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Sumo: Japanese National Sport

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Japan’s national sport, sumo, counts not only Japanese but an increasing number of non-Japanese among its fans. Indeed, sumo is more than just a sport, and the sumo ring has the same sort of distinctively Japanese appeal as, for example, the kabuki theater.

The History of Sumo

Sumo has existed since ancient times, and there are accounts of sumo bouts in Japan’s earliest extant records. Originally an oracular ritual connected with prayers for the harvest, sumo gradually evolved into a spectator sport. Professional sumo appeared in the Edo period. Sumo’s main arena, the Kokugikan, was built in 1909 and is the home of the Japan Sumo Association formed in 1925.

World War II killed sumo’s golden age led by the popular yokozuna (grand champion) Futabayama, but sumo regained its former splendor as Japan recovered from wartime defeat. In 1958, the number of 15-day tournaments was upped to six a year. Other reforms, such as round-robin competition among stables, were initiated in 1965.


In sumo, two wrestlers face off in the middle of a dohyo (ringed platform) measuring 4.55 meters in diameter. Clad only in mawashi, they first engage in pre-bout ritual such as striking fearsome poses and scattering purifying salt on the ring (four minutes at most for upper-division wrestlers), all of which actions are part of sumo’s ancient tradition. This ritual is one of the aspects that particularly appeals to foreign fans. Although there are 70 different ways to win a bout, about half are won using the most common Yori-, oshi, and tsuki-techniques. Wrestlers are reranked after each tournament on the basis of their won / lost record. The top rank of yokozuna has been conferred upon Over 70 men.

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