Featured photo: Simon Q Flickr, Wikimedia, Sumo bow-twirling ceremony, May 2014
Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 20 October 2015
Sumo Wrestling Japan
We made our first trip to Japan from 16 October to 25 November 2013. A friend had done a textile tour with Shuji Yamazaki a couple of years previously and had convinced us to join his Autumn Tour from 6 to 20 November. Because it was late in the year (becoming cold), we’d decided to go on our own for two weeks before joining up with Shuji, rather than doing this afterwards.
We’d become aware of sumo and that the Kyushu Basho (tournament) in Fukuoka, a large city on Kyushu Island to the South of Honshu (the main island of Japan), was about to begin. On Shuji’s tour we were usually free around 5-6pm in the evening and therefore we began watching the tournament every evening for the whole fifteen days.
Coincidentally, we fixed upon Harumafuji and Hakuho by looks and demeanour as our sumo wrestlers to follow in the first few days, even though we knew nothing about them including their names at first. We also didn’t learn how to change the commentary into English, until towards the end of the tournament. This was fortuitous because we had to interpret what was going on ourselves, and it helped to create and to fuel our addiction. Sumo bouts were shown on TV all day, but the top contenders in the elite Makunouchi division were on last.
I’m sad to say that we developed our own nicknames for the two sumo wrestlers, which while appropriate for us, were less than respectful. We also did not know that Harumafuji and Hakuho were Mongolian.
Paula McInerney posted Addicted to Sumo on her blog on 24 November 2013. Her story is similar to ours. While skiing and staying in a beautiful village in northern Japan, those at the lodge began watching the sumo basho in Tokyo. It was the start of an addiction. So next year she and her partner went to a Tokyo basho in person and loved it.
We haven’t had the chance to attend a tournament yet, but we will when we return to Japan. It would be nice to attend the Kyushu Basho in Fukuoka. Because: 1) It is the least crowded of the main tournaments; 2) It is easier to get tickets to; and 3) It’s where we began!
Paula McInerney says:
We pre-purchased tickets before we left home for the really good seats in the arena and we got there to watch the minor parades and bouts. Talk about flesh hitting flesh. I thought it might have been a bit staged, but no way. They are right into it and you could see the red marks on them. Also, the referees around the dohya kept being knocked over or out when a sumo was sent flying out of the ring. They brought those morphine pain pens to them when they got badly hit and hurt by these massive sumo wrestlers. The Japanese love them and it was so colourful, noisy and very bound up in many rituals.
There are six, fifteen-day sumo tournaments (basho) held in Japan each year in January, March, May, July, September and November. Three are in Tokyo in the arena called the Kokugikan (1,3,5) and the others are in Osaka, Aichi and Fukuoka, respectively (2,4,6). Details are provided in Further Information below.
When we returned to Australia, I bought a book by David Shapiro Sumo a Pocket Guide 1989 (revised 1995), which is an excellent introduction to sumo and one of the few books in English. Much of the account that follows comes from Shapiro and I’ll include some links to other material.
Wrestling as a sport has been around as long as civilisation. Sumo is as old as the nation of Japan appearing in the country’s creation mythology. Sumo is allied to the Shinto religion and was performed at a local shrine as part of a festival, and later in front of the ruling emperor or empress, to determine the outcome of the country’s (rice) harvest. During, the Heian Period (794 to 1185) it was performed as a court entertainment.
Many of the best wrestlers of the day were farmers by trade. Since these court-organised competitions were held at some of the busiest times of the year down on the farm, it was not uncommon for a competitor to enter the capital city of Kyoto hog-tied and at swordpoint.
The Kamakura period (1185-1336) saw the beginning of the rule of the samurai who embraced sumo with enthusiasm. It was seen as a perfect form of hand to hand combat and as a training tool.
But, the decline of the empire led to a 300-year slump for sumo on the national stage, whilst it thrived at grassroots level. In 1578 the great shogun Oda Nobuga — a rough and tumble sort of guy— resurrected the one-day sumo competition. By the Tokugawa period (1603-1868) sumo was becoming professional. The modern sport developed from here, primarily based in Tokyo.
Rikishi and sumo stables
Sumo is a rigid hierarchical sport based on ability in the tournaments. Trainees are selected from a young age. They begin as apprentices and live in a stable (called a Heya), with the stable master, trainers and a panoply of staff. It is a hard life at the bottom. The stables house about 850 rikishi (a term for professional sumo wrestlers).
