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Sumo: More Than Just a Martial Art – Professional Sumo

Date Published: Last Update:2015/05/22 Traditional Culture ,

As noted in our previous posts about sumo, it is a Japanese style of wrestling and Japan’s national sport. It originated in ancient times as a performance to entertain the Shinto deities.

Professional Sumo

Professional sumo is organized by the Japan Sumo Association. The members of the association, called oyakata, are all former wrestlers, and are the only people entitled to train new wrestlers. All practicing wrestlers are members of a training stable (or heya) run by one of the oyakata, who is the stable master for the wrestlers under him. Currently there are 47 training stables for about 660 wrestlers.

sumo heya

Wrestlers ending their daily workout routine with a ritualized dance that emphasizes teamwork. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Just like in other types of wrestling, all sumo wrestlers take wrestling names called shikona (四股名), which may or may not be related to their real names. Often wrestlers have little choice in their name, which is given to them by their trainer (or stable master), or by a supporter or family member who encouraged them into the sport. This is particularly true of foreign-born wrestlers. A wrestler may change his wrestling name during his career, with some wrestlers changing theirs several times.


A room in Irumagawa Stable. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Sumo wrestling is a strict hierarchy based on sporting merit. The wrestlers are ranked according to a system that dates back to the Edo period. Wrestlers are promoted or demoted according to their performance in six official tournaments held throughout the year. A carefully prepared banzuke (ranking hierarchy) is published two weeks prior to each sumo tournament.

In addition to the professional tournaments, exhibition competitions are held at regular intervals every year in Japan, and approximately once every two years the top ranked wrestlers visit a foreign country for such exhibitions. None of these displays is taken into account in determining a wrestler’s future rank. Rank is determined only by performance in Grand Sumo Tournaments (or honbasho).

Sumo Divisions

There are six divisions in sumo:

  1. makuuchi (maximum 42 wrestlers) – receives the most attention from fans and has the most complex hierarchy
  2. jūryō (fixed at 28 wrestlers)
  3. makushita (fixed at 120 wrestlers)
  4. sandanme (fixed at 200 wrestlers)
  5. jonidan (approximately 185 wrestlers)
  6. jonokuchi (approximately 40 wrestlers) – lowest division

Wrestlers enter sumo in the lowest jonokuchi division and, ability permitting, work their way up to the top division. A broad demarcation in the sumo world can be seen between the wrestlers in the top two divisions known as sekitori and those in the four lower divisions, known commonly by the more generic term rikishi.

In the makuuchi division, the majority of wrestlers are maegashira and are numbered from one (at the top) down to about sixteen or seventeen. In each rank there are two wrestlers, the higher ranked is designated as “east” and the lower as “west”, so the list goes #1 east, #1 west, #2 east, #2 west, etc.[10] Above the maegashira are the three champion or titleholder ranks, called the san’yaku, which are not numbered. These are, in ascending order, komusubi, sekiwake, and ōzeki. At the pinnacle of the ranking system is the rank of yokozuna.

Yokozuna, or grand champions, are generally expected to compete for and to win the top division tournament title on a regular basis. Hence the promotion criteria for yokozuna are very strict. In general, an ōzeki must win the championship for two consecutive tournaments or an “equivalent performance” to be considered for promotion to yokozuna. More than one wrestler can hold the rank of yokozuna at the same time.

In the next post, we will learn about sumo tournaments.


1. Sumo. Wikipedia.

2. Sumo. Japan Guide.

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