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Sumo is a competitive full-contact wrestling sport where a rikishi (wrestler) attempts to force another wrestler out of a circular ring (dohyō) or to touch the ground with anything other than the soles of the feet. The sport originated in Japan, the only country where it is practiced professionally. It is generally considered to be a gendai budō (a modern Japanese martial art), though this definition is incorrect as the sport has a history spanning many centuries. Many ancient traditions have been preserved in sumo, and even today the sport includes many ritual elements, such as the use of salt purification, from the days when sumo was used in the Shinto religion. Life as a wrestler is highly regimented, with rules laid down by the Sumo Association.
Sumo matches take place in a dohyō: a ring, 4.55 metres (14.9 ft) in diameter and 16.26 square metres (175.0 sq ft) in area, of rice-straw bales on top of a platform made of clay mixed with sand. A new dohyō is built for each tournament by the bout callers (or yobidashi). At the center are two white lines, the shikiri-sen, behind which the wrestlers position themselves at the start of the bout. A roof resembling that of a Shinto shrine may be suspended over the dohyō.
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 (heya) run by one of the oyakata, who is the stablemaster for the wrestlers under him. Currently there are 47 training stables for about 660 wrestlers.
All sumo wrestlers take wrestling names called shikona, 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 stablemaster), 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 several times during his sumo career. In rare instances, some sumo wrestlers have kept their real family names as their shikona, prominent examples being Wajima, Hasegawa and Shimotori.
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 listing the full 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), which are described in more detail below.
There are six divisions in sumo: makuuchi (maximum 42 wrestlers), jūryō (fixed at 28 wrestlers), makushita (fixed at 120 wrestlers), sandanme (fixed at 200 wrestlers), jonidan (approximately 185 wrestlers), and jonokuchi (approximately 40 wrestlers). 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. These differences in compensation, privileges and status are enumerated here.
The topmost makuuchi division receives the most attention from fans and has the most complex hierarchy. 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. 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 antiquity, sumo was solely a Japanese sport practiced by Japanese. Since the 1900s, however, the number of foreign-born sumo wrestlers has gradually increased. In the beginning of this period, these few foreign wrestlers were listed as Japanese, but particularly since the 1960s, a number of high profile foreign-born wrestlers became well-known and in more recent years have even come to dominate in the highest ranks. Half of the last six wrestlers promoted to ōzeki have been foreign born and there has not been a Japanese yokozuna since 2003. This and other issues eventually led the Sumo Association to limit the number of foreigners allowed in each stable to just one each.