posted on January 27, 2014


Ukiyoe woodblock print by Utagawa Kunisada in 19th C


Sumo is Japan’s national sport and the oldest sport in Japan. It originated in Shinto rites and was performed to pray for good harvests. Today, sumo is enjoyed both as a professional sport and as an amateur sport among Japanese people, and is gaining popularity among people abroad. In fact, quite a lot of tourists come to Japan to watch sumo matches, and the number of foreign-born sumo wrestlers is increasing. Both of the highest-ranking sumo wrestlers(“Yokozuna”) at present are from Mongolia.



In professional sumo, there are six Grand Sumo Tournaments every year, and each tournament lasts 15 days.

Tokyo Tournaments are held in January, May, and September, Osaka Tournament is held in March,  Nagoya Tournament is in July, and Fukuoka Tournament is in November.

In Tokyo, Grand Sumo Tournaments are held in Rogoku Kokugikan, which is the home of sumo and sumo wrestlers. Rogoku Kokugikan was opened in 1985, and is constructed so that it will withstand up to 10-magnitude earthquakes.

It has 11,000 seats, which are divided into two types: “masu-seki” and “isu-seki.” “Isu-seki” are ordinary chair seats, and “masu-seki” are traditional Japanese-style seats. Usually, Japanese cushions called “zabuton” are placed on the floor of a separated space for 4 or 6 people, so the spectators sit on the cushions just like sitting on “tatami(straw mats).”

Kokugikan is used for various events other than sumo, like music shows and exhibitions, so the “Dohyo(sumo ring)” is movable.


kokugikan 1

Ryogoku Kokugikan and Sumo Nobori Flags with sumo wrestlers’ names on them

There are dining and shopping areas, and you can buy various kinds of sumo goods, and also enjoy “Chanko(sumo wrestlers’ hot pot dish),” “Yakitori(skewered grilled chicken),” or special “Bento(box lunches)” featuring popular sumo wrestlers. In addition, there is a sumo museum next to the entrance hall, where you can see historically important things related to sumo for free.


sumo goods




yakitori kokugikan












In every tournament period, the day begins with sumo matches between new sumo trainees from around 8:30, and matches between sumo wrestlers in the highest division begin from around 16:15. Sumo wrestlers(“Rikishi”) are divided into six divisions and in each division, they are ranked according to their performances. The highest division is “Makuuchi” and in this division “Yokozuna(Grand Champions)” are in the highest rank, followed by “Ozeki,””Sekiwake,””Komusubi,” and “Maegashira.”

makuuchi dohyoenterring

Ring-entering ceremony by Makuuchi sumo wrestlers


In a sumo match, two wrestlers wrestle each other in a 4.5-meter(about 15 -foot) diameter “Dohyo(sumo ring)”—before the match, one wrestler comes to the ring from the east entrance and the other comes from the west entrance, and then wait for their match sitting on their own cushion. When a wrestler is pushed out of the ring, or when any part of his body except the soles of his feet touches the ground, he loses the match. Sumo wrestlers have a topknot on their head and wear a loincloth. Especially, the topknots worn by higher-ranking sumo wrestlers are called ginkgo-leaf topknots which are shaped like a ginkgo leaf and more elaborate in form. There are no restrictions on sumo wrestlers’ weights, but their average weight is about 140kg, or 300 pounds.


Sumo match between Asashoryu(left) and Kotoshogiku(right) in the January Tournament in 2008: photo by Eckhard Pecher


Since sumo started as one of the Shinto rituals, some of the sumo wrestlers’ performances have to do with these rituals. Before each match, the two sumo wrestlers throw a handful of salt across the ring to purify the ring—purification is very important in Shinto and salt is believed to have power to kill germs, which signifies driving away evil spirits. The  wrestlers also perform “Siko(leg stomping exercise)” to ward off evil spirits, and they are given a ladleful of power water (“Chikara-mizu”) to purify themselves by rinsing their mouth. In addition, the roof hanging from the ceiling is made in a “Shinmei-zukuri” style, which is one of the architectural styles of Shinto shrines. The most famous shrine built in this style is Ise Shrine in Mie prefecture.

Every year, in Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, Yokozuna perform a “Dohyo-iri” ring entering ceremony to appease the Shinto gods and pray for good harvests of the year.


Shinmei-zukuri style roof


Kitazakura throwing a handful of salt in the September Tournament in 2007
photo by Materialscientist













Because sumo matches start at around 8:30 in the morning, sumo wrestlers who have fought already leave the sumo arena one after another, and ones who are going to have a match soon come to the arena one after another. If you wait for them around the gate they come or leave through, it’s a good chance to see them up close or take pictures of them. In Ryogoku Kokugikan, a lot of people wait for them at the south gate. Popular Makuuchi Rikishi come from around 2:30 to 3:30.


Kotooshu (West Sekiwake)


Kaisei (West Maegashira #6)











Kyokutenho (West Maegashira #5)


Endo (West Maegashira #10)











I took these pictures at Kokugikan’s south gate in the January Tournament in 2014.


Ryogoku Kokugikan is 2-minute walk from Ryogoku Station on the JR Sobu Line, and 5-minute walk from Exit A3 of Ryogoku Station on the Toei Oedo Subway Line.

As for more information, visit Nihon Sumo Kyokai Official Grand Sumo website: click here



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