There are six major divisions in sumo, which can be thought of as a mountain. There is a large base and a small summit. The four lower divisions have around 700 rikishi. The top two have only about 60 slots. These are the lower Juyro and the elite Makunouchi division. The Juyro division has 26 rikishi and the Makunouchi 38 to 40.
An exception to the apprenticeship system is that experienced college wrestlers may begin to compete at the bottom without undergoing the apprenticeship stage.
Life in the stables is very orchestrated even the food is prescribed. The main meal of the day is the famous chanko-nabe, a stew containing meat or fish with a variety of vegetables in a broth. Eaten with side dishes, many bowls of white rice and washed down with beer or sake. This high protein and high carbohydrate diet is calculated to put on weight and is followed by a mandatory nap of several hours.
Many stables or heya are located near Tokyo’s Ryogoku Station on the JR Sobu line near the wonderful Edo-Tokyo Museum. Visits can be arranged to stables and some Chanko-nabe restaurants are located here; although famous Chanko-nabe restaurants are scattered all over Tokyo.
The tournaments (pageantry and ritual)
The two sides east and west perform the ring entering ceremony separately. They are preceded by a referee. The rikishi move in single file in reverse rank order. The beautifully embroidered aprons are donated by fans of each stable and cost ~ US $8000 and up.
For the Yokozuna — the grand champions (there are currently 3 which is unusual; but historically the number has ranged from 0 to 4) — the ring entering ceremony is more elaborate. After the last bout of the day there is also a bow twirling ceremony performed by a lower ranked rikishi.
The dohyu or ring is constructed of special dirt about 2 feet (0.6 m) high and 18 feet (5.5 m) square. Its surface is covered with a thin layer of sand. Embedded in it around the edge are straw bales forming a circle 15 feet (4.6 m) in diameter. A wooden roof associated with Shinto shrines covers the ring.
During competition, there is a ritual on entering the ring and on leaving it after the bout. Salt is thrown by the wrestlers on entering the ring. Many other rituals and symbolic gestures are part of the proceedings and posturing by the wrestlers takes place for up to four minutes before the bout begins. All this is important for enjoyment of the competition. In one video below, one sees endless bouts by a past champion without the preliminaries. This is not the way to watch sumo for enjoyment.
The actual bout is very fast and brutal, often lasting only a few seconds; though bouts may last up to two minutes, rarely more. One of the jobs of the referee is to hurry action along.
The bout begins when both wrestlers touch fists on the ground and charge one another. They may slap or grapple and often try to get a hand hold on the back of the opponent’s belt (loincloth). The object is either to force the opponent out of the ring or to make him touch the ground with part of his body, other than the soles of his feet. Both sumos may take a tumble, but it is the first to touch the ground or leave the ring who loses. (There are many techniques to outwit the opponent covered in detail by Shapiro.) The referee adjudicates the bout but there are also judges outside the ring who may intervene. The sumo wrestlers would never question a referees decision.
Basically, a rikishi has three weapons:
1 Psychological: This is wedded to the posturing and attitudes displayed before the bout begins (and is the reason to watch the whole thing). The subtleties are not at all obvious to the outsider. Although one of our disrespectful nick names referred to a gaze.
2 Physical: This relates to strength and speed (but also to weight).
3 Technical: This relates to the skills and techniques acquired through experience.
The term Yokozuna conferred on only the strongest ozeki dates from 1773. Ozeki refers to a champion of sumo below the yokozuna. There are usually only 3-5 ozeki at any one time. As a general rule an ozeki has 33 wins over three consecutive tournaments, and usually one championship tournament win.
Four truly great yokozuna in the modern era were Futabayama, Taiho, Kitanoumi and Chiyonofuji.
Futabayama (35th yokozuna) 1937-1945 was one of the god’s of sumo. Despite being blind in one eye and having lost a pinky in childhood, he achieved a dominance still looked upon with awe. He set an unbroken record of 69 consecutive top-division wins; and won 12 top-division titles, 8 with perfect records (15/15).
Taiho (48th yokozuna) 1961-1971 half-Russian was a big man for his time standing 6 ft 1.5 in (1.87 m) and weighing 331 lbs (150 kg). A handsome man popular with female fans. He won the Emperor’s Cup a whopping 32 times.
Kitanoumi (55th yokozuna) 1974-1985 another giant 5ft 10.75 in (1.8 m) and weighing 364 lbs (164 Kg). He had one of the fastest ever initial charges and was the youngest man ever promoted to yokozuna.
