A very brief guide to sumo: the national sport of Japan

For many countries around the world, football (or soccer) is considered their national sport. But tradition goes a long way, particularly in a country like Japan. And its national sport, sumo, is far removed from kicking a ball around a big rectangular field.

Here is a very brief guide to sumo.

What is sumo wrestling?

Sumo wrestling is a Japanese sport that is said to originate as early as 23 BC although the first official mention of the sport was around 712. It is a form of competitive wrestling in which two opponents try to force each other out of a circular ring (dohyō) or into touching the ground with any part of their body other than the soles of their feet.

The wrestlers, known as rikishi, wear traditional loincloth-like garments (mawashi) and are often adorned with elaborate ceremonial belts (obi). The sport is governed by a complex set of rules and steeped in tradition and ritual.

The rules

Sumo wrestling matches typically take place on a raised platform (dohyō-iri) in the centre of the ring. The wrestlers start the match in a crouching position (shikiri-sen), and the first wrestler to touch the ground or be forced out of the ring loses.

A match can also end if one of the wrestlers is unable to continue (hikiwake), or if one of the wrestlers violates one of the numerous rules.

The most common violation is touching the ground with anything other than the soles of the feet. However, other infractions include:

  • Striking one’s opponent with an open hand
  • Grabbing the mawashi
  • Attempting to pull one’s opponent’s mawashi off


Six grand sumo tournaments (honbasho) are held throughout the year, with the ultimate goal being to win the Emperor’s Cup at the prestigious New Year’s tournament (hatsu basho). Three of these tournaments are held at the Ryōgoku Kokugikan in Ryōgoku, Tokyo, and one in Osaka, one in Nagoya, and the last one in Fukuoka. They all start and end on a Sunday and last for 15 days.

The ranks of sumo wrestlers are determined by their win-loss record in tournaments, with the highest rank of yokozuna reserved for only the most elite wrestlers.

Fun fact: if a yokozuna loses to a lower-ranked wrestler, it is customary for spectators to throw their seat cushions at the wrestlers in the ring, (even though it’s not really allowed).


Sumo wrestling is a fascinating and unique sport that will captivate any spectator. If you ever have the opportunity to see a sumo match in person, it is an experience you will never forget.

Further resources on sumo

Leave a Reply