A brief history of sumo

By Staff Writer
March 15, 2023
The basic rules of sumo are quite simple: it is a form of wrestling in which a contestant loses if he is forced out of the ring or if any part of his body except the soles of his feet touch the ground. From such a simple framework, however, a rich and complex facet of Japanese culture with centuries of history has grown.
Classic-style illustration of two sumo wrestlers fighting
Sumo traces its origins back to the myth of a contest of strength described in Japan's oldest historical chronicles: the Kojiki (712) and the Nihonshoki (720), which recount the story of a Tenran match (a fight held in the presence of the Emperor) between warlords Nomi no Sukune and Taima no Kehaya.

From the Kamakura period (1192-1333) to the Warring States period (1467-1568), the era of the samurai, sumo was actively practiced as a form of combat training for the warriors. Oda Nobunaga, one of the leading figures of the late Warring States period, was an avid fan of the sport, hosting massive tournaments.

In the Edo period (1603-1867), sumo became a professional sport, and officialy sanctioned and organized tournaments were held throughout the country,
The ring where sumo bouts are held
Over its long history, sumo, while remaining a sport, has also been greatly refined and stylized, becoming an important part of Japan's traditional culture.

To become a rikishi, or sumo wrestler, one must meet several qualifications. As of May 2015, new rikishi must be healthy males (there are currently no professional sumo tournaments for women) who have completed a middle-school education, under the age of 23 (or 25 for those who have competed in approved amateur or university tournaments), and must be over 167cm tall and weigh over 67kg. Participation is not restricted by citizenship, and many non-Japanese rikishi, such as Mongolian, American, Brazilian and others, have had successful careers in sumo.

Every sumo wrestler belongs to a sumobeya, or stable, which is an organization of sumo association members, and which provides a facility where they live and work. There are currently 44 active sumobeya. Anyone wishing to become a rikishi must apply to the Japan Sumo Association through the oyakata (stablemaster) of the sumobeya they wish to belong to. After an inspection by the association and a medical exam, only then can he be registered as a rikishi.

Unlike other fighting sports, sumo does not have weight classes. There is, however, a ranking system based on experience and performance, called the banzuke. Starting from the bottom, the divisions are Jonokuchi, Jonidan, Sandanme, Makushita, Juryo, and Makuuchi.

Makuuchi, the top division, is further divided into Maegashira, Komusubi, Sekiwake, Ozeki, and finally Yokozuna as the highest rank. Since the first official list of Yokozuna was published by the Japan Sumo Association in 1926, only 42 more wrestlers, of the thousands who have competed, have been promoted to the rank of Yokozuna.
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