Sumo is definitely not just a wrestling match. This becomes clear as you enter the Ryogoku Kokugikan Sumo Hall in Toyko, home of 3 of the 6 annual grand sumo tournaments (honbasho). Yes, there are stadium seats, rising up around the perimeter, above several tiers floor cushioned “box seats.” Additional floor cushions surround the “ring” in the center. But the floor cushions are not main indicator of something different.

A Sacred Space Where Gods Descend

Dating back some 2000 years, sumo was originally performed on the grounds of a Shinto shrine. There, in the center of the Ryogoku Kokugikan, is the first symbol of sumo’s Shinto roots, the dohyō, the clay ring in which the sumo matches take place. Special sand, a Shinto  symbol of purity, covers the clay, and straw bundles mark out the 15 foot diameter ring. It is still considered sacred space.    

Ryogoku Kokugikan Sumo Hall

A glimpse inside the Ryogoku Kokugikan Sumo Hall – Tokyo, Japan

Hanging above the dohyō is the yakata, a roof in the style of a Shinto shrine. The yakata represents the sky, emphasizing the sacred nature of the dohyō, which symbolizes the earth. Four tassels on each corner represent the four seasons, the white for autumn, black for winter, green for spring and red for summer. The purple bunting around the roof symbolizes the drifting of the clouds and the rotation of the seasons.

Inside Ryogoku Kokugikan Sumo Hall

View inside Ryogoku Kokugikan Sumo Hall before the fight begins – Tokyo, Japan

Perhaps, in this setting, it is easier to understand why the referees, gyoji, wear robes and hats closely resembling those of Shinto priests, and the wrestlers, the rikishi, spend most of their time performing pre-bout ceremonies steeped in Shinto tradition. Sumo was originally performed to entertain the gods (kami) during festivals, to ensure a good harvest and secure divine protection. As one rikishi put it: The dohyō is a sacred place where gods descend. It isn’t just a ring.  

Sumo’s Shinto Soul

The sumo wrestlers enter the arena, the throngs of screaming and admiring fans parting before them, bowing slightly in respect, adulation and even reverence. The ring-entering ceremony begins, and then the matches starts. A series of rituals and posturing precedes the explosive physical face-off of the actual sumo bout. The bout symbolizes the internal struggle between the part in a person striving for awakening, and the lower self. Sumo rituals for purification symbolize internal purification through which a man gets rid of those aspects of his psychology that obstruct the presence of his Higher Self. The essence of Shinto is the relationship between good and evil. Impurities and evil are removed through ritual purification, and Sumo is considered to be a form of this cleansing.

Sumo Wrestlers' Ceremony

Sumo wrestlers performing a ring-entering ceremony before their fight begins – Tokyo, Japan

Each rikishi throws salt to purify the dohyō and seek protection from the gods from injury. They take positions at the white center lines, the shikiri-zen. First, the rikishi clap their hands together to attract the attention of the gods just as the devout do when they enter a Shinto shrine. Next, they turn their hands to the skies, palms up, to show they are carrying no weapons.

Every moment is the moment of truth. – Thien Pham

The final step is what most people visualize when they think of sumo – shiko, the impressive leg lifts and stamping. Ancient warriors used shiki as a practice to drive off any evil spirits in the ring. Afterwards, the rikishi crouch down, fists on the floor and glare at each other. Then, just as you think they’re about to fight, one or both stands up. Consequently, they repeat the whole ritual a few more times before the fight gets underway. Who will gain the psychological advantage?

The Last Moment

The last moments of the fight between two sumo wrestlers – Tokyo, Japan

The Moment of Truth

The noise from the crowd increases with each shiko, each face off. So, this is the last match of the day, between the highest ranked and best rikishi. Who will win the tournament? Do not blink, do not look away for a second as the rikishi face off, crouched behind the shikiri-zen. You might miss the entire match!

 A fist touches the sand – will they stand up or charge, the tachiai?  They stand, they walk to their corners. A toss of salt. They return to the center, and crouch again, staring fiercely. Suddenly, two massive bodies launch towards each other. A few seconds of circling, locking bodies, twisting, pushing, pulling. There it is, the moment of truth – of no recovery, of defeat. One of the rikishi is off balance, lifted into the air, thrown out of the ring, and to the ground. The noise from the crowd is deafening. The gods are pleased tonight!