Rikishi training and sumo wrestling in Japan

Rikishi in training, (photo by Chris Stowers)
Rikishi in training

Congratulations to Tokyo on being named the host city for the 2020 Olympic Games! Tokyo will become the only city in Asia to have held the tournament more than once, having also played host to a successful games in 1964. 

To celebrate the decision of the Olympic Committee we are looking at one of Japan's most iconic sports, sumo wrestling, and the life of its participating rikishi. 

Rikishi: Life on the Bottom and on Top

Not only is the rikishi’s training one of harsh days and a long apprenticeship, but competition at the top is without weight classes or handicaps.

In sumo, life is best at the top. Only when a rikishi, or wrestler, makes it to the top ranks of ozeki or yokozuna (grand champion, the highest rank and rarely achieved) does life become easy. Those in the lower ranks become the ozeki’s or yokozuna’s servants and valets, doing nearly everything from running errands to scrubbing backs.

In most beya – the so-called stables in which wrestlers live a communal lifestyle with other rikishi – the day typically begins at 6am with practice, not breakfast. Harsh and tedious exercises work to develop the wrestlers’ flexibility and strength, followed by repetitive practice matches amongst the beya’s wrestlers (the only time they wrestle one another, as wrestlers of the same beya don’t compete during actual tournaments). Practice ends around noon, when the wrestlers bathe. Then the high-ranked wrestlers sit down to the day’s first meal, served by the lower-ranked wrestlers. The food staple at the stable is chankonabe, a high-calorie, nutritious stew of chicken, fish, miso or beef, to mention just a few of the possibilities. Side dishes of fried chicken, steak and bowls of rice – and even salads – fill out the meal.

Financially, rikishi can be divided into two groups: those who earn a salary and those who don’t. Lower ranked wrestlers receive no salary, although they earn a small tournament bonus (and food and lodging are provided). When a wrestler reaches the juryo level, he becomes a sekitori, or ranked wrestler, and so worthy of a salary of at least US$8,000 a month. An ozeki receives about $25,000 monthly, and a yokozuna $30,000. The winner of one of the six annual tournaments receives $100,000.

An Ancient Shinto Sport

Sumo has been around for at least 2,000 years. Japanese mythology relates an episode in which the destiny of the Japanese islands was once determined by the outcome of a sumo match between two gods. The victorious god started the Yamato imperial line. While wrestling has existed in nearly every culture historically, the origins of sumo as we know it were founded on Shinto rituals. Shrines were the venue for matches dedicated to the gods of good harvests. In the Nara and Heian periods, sumo was a spectator sport for the imperial court, while during the militaristic Kamakura Period it was part of a warrior’s training. Professional sumo arose during the 1700s and was quite similar to the sumo practiced in today's matches. Shinto rituals punctuate sumo. The stomping before a match (shiko) is believed to drive evil spirits from the ring (as well as loosen the muscles) before a match. Salt is tossed into the ring for purification, as Shinto beliefs say that salt drives out evil spirits.

Nearly 40kg (90lbs) of salt is thrown out in one tournament day.

Few people know that the sumo practice tournament at Tokyo’s Kokugikan arena in the

district of Ryogoku, is open to the public. 

Kokugikan Photo Gallery


1972 champion Hasegawa Tatsutoshi is honoured with a portrait that hangs in the lobby at Ryugoku Station, where the Kokugikan National Stadium is located.


The oiled hair of this sumo wrestler will be shaped into the form ofan icho, or gingko leaf, before he participates in a bout.


Two wrestlers who appear to be slapping each other areactually following one of the many combat techniques that traineeshave to acquire.


The sumo pit, which is a sacred site made of earth andencircled by Shinto ropes, is kept immaculately clean.


The organic footwear of the Rikishi.



Colourful nobori (sumo banners), with wrestlers’ names on show, add to the spectacle of the wrestling events.

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