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Le Monde du Sumo
N°3 - april 2004
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the full french issue, with pictures,...)


Nicolas Schuler
translated by Jelena Macan
proofread by John Gunning

Detailed description of a sumo bout
In Makuuchi, during a Basho

Six times a year, all sumo wrestlers gather for an official tournament (Basho). In numerous other sports, a "season" is spread over a whole year with the ranking, trophies, promotions etc. at the end. In sumo, this period lasts only fifteen days, every two months. It is thus during those Basho that the majority of bouts take place.

In sumo, everything is ritualized, and even the smallest gesture follows a very precise code. Everything, right up to the procedure of the bouts. Let us focus then on what happens in the highest division of sumo, Makuuchi.

Before the bout

Everything begins in the changing rooms, the shitaku beya. To avoid a prior meeting of the two rikishi that will face each other that day, the changing rooms are divided in two parts. One is for the wrestlers (rikishi) who will enter from the east side, and the other for their opponents from the west side.

This is where the rikishi prepare themselves, both mentally and physically. Once the time has come (3 bouts before his own), each wrestler leaves the changing room, strides down the passage (hanamichi) j that leads to his side of the dohyo, east or west, where he awaits his turn k. Tradition says that the bout begins at this very moment, when the two rikishi face each other across the dohyo: concentration, intimidating looks, everything is displayed one after another. A greater part is in reality played on the psychological plane, and the intensity of a look can truly shake an opponent who isn't too confident.

When the preceding bout is over, and the fighters have left the fighting ring (dohyo), a yobidashi (announcer) calls out in singing voice the names of the two wrestlers that are to follow.
(see bottom : Announcement of the wrestlers by the yobidashi, the gyoji and the loudspeaker)

They rise, and step up onto the dohyo l. While facing each other, they look straight into the eyes, lean, and then turn towards their "corner", located respectively at south-east m and south-west n.

The shiko

The first move, performed simultaneously by the both wrestlers, is the shiko. With the feet exactly at the rope edge (tawara) that marks the border of the sacred circle, and turning their backs to the center of the dohyo j, they squat, clap their hands, raise their right leg as high as possible, and stomp it back on the ground loudly, then proceed to do the same routine with their left leg.

First purifications

Then they rise, step over the tawara, and squat down again in their corner k. There, they receive the chikara-mizu, a ladleful of the "strength water" with which they rinse their mouth, and also the chikara-gami, a piece of paper they use to wipe their lips afterwards.
(see bottom : Who hands the purifying water and paper?)

During this time, it is the gyoji's (referee) turn to announce the names of the two wrestlers, in a very high-pitched and specially trained voice.

Once their purification is done, the two rikishi direct themselves simultaneously to the side of the circle where they entered, straight east or straight west l. Again, they squat down facing each other, knees wide (this position is called 'sonkyo'). They clap their hands powerfully once, and then raise their arms to a horizontal position, to show their opponent that they are not hiding any weapons and that they wish to meet in a fair fight.

They then rise, and return once again to their own corner m.

The prize money

It is at this moment that the kensho are presented. These banners symbolize the prize money, placed on the bout by the sponsors, that will be given to the winner of the bout. One banner represents each sum of money, and they are displayed and carried around the dohyo by the yobidashi. Their number can vary from 0 to 32 (a recently established record for a fight where Asashoryu faced Chiyotaikai, on the 15th day of the Haru Basho in March 2004), according to the popularity of the rikishi in the ring.

Final preparation moves

Not waiting for the yobidashi to descend from the dohyo with their banners, the rikishi grab a fistful of salt from a container placed in their attributed corner j, and throw it on the dohyo as they re-enter it again simultaneously.

This salt is meant to purify the arena upon which the battle will take place, and to drive away any malicious spirits. The wrestlers now place themselves at the center of the dohyo k, exactly behind the shikiri-sen, these "starting lines" drawn on the ground. Separated by only centimeters, the wrestlers stare again deep into each other's eyes, and perform another shiko: clapping their hands, lifting up their right leg, and then their left.

They rise, step back one or two steps to reach their desired starting position, then they crouch down yet again, their backs straight, before rising and assuming the shikiri position: knees spread, body leaning to the front, fists placed on the ground.

They repeat all this twice more: they return to their corner, grab and