Chiyonofuji (58th yokozuna) 1981-1991 never weighed more than 270 lbs (120 kg). Experts doubted he’d last, but by the time he retired he’d set several career achievement records, including 1045 career wins and 807 Makunouchi first division wins. He also came, despite his size and weight, within two top-division titles of breaking the record that many thought unassailable.
Our addiction begins
We began watching the 2013 Kyushu basho or tournament on day 1 (10 November) and by day 3, we’d chosen Harumafuji and Hakuho to barrack for because they looked cool and invincible. We hurried back each evening and made sure we watched at least some of the last hour’s bouts.
Other top candidates lost matches as time wore on and only Harumafuji and Hakuho seemed imperturbable and won every bout. The numbers with a perfect record fell away as time progressed. For example, Kisenosato lost on day 3 and day 8, Chiyotairyu on 5 and 7, Ikioi on 1 and 4, Aoiyama on 2, Tamawashi on 1, 3, 5 and 6, and Kakuryu on 2 and 3. (We didn’t know at the time that these were the ozeki to watch. We were quite ignorant.) By round 12 our champions seemed invincible.
We were shocked to the core when Kisenosato calmly disposed of Harumafuji on day 13 and emotionally upset. Then next day Kisenosato repeated the performance and beat Hakuho. It shook us! Hence it all came down to a showdown between Harumafuji and Hakuho on day 15 on 24 November. We were at the airport about to leave but managed to catch the fateful bout before our flight. Harumafuji calmly took out Hakuho. We were pleased that Harumafuji won as we’d warmed to him, perhaps because of his size, but also his calm demeanour. And, perhaps we’d also learned he was the underdog. Although we didn’t know at that stage how much of an underdog when compared to Hakuho.
What a fantastic tournament we’d had over 15 days, an emotional roller coaster ride and a fitting end to a wonderful trip to Japan. We were addicted!
Japanese culture is almost impenetrable to outsiders, even to those who have lived in Japan for many years. In Shimokitazawa, a funky arts/music area, in Tokyo at a bar not yet open, searching for somewhere to view our third last sumo match, we met an Irishman who’d lived in Tokyo for twenty years and was married to a Japanese. He said he had no idea of how Japanese culture worked. Sumo is one small chance of lifting the veil, sport and particularly such a cultural sport breaks down barriers. The Japanese are also reputed to be xenophobic. Yet, in sumo outsiders are embraced.
However, this should not be exaggerated. It is part of a postwar trend. First, the JSA (sumo’s governing body) permitted the formation of smaller stables. Second, these smaller stables needed recruits and foreigners were available; also with growing prosperity and more modern sports to follow fewer Japanese youth were interested in sumo.
The Mongolians have dominated in the last few years, though other westerners have also reached the highest levels. The three most prominent Mongolians are Asashoryu, Hakuho and Harumafuji. The last is an equivocal champion. (Kakuryu another Mongolian was promoted 71st yokozuna in 2014.)
Asashoryu (68th yokozuna) 2003-2010; height 6 ft 0.5 in (1.84 m), weight 340 lbs (154 kg) came from a Mongolian wrestling family and won 25 top-division championships in his career, but was criticised for not upholding standards of behaviour expected of his prestigious rank and retired early because of a scandal about a fight outside a nightclub. It is said that Hakuho cried when he heard of his retirement. Asashoryu is an acclaimed sumo master and was formidable in the ring, as shown in the video.
Hakuho (69th yokozuna) 2007-active, also came from a Mongolian wrestling family; height 6 ft 3.5 in (1.92 m), weight 348 lbs (158 kg). In 2009, he broke the record for the most wins in a calendar year, winning 86 out of 90 bouts, and repeated this feat with the same record again in 2010, when he established the second longest winning streak in sumo history. He also holds the record for the most undefeated tournament championships at eleven, which is three more than any other sumo wrestler in history.
Harumafuji (70th yokozuna) 2010-active. In November 2008 he became the seventh foreign-born wrestler in sumo history to reach the second highest rank of ozeki. In May 2009, he won his first championship, winning the Natsu basho. He has won overall six top-division championships, three of them with a perfect record. After achieving the rank of yokozuna, he performed so badly in his next tournament that the press began to ask whether he might not have to retire. Smaller than other ozeki, height 6 ft 1 in (1.85 m), weight 293 lbs (133 kg), he is a master at the technical aspect of sumo. As with Chiyonofuji, he has to be!
