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Culture

Step Into The Ring: A Basic Guide to Sumo Wrestling in Japan

Learn everything you need to know about sumo wrestling in Japan, from rules and traditions to tournament schedules and buying tickets.

By 5 min read

Japanese sumo wrestling is a traditional sport that has been around for centuries. It takes massive strength, agility and technique to be a sumo wrestler. Sumo events and the sport’s culture have gained much popularity with foreigners. You can even watch a practice session if you plan ahead.

Let’s review the basics of watching sumo wrestling for anyone interested in seeing a sumo event in Japan. From understanding the rules to the rituals and traditions of the sport, we’ll cover everything you need to know to fully appreciate this ancient martial art.

The rules

Photo:
An intense stare-down between wrestlers.

Sumo wrestling is a sport fought between two wrestlers, or rikishi, in a circular ring called a dohyo. The objective is simple: push or throw your opponent out of the ring or force them to touch the ground with any part of their body other than their feet. It sounds simple, but as both opponents are strong as trucks, it takes a lot of skill and endurance.

The match begins when both wrestlers take their positions in the dohyo. Then, the wrestlers will crouch down and place their hands on the ground in front of them, a position known as shikiri. Once the gyoji (referee) is satisfied that both wrestlers are ready, he will signal the start of the match.

The match itself is short and can last only a few seconds. Wrestlers will use their size, strength and technique to force their opponent out of the ring or submit them to the ground with a part of their body other than their feet. Interestingly, sumo has no weight classes, so you may see a smaller wrestler take on a much larger opponent.

The wrestler who wins the match is the one who remains inside the ring or the one who forces their opponent out of the ring first. If both wrestlers touch the ground simultaneously or the match goes on for too long without a clear winner, the referee may call for a rematch.

Rituals and traditions

Photo:
It’s believed salt wards off evil spirits.

Sumo wrestling is steeped in tradition and ritual, and watching a match can be a unique cultural experience in Japan. Here are a few of the most important traditions you should be aware of:

  • The ring: The dohyo is a circular ring made of clay and covered with sand. The ring is considered sacred and is only entered by the wrestlers and the referee.
  • The outfits: Sumo wrestlers wear a traditional loincloth called a mawashi. The mawashi is wrapped around the waist and thighs. The mawashi’s color indicates the wrestler’s rank, with higher-ranking wrestlers wearing more elaborate and colorful designs.
  • The pre-match rituals: Before the match begins, the wrestlers will purify the ring by throwing salt. In Japan, salt is traditionally used to ward off evil. Wrestlers will also stomp to sweep away evil spirits.
  • The gyoji: The referee who presides over the match. They begin training as teens and are active until they retire at 65. They have several ranks of importance, and only under 40 gyoji currently exist.
  • Division: Sumo has six divisions. From highest to lowest, they are makuuchi, juryo, makushita, sandanme, jonidan and jonokuchi. 
  • Yokozuna: The highest-ranking wrestlers are called yokozuna, or “horizontal rope.” It stems from the white rope they wear around their waist. These grand champions are treated with great respect.

Watching a sumo match

Photo:
Inside the sumo hall Ryogoku Kokugikan.

Sumo matches are held throughout the year, with several major tournaments in January, May and September. These tournaments are held in major cities in Japan and are attended by thousands of fans. When attending a sumo match, there are a few rules that you should follow to show respect.

Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Seating: The seating at a sumo match is arranged in a hierarchical system. The best seats are called tamari seats. Depending on the view, seats can be as cheap as ¥3,000, but tamari seats near the ring can be over ¥50,000. The most expensive seats are reserved for VIPs. For a more affordable option, opt for the masu seats, small wooden boxes that can seat up to four people.
  • Food and drink: Food is available. A sumo match is a great way to try traditional Japanese snacks like yakitori and takoyaki. Alcohol is also available, but don’t get rowdy or disturb other fans.
  • Etiquette: While there isn’t a dress code for spectators, some people like to dress formally. Be respectful and mindful of others. In other words, don’t heckle, be annoying or try to start “the wave” in the audience. And have fun! Fans will cheer and get lively.

Tournament schedule

Photo:
Ryogoku Kokugikan National Sumo Arena is easy to spot.

Basho, or sumo tournaments, are only held six times yearly and last 15 days. You must follow the official schedule and plan accordingly to know the exact dates and venues. However, three tournaments are always held in the Tokyo Ryogoku Kokugikan National Sumo Arena in Tokyo’s Ryogoku district—Japan’s official sumo town.

At the Tokyo Ryogoku Kokugikan National Sumo Arena, matches are in winter, summer and autumn. The winter (New Year’s) tournament is the most popular. However, schedules are subject to change, and events occur every season throughout Japan. Also, keep in mind that tickets go on sale early. So don’t expect to see a tournament on a whim.

2023 schedule

  • Summer Basho: May 14 – May 28, 2023 (Tokyo, tickets on sale April 8, 2023)
  • Nagoya Basho: July 9 – July 23, 2023 (Nagoya, tickets on sale May 27, 2023)
  • Autumn Basho: Sept. 10 – Sept. 24, 2023 (Tokyo, tickets go on sale Aug. 28, 2023)
  • Kyushu Basho: Nov. 12 – Nov. 26, 2023 (Fukuoka, tickets go on sale Sept. 16, 2023)

2024 schedule

  • New Year’s Basho: Jan. 14 – 28, 2024 ( Tokyo, tickets on sale Dec. 9, 2023)
  • Spring Basho: Mar. 10 – 24, 2024 (Osaka, tickets go on sale. Feb. 10, 2024)
  • Summer Basho: May 12 – May 26 (Tokyo, tickets go on sale Apr. 6)
  • Nagoya Basho: July 14 – July 28 (Nagoya, tickets on sale May 25, 2024)
  • Autumn Basho: Sept. 8 – Sept. 22, 2024 (Tokyo, tickets go on sale Aug. 10, 2024)
  • Kyushu Basho: Nov. 10 – Nov. 24 (Fukuoka, tickets on sale Sept. 14, 2024)

How to buy tickets

Photo:
Catch the action up close with ring side seats.

Japan has made buying tickets simple. Box seats by the ring start at ¥38,000. Arena seat starts at ¥3,800. Use the official website below to purchase tickets online.

Love to watch sumo? Had an experience you want to share? Let us know in the comments!

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