Every year there are six major sumo-tournaments in Japan. We were fortunate enough to go to one, at Ryogoku Kokugikan in Tokyo. The tickets were a little spendy though, about $280 per ticket, but we had pretty good seats. We did however feel that we got pretty good value for money as we were there for about six hours, and got to see plenty of massive dudes going at it with fierce determination.
A tournament goes on for fifteen days (we were there at the twelfth day). It’s set up so that each wrestler has to get into action once every day. However, that only applies for those of the wrestlers with the best ranking. Those with lower ranking might only wrestle every other day. In total there are ten different levels of ranking, starting with the best: Yokozuna – Ozeki – Sekiwake – Komusubi – Maegasira – Juryo – Makushita – Sandanme – Jonidan – Jonokuchi.
The top five ranks (Yokozuna down to Maegasira) make up what is known as the maku-uchi, considered to be the elite sumo-wrestlers. Note that there are no weight classes. In order to make it all the way to the top and achieve the Yokozuna-title, one must have an outstanding record, and in addition display character worthy of the title. Once a wrestler make it to Yokozuna, he can never be demoted to a lower rank. This is different from all the other classes, where wrestlers based on their latest performances will either be promoted or demoted. I was surprised to learn that all of the three current Yokozuna are not Japanese, but from Mongolia.
The rules of sumo are fairly simple. To win, you have to either push your opponent out of the ring (it’s enough that part of the body, for example a foot, goes outside of the ring). Or you can push your opponent to the ground inside of the ring, and here it’s also enough that just a part of the body besides the feet touch the ground. There is however a big element of psychology as part of the match. Because, once the referee signals that the match can begin, the wrestlers have a four-minute time limit before they have to actually start wrestling. This period of time is spent trying to intimidate your opponent with angry looks, flexing, and slapping your belly, legs or face to get psyched up for the action. There are also some cleansing rituals going on during this time, with washing and throwing salt into the ring, which is said to bring good luck. The wrestlers also stamp their legs on the ground, as this is believed to drive evil away from the ring. Here’s a video from within the four-minute time limit:
Once the wrestling actually starts though, it’s usually over pretty fast:
Here’s a video of the final match of the day, with one Ozeki (second highest rank) on the left side, and one Yokozuna on the right, showing who’s boss!