Rumours of match-fixing
As with all sports it seems these days, there were rumours in Japan of match-fixing over more than a decade. Some was relatively benign (but not considered so in Japan) related to helping fellow wrestlers, some less benign and some related to gambling and general maleficence.
As sumo is rigidly hierarchical, one would expect some temptation to organise things. When an ozeki’s win rate falls below 50% in a tournament he risks demotion. Hence when one ozeki with a score of 7-7 meets a colleague who is safe, the safe person may tend to be generous. David Benjamin in 1989 and 1990 analysed ten basho and found that those who entered the final day on a score of 7-7 had a statistically unlikely rate of winning the last bout. Steven Levitt of Freakonomics fame repeated this with a larger sample in 2002 and found the same result (without attribution to the earlier study). In a rematch in a later tournament, however, the chance of the previous winner winning again was significantly lower at 40%. Perhaps indicating a complex social relationship.
In 2011 an investigation was undertaken into allegations of baseball gambling by sumo wrestlers, which led to more investigations and recriminations, and eventually to a decision that match-fixing was widespread. This dismayed fans and eventually 23 wrestlers were expelled from the sport. One was reinstated after a court case.
Sumo wrestling is a wonderful sport, easy to become addicted to, and highly recommended. Watching sumo, visiting stables and perhaps even eating at a Chanko-nabe restaurant is a worthwhile addition to any trip to Japan.
Postscript — some match-up statistics
As a newly addicted sumo watcher, I’ll give you these tables without comment. The data comes from Cibersumo and the maximum period is from 2006 to 2015.
Hakuho's ten closest rivals
|Won||Lost||No. Bouts||For %||Against %|
Harumafuji's ten closest rivals
|Won||Lost||No. Bouts||For %||Against %|
Kisenosato's ten closest rivals
|Won||Lost||No. Bouts||For %||Against %|
However, here are some comments from more experienced sumo watchers, concerning Hakuho’s prowess:
Then along came Hakuho. His first yusho was in the Natsu basho of 2006. It took him almost another year, in the Haru basho of 2007, to win his second. Since that victory, he has competed in 49 bashos, winning 33 of them. In other words, he has won 67% of the bashos in which he has competed during the past eight years—an average of just about four yushos per year. To me, those are absolutely amazing figures.
Also, since becoming a yokozuna, he has not missed a single basho for any reason whatsoever—except of course for the Haru basho of 2011 which was cancelled and which everyone missed.
Some may say that one of the reasons for his dominance is that the talent of his opposition hasn’t been as good as it could be. Were his opponents as good as those encountered by other yokozunas before him? I have no idea, but the fact remains that he has consistently defeated all of the rikishis that he has been asked to face. (Juryo, Sumo Forum)
Jun Hongo Japan Real Time Magazine Hakuho breaks all time win record WSJ.com 23 January 2015
Mark Buckton Japan Times Is Hakuho on his way to becoming the greatest ever? 1 May 2013
Key words: sumo, sumo wrestling, basho, yokozuna, ozeki, dohyu, rikishi, bout, stables, heya, Chanko-nabe, Futabayama, Taiho, Kitanoumi, Chiyonofuji, Mongolian, Asashoryu, Hakuho, Harumafuji, Kakuryu, Kisenosato, Juyro Division, Makunouchi Division, match-fixing
Addicted to Sumo
We were very happy with our tour with Shuji Yamazaki (email@example.com) and would recommend him highly. He is based in Canberra and his textile business is called Wabi-Sabi Designs. He also sells textiles at the Canberra Bus Depot markets on Sundays. Though he mainly has Australians on his tours, there is no reason for anyone internationally not to use him, as the air-fares are not included.
Paula McInerney Addicted to Sumo
David Shapiro Sumo a Pocket Guide 1989 (revised 1995)
My account throughout depends heavily on David Shapiro and I would thoroughly recommend his book to you. I’ve also used other sources such as Wikipedia and other sites on the net, which are given as links below. Shapiro recommends Sargent as a fine early guide to Sumo in English. Shapiro also provides addresses and phone numbers to Sumo stables and Chanko-nabe restaurants in Tokyo. If you don’t have this book you may need to do a bit of research but both are relatively easy to find.
JA Sargent A guide to sumo Charles E Tuttle Publishing Company, 1959.
