism. For the sumo association, the story allowed it to present itself as a steadfast guardian of traditional Japanese values. Finally, for the corporate sponsors of a recently organized Japanese women's sumo promotion called Shin Sumo (“New Sumo”), it meant free advertising.


Although professional sumo schools are found today mostly in Tokyo and other urban centers, there is amateur sumo (amasumo) in Japanese universities and high schools, and semi-professional and amateur sumo overseas. Participants in overseas sumo have never been restricted to just ethnic Japanese. Football players of all ethnicities competed in Hawaiian sumo matches, and the champions of a Seattle sumo tournament of 1930 included Earl “Sam” Kraetz (1907-1990), the 207-pound starting center for the University of Washington football team. In overseas sumo, most of the ritual has been modified for local consumption. For example, athletic shorts or long underwear are often worn underneath the wrestlers' belts, and the elaborate ring aprons (keshomawashi) are more likely hand-stitched by mothers than awarded by breweries or newspapers.

See also: China: Wrestling; Korea: Ssireum (in this volume); Commodification of Leisure; Invented Tradition; Globalization of Martial Arts; and Professional Wrestling (in Volume II).

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