The National Sport of Japan is Sumo.
Sumo in Japan is a deeply-rooted tradition, blending sports, culture, and spirituality for centuries.
To learn more about sports culture in Japan, read our article about the most popular sports in Japan.
Table of Contents
#1 History of Sumo
- Unknown: The origin of Sumo is uncertain, but it is believed to have been practiced in Japan for nearly 2,000 years, with roots in ancient Shinto rituals.
- 8th Century: The first mention of Sumo in historical writings appears. It was originally a performance to entertain the gods, praying for a good harvest and for victory in battle.
- 17th Century: During the Edo Period, professional sumo wrestlers begin competing for monetary prizes, leading to the development of modern Sumo rules and techniques.
- 1884: The Japan Sumo Association is founded, governing the professional sport of Sumo and organizing tournaments.
- 1909: The first official tournament is held at the Ryogoku Kokugikan, which becomes the primary Sumo venue in Tokyo.
- 1958: The six-tournament (honbasho) system is established, with three tournaments held in Tokyo and one each in Osaka, Nagoya, and Fukuoka.
#2 Culture and Traditions
Sumo has played an essential role in Japan’s cultural identity for centuries. The sport is deeply steeped in religious and traditional rituals, with competitors participating in purification ceremonies before bouts. It is not just a competitive sport, but also a form of living art, cherished as part of Japan’s cultural heritage.
Festivals and events centered around Sumo are celebrated throughout the country. One of the most prominent is the “honbasho,” a professional sumo tournament that spans over 15 days. Before each tournament, the “dohyō-iri” ritual takes place, where wrestlers clad in traditional outfits enter the ring and perform a dance to pay homage to the gods.
Another significant aspect of Sumo culture is the lifestyle of wrestlers, who typically live and train together under strict regimens. This promotes discipline and camaraderie, fostering a sense of community and commitment to the traditions of the sport.
#3 How it Works: Rules, Gameplay and Equipment
📕 Rules & Gameplay
- Bout Objective: Wrestlers attempt to force their opponent out of the ring (dohyō) or make them touch the ground with any body part other than the soles of their feet.
- Match Duration: Sumo bouts are typically short, sometimes lasting just a few seconds to a minute or two.
- Single-elimination: Wrestlers are eliminated from the tournament after one loss.
- Ranking: Wrestlers are ranked by a hierarchy system, with the highest-ranking wrestler being the Yokozuna.
⚙️ Equipment & Gear
- Dohyō: The sumo ring, made of clay and measuring 15 feet in diameter, is bordered by a straw rope buried in the soil.
- Mawashi: A thick, heavy cloth belt worn by wrestlers during bouts.
- Shikiri-sen: Two parallel white lines in the center of the dohyō, indicating where the wrestlers must crouch before the initial charge.
- Tegatana: A traditional hand gesture performed by the wrestlers to show they are not concealing weapons.
#4 Modern Development of Sumo
In contemporary times, Sumo has evolved and adapted to remain relevant. While the ancient rituals and cultural aspects are preserved, there have been some changes in the way the sport is approached. Engagement with fans and international appeal are crucial, which has led to a more global audience and increased popularity outside of Japan.
Technology has also played a role in affecting Sumo, with advancements like slow-motion cameras helping referees make more accurate decisions during crucial bouts. Additionally, the athletes themselves have changed, often featuring larger, stronger wrestlers to adapt to the modern era’s physical demands.
However, recent decades have brought challenges, such as scandals involving match-fixing and hazing within sumo stables. These issues have been addressed, and the Japan Sumo Association is taking measures to ensure that the sport remains focused on preserving its heritage while adapting to the demands of the modern era.
#5 Sumo and the Olympics
Despite its long and storied history, Sumo has never been an official sport at the Olympic Games. However, it has been showcased as a demonstration sport during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. As one of Japan’s most iconic sports, it helped introduce Sumo to a wider audience and piqued global interest.
While Sumo has not yet gained official Olympic recognition, its exposure during the Games and other international events has contributed to the sport’s growth in popularity outside Japan. This has led to an increasing number of foreign athletes taking part in professional Sumo tournaments, helping to diversify the sport and further its international reach.
#6 Famous Athletes and Achievements
- Taihō Kōki: Considered one of the greatest Sumo wrestlers of all time, Taiho won 32 Emperor’s Cup titles, which was a record until 2000.
- Chiyonofuji Mitsugu: Known for his impressive strength and technique, Chiyonofuji secured 31 Emperor’s Cup titles and was one of the most dominant Yokozuna during the 1980s.
- Hakuho Shō: This Mongolian-born wrestler is regarded as one of the best in modern Sumo, with 45 Emperor’s Cup titles to his name.
- Futabayama Sadaji: A legendary Yokozuna who achieved a remarkable 69 consecutive bout victories from 1936-1939, a record that stood until 2010.
#7 Where to watch Sumo
- NHK: Japan’s national public broadcaster provides in-depth coverage of Sumo tournaments in Japanese and English, through both TV broadcasts and streaming services.
- AbemaTV and YouTube: Online streaming services like AbemaTV and YouTube also occasionally broadcast live feeds of Sumo tournaments and highlight reels for fans around the world.
- Ryogoku Kokugikan (Tokyo), Ōsaka Prefectural Gymnasium (Osaka), and Aichi Prefectural Gymnasium (Nagoya): Iconic venues in Japan to watch live Sumo matches and experience the electrifying atmosphere firsthand.