David Benjamin The Joy of Sumo: A Fan’s Notes Charles E Tuttle Publishing Company, 1991
Good general information on sumo
Wikipedia provides a good basic introduction to sumo
Why Japanese are addicted to Sumo – the National sport in Japan (no longer online was at tokyopremiumrealestate.com/archive)
Cibersumo is a great site, which also provides good basic information but it also has great details on previous tournaments, on sumo wrestlers, but also a ciber (cyber) version of sumo in the form of a game, which you can play
Wikipedia also provides a glossary of sumo terms
Schedule of Tournaments
Tournament schedule 2012 to 2016, no longer provided online by Japan Times
Sumo champions in the top divisions
The information on Futabayama, Taiho, Kitanoumi, Chiyonofuji is from Shapiro.
Wikipedia has a list of yokozuna in order from the 18th century to those currently active, which is quite useful.
Wikipedia also has what one could call a series of lists of what could be called sumo hall of fame
Cibersumo Data under ‘Sumo the Sport’ Heading
Go into the Sumo the Sport Heading.
Note: All the Cibersumo Links seem to fail regularly. you’ll have to go to the site and search for yourself. I’m putting the ex-links in bold. Sorry but they keep failing!
Cibersumo covers a large number of historical bashos (Banzuke — list of sumo wrestlers according to rank). You go to the Banzuke section and pick a year and one of the six major championships and it will give you the results for each division and how each wrestler did. The name of the winner is in red e.g. Hakuho 14-1, means Hakuho won the tournament with 14 wins and 1 loss; Takayasu 10-5 won 10 lost 5 etc.
Cibersumo also has database of meetings between any two Makunouchi (elite division) wrestlers (called Makuuchi-meetings, a valid alternative spelling by Cibersumo).
If you go to the Sekitori section of Cibersumo you get the career of any major rikishi that interests you. Unfortunately while everything else is in English, the comments are in Spanish.
The Kimarite section gives a list of all the technical means of trying to beat an opponent in the ring, with a drawing and a description (very similar to those given in David Shapiro Sumo a Pocket Guide).
Hoshitori the most useful of all!
Hoshitori means results table. This is a very useful section. You pick the tournament as in the Banzuke section and it gives an ordered list of how every rikishi went in the top division. Then if you click on a particular person you get a table with a white or black circle for each bout from 1-15, indicating a win or a loss respectively.
Torikumi gives a result day by day of the bouts in any tournament selected.
Yusho and Sansho: Yusho: gives a convenient tournament by tournament result in each division from 1991 to 2015. Stats: gives the achievements of the champions over their careers.
The 2013 Kyushu Basho in Fukuoka
Go to Cibersumo: Sumo the Sport: Hoshitori. Then select 2013 Kyushu. You will get the ranking of how the rikishi performed in this tournament. It is obvious Harumafuji won from the results. Click on any name and you will see how that rikishi performed in each bout from day 1 to 15.
The Japan Times coverage of the 2013 Basho in Fukuoka, section 21 and 22 (links not available), 7 and 11 articles respectively.
Also see below for 2015 articles and how to go back for several years
Wikipedia also has additional information on controversies
Statistical analysis of 7-7 results
Article on results of 7-7 ties in, David Benjamin The Joy of Sumo: A Fan’s Notes Charles E Tuttle Publishing Company, 1991
Steven Levitt and Stephen J Dubner Freakonomics Morrow 2005
2012 sumo basho Fukuoka Japan a welcome to the tournament showing two matches with a commentary about the tournament in English 10 min
Asashoryu Greatest Ever 1&2 Part 1: about half still photos and a number of bouts (relatively poor quality) 3 min 20. Part 2: An interview followed by a large series of bouts (variable quality) 5 min 59
Outdoor sumo Hakuho v. Harumafuji Samurai Dave April 2015 1 min 57
Harumafuji win 23 September 2012 1 min 01
Tournament 25.5.2014 Tokyo 50 min 27 amateur video
Sumo training Tokyo 2014 by John Barn Hairy Bikers 8 min 24
Sumo 101 National Geographic 2013 2 min 06
Sumo clips brotherannie 2010 6min 30
Sadly the Cibersumo site appears to be defunct!
Cibersumo used to have a whole series of historical basho picture albums (small) dating from 2003 to 2015 but they are no longer available. Cibersumo also had a series of videos for each day of the last completed basho.
The Japan Times
The Japan Times is a daily Japanese newspaper in English, which has excellent articles on Sumo wrestling. I am providing you with general information on what has been happening in Sumo Tournaments in 2015. With very little effort, you can also go back in time for several years
Japan Times on Sumo Tournaments in 2015
Sep 2015 (link no longer available)
Jul 2015 (link no longer available)
May 2015 (link no longer available)
Mar 2015 (link no longer available)