Ryogoku Sumo

Mike Grist Japan, People / Culture 12 Comments

Sumo is the traditional Japanese sport, beloved of retirees and tourists alike. On any tournament day at the Kokugikan in Ryogoku you can see them lining up for tickets at the single ticket box; the old folks nose-deep in their rikishi listings, the tourists in their guidebooks, coming up for air every now and then wide-eyed with anticipation, wondering if something awesome is happening around them, secretly hoping to see something as cool as Edmond Honda’s hundred-hand slap or torpedo head-butt.

Well, I can dis-abuse them of that hope. To the sumo novitiate without 15 days to kill watching hundreds of  fat men shove each other around a ring, sumo is about as dull as watching bugs fly into an insectocutor- a sharp surprise for the first few, a puff of steam, then the same again and again until all the bugs are dead.

Sumo Royal Rumble.

Let’s be clear though- I’m not down on sumo. I respect it now more than ever. I accept that the ‘fat guys’ are actually athletes stacked with muscle, skilled and highly trained in their unique form of ritualized combat. I can watch a bout and enjoy the sudden explosive violence, the intense torsion of two giants bracing their full mass and force against each other, the heartbeat difference between a slight wrong move and victory.

All that aside- to the casual observer- sumo is just dull.

Slim Sumo fighting on the walls of the Kokugikan.

Sumo is dull like cricket is dull. Can you imagine sitting down and watching cricket for just a few hours, or even just a day, and getting much out of it? You’d only get to see one team bat, and possibly only a few players at that. You wouldn’t get the  scope of the game, nor would you be able to appreciate the true nature of the marathon-like competition of Test Match cricket, up to 5 matches each lasting up to 5 days.

Sumo is like that.

Outside the Kokugikan- old people and Australian tourists (in town for the Rugby) wait for tickets.

Think about football/soccer. One game lasts 90 minutes. Even within the superstructure of a tournament like the World Cup, you can sit down and watch one game and get involved in the narrative. 2 teams battle each other for the duration, there are ups and downs, and at the end a victor. A closer example would be boxing- with one bout lasting up to 12 rounds of 3 minutes each- with a narrative between the two men that you can easily follow and understand.

A sumo in traditional dress (mandated) carries his lunch to work.

Compare that to the structure and nature of a sumo tournament. 15 days, 100’s of sumo in a grand knockout competition, every sumo fighting once a day only (though lower ranks fight once every two days), each match lasting on average only about 5 seconds. There is no narrative within one day. No trends, no ups and downs, no story to follow. The only narrative is across the 15 days, as the victors continue to win, and each of their subsequent matches become charged with the tension of potential loss at this stage, potential acquisition of a 15-0 record and the position of yokozuna.

It really is a marathon, not a sprint, and generally speaking marathons are not spectator sports- and if they are it’s only with the highlights on TV, a few representative shots of runners, and the finish line.

Inside the kokugikan- the dohyo (ring) awaits.

People line the route of the Tour de France not to see any exciting action happen on their watch, but just to be close to the phenomenon for a short time. It’s like that with sumo- certainly for casual viewers. Get in, see your first few explosive fights, the atmosphere is charged, then very quickly it’s just more of the same.

2 new guys come on, stamp around, fight and finish in about 5 seconds.

Again, again.

Ready for combat.

So- I’m not attacking sumo. I’m just saying- it’s a marathon, that requires a marathon mind-set to fully enjoy as a spectator.

This sumo event however was different- a one day special exhibition of some regular sumo, comedy sumo, and singing sumo, with interviews of top sumo folks- organized by NHK. I went along with Su Young- who had never seen sumo before.

Beating a drum before the fighting begins.

Circled around, the sumo sing to get warmed up for fighting.

A little guy purifies the ring (lays the sand?) with water.

A guy using a fan as a microphone to announce the names of the battling sumo.

Kimono-clad referees over-see the action.

I’ve been to see sumo before- maybe 4 years ago, with enough people that we decided to get our own box. It was decidedly uncomfortable, sitting on tatami mats with no space tpo stretch out and nothing to lean against- and we compounded that mistake by going mid-afternoon, when the lower rikishi are still battling in their lower leagues. The big guns only fight at the end of the day, around 6pm. I imagine we left before then.

Tussling for the toss-out. Sumo is won by forcing the opponent either out of the ring, or to touch the ground with any part of the body other than the feet.

Squatting to fight. Sumo squat behind their lines, lay their fists on the dirt before them, and when both sumo have laid both fists down, they go at it.

Before that though there is generally some stretching and tossing of salt (to purify the ring, give better grip).


How a man stretches.


Skinny white guy fights valiantly, loses. He got big cheers for effort though.

Going for the under-grab.

Over the top.

Prepping for a fireball.


Stay down!

After an hour or so of exhibition matches- after 20 minutes or so of which the two Australians sitting next to us left- they had some speeches, then started in on comedy, which I loved.

The skinny dude squats too close- hilarious in the staid atmosphere of the kokugikan.

He squats too far away- again hilarious.

They try to toss each other out by the ‘mawashi’ (belt).

Engaging in a little WWE action- throwing him into the ropes. The skinny guy goes to the edge and raises his arms like he’s the victor after.


They both drink a gulp of water.

The skinny guy misses. The fat guy blasted him with an uppercut of water-spray straight after.

Boxing- the referee hustling to get imbetween.

After that there were more interviews, then they brought on the kids.

All Elementary School students.

Brave little fellas.

He still outweighs them by probably double.

Like pushing against a wall, I imagine.

Grabbing the belt.


Another sumo has found his lunch.

Getting a little more even now.


.He loses this one.

He wins.

He has fun losing.

Insane free-for-all.

Basically- I like sumo.


Su Young and sumo.



Me and Sumo.

A jiggly video of some highlights:

Ryogoku Sumo from Michael John Grist on Vimeo.

You can see Su Young’s post on this topic here (in Korean).


You can see all MJG’s Tokyo content here:

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Comments 12

  1. Sumo is a spectator sport, but it’s something that is best watched in one of two ways, and neither of those ways include sitting in the cheap seats at the Kokugikan. Either you have to be close where you can see what is happening or watch it in slow motion replays on television (which can be preferable). There are sophisticated ways of winning which are beyond yorikiri, but unless you’re close or see replays, the action is too fast or too far away to see. There are 70 “winning moves” (http://sumo.goo.ne.jp/eng/kimarite/index.html) and belt holds that you know will lead to advantage or disadvantage when you see they taken.

    Like all sports, sumo is dull unless you know what is going on. American football is just a bunch of guys scrambling on a field to me (and I’m American, but I never figured out the appeal of football). But sumo is frenzied bursts of power, technique, psychology, and luck. If you watch enough, you know from the stare down when someone lacks confidence and will likely lose. You also know when someone has a bad hold or is trying to stop his opponent from getting a good one. You also know that back to the bales and hanging on by his toes doesn’t mean the end for some wrestlers because they may pull out an utchari win.

  2. Nice post!
    Was pretty down on sumo myself, but I see you got some good pics and there was some fun to be had as well, not just the boring traditional stuff.
    Loved the shot of the guy blowing water and the guy looking like he’s ducking. Did that skinny guy actually win the comedy fight?

    “Another sumo has found his lunch…” hahahhah! priceless!

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    Orchid64- Thanks for the great info- and for sure I agree that you need to know what`s gping on in sports to enjoy it. The first time I watched sumo I was baffled- thinking bout after bout- is that really it? That`s it? Was somewhat different this time. A second factor I think for enjoying sports- you have to care about who wins. Sounds obvious- but for me personally investing in the win or loss of any sports event has never appealed, nor made any sense. Thus I don`t watch sports. My favourite sport (`sport`) to watch is American Wrestling- I guess for the stories- like a TV drama with crazy acrobatic action.

    SY- Thanks- yeah I guess high ISO. Jason advised, when using any lens, to never shoot at a shutter speed slower than the length of the lens. So 200mm, should be at least 1/200 shutter speed. Add to that the fast action of sumo- should be even faster, maybe up to 1/500 or higher. The only way I know to get those speeds in that location is with increasing the ISO.

    A- I`ll hoist you! Cheers :).

    May- Thanks so much- very kind of you.

    Can Mike- Cheers bud, yeah the comedy really made that afternoon for me. It had a narrative, somethign to follow along with. In the comedy fight, there were so many rounds I don`t remember who won- maybe it was a draw..

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    This post made a few waves on a forum for sumo enthusiasts- resulting in one chap, Orion, calling me out on my mistakes. I’m happy to be corrected- and hope he won’t mind me reproducing his points here.

    1) Keeps saying ‘old people and tourists’ — but as sumo is around 8:40 to 6:00, can any schoolkids or working stiffs manage it on weekdays?
    2)’ Old people and tourists’ waiting for tickets — but all the windows are closed! where are the tickets going to come from?
    3) ” A sumo carries his lunch ” — actually he has his mawashi curled up in a furoshiki.
    4) Inside the Kokugikan the dohyo awaits — actually it’s charity day with a stage set up and the rear half of the seats empty.
    5) “Circled around, the sumo get warmed up for fighting” — actually these men are singing jinku at a charity event.
    6) “…the big guns only fight at the end of the day — around 6:00 p.m.” –ah, you just missed it! that’s when the whole thing has just ended. (This one reminds me of the time, at the end of a dampatsu-shiki, when I met a family of foreigners arriving at 4:00 –because their Japanese friends, knowing nothing of sumo except the regular TV coverage, had assured them that nothing happened till four — the exact time when informal sumo like dampatsu-shiki is finishing.)
    7) His comment on throwing salt is inappropriate to the picture which clearly shows lower-ranked rikishi. This guy doens’t know that only sekirotori (and in one special case the upper makushita) throw salt.

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  7. Nice commentary. Hope you give sumo a chance at the later bouts that start around 4:00. This is when the top rikishi compete. And one note on the “stretching”: The “stretching” of the legs and arms in an outstretched manner is to show their opponent they have no and are not hiding any weapons. That is why it is so slow and deliberate.

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