Japanese Sports – Sumo

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics is just over one year away, and Japan is preparing everything the world needs to enjoy an Olympics like no other. With plenty of globally recognised sports, we will also be seeing the introduction of a few of Japan’s traditional favourites to make the Olympics a cultural venture into the Japanese landscape.

Today, we are looking at the art of sumo in particular; where it began, its popularity in Japan and the West, the sumos themselves and its place in the upcoming Olympics. If you ever wanted to know everything about the sport of sumo, you can find it here.

Japanese Sumos from Behind

Origins of Sumo

Sumo first began as part of a ritual celebration in Japan’s ethnic religion – Shinto, which is a polytheistic faith. Shinto is the worship of many different spirits through shrines and celebrations, and some shrines carried out a form of ritual dance depicting a wrestle between a human and a divine spirit. It was an important process involving numerous contestants and known as a ‘sumai no sechie’, or sumai party that is thought to go back as far as the Heian period, over 2000 years ago. It could be that the word sumo developed from ‘sumai’ over time.

The rules and popularity of sumo fluctuated during Japan’s history. In times of war, sumo became a useful training program to teach people about combat and stance. In the 16th century, the time of Oda Nobunaga, the rules of sumo began to solidify into the sport we recognise today.

During Nobunaga’s reign, the ring within which sumos fight was established, as was the interesting style of dress. In place of the muwashi belts that sumos wear today, 16th-century sumos wore loose loincloths in a similar style, as well as wearing a decorative apron. The apron is no longer used in fights today, but you might see them being worn by professional sumos participating in pre-tournament ceremonies.


How Sumo is Scored

Sumo is scored in bouts, and each bout can be won through one of five ways:

  • A sumo wins when their opponent steps out of the ring.
  • A sumo wins when their opponent touches the floor with any body part other than the soles of their feet.
  • A sumo wins if their opponent uses an illegal technique.
  • A sumo wins if the opponent’s mawashi belt comes undone.
  • A sumo wins if the opponent fails to show.

In the case that the winner of a bout is uncertain, such as when the sumos appear to leave the ring at the same time, then the second set of judges watching the ring at eye level may intervene, or video footage may be used to determine the winner.

At the end of a bout, which usually only lasts a few seconds, a referee will declare the winning technique or kimarite. You can watch a bout of sumo from start to finish in the video below:


Sumo in Pop Culture

Sumo has become rather controversial in recent years, but hopefully, these tensions can be resolved in the future. For now, women are prohibited in competing in official sumo matches which is one reason why there are few female competitors. On the other hand, there is a stage for female wrestlers to compete internationally which shows women’s resolve and passion to get involved and modernise this age-old sport. At one time, judo and karate had similarly uneasy relationships with gender, but the fact that they have overcome these issues means that there is hope for sumo to follow suit.

Sumos need to eat a very specific diet to attain their figures, and calorie counts of 20,000 a day see that sumos eat ten times more than the average man. The most famous meal that these wrestlers consume is known as the chankonabe, which is a huge stew filled with fish, seafood, vegetables, mushrooms, and tofu – ingredients which we use in many of our dishes in our Manchester sushi bar as well as our sushi bar in Liverpool, though we won’t try to over face you with sumo-sized portions.

To improve their appearance in the public eye, a few prominent sumo wrestlers have branched out into the television and film industry, with varying degrees of success. We hope that they continue to persevere in spreading their name and sport to the world.

Sumo at the 2020 Olympics

Sumo was one of 26 sports to apply for a place in the upcoming Olympics, but sadly it was rejected. This does not mean that sumo will have no presence during this time, however; sumos are dedicated to using the Tokyo 2020 Olympics as an opportunity to put sumo in the public eye and raise interest.

On October 3rd 2017, sumo wrestlers from all across Japan did their bit to raise interest in the 2020 Olympic program by appearing and meeting fans in Tokyo. One public relations chief, Kiyotaka Kasugano, reported his beliefs that ‘through sumo we believe we can promote this country’s other fine cultures and continue that trend onto the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics,’ which shows that some believe that sumo still has much to tell the world.

Color woodblock print of the sumo

Sumo is an incredible sport with a lot of history, most importantly though, it is a sport which is undergoing a lot of change in the modern world so it is definitely one to watch out for. From the origins of sumo to its formative period under the warlord Nobunaga, we have considered the art of sumo over 2000 years, we hope you enjoyed it. If you want to experience more Japanese culture, we recommend that you visit one of our restaurants for an authentic Japanese experience. See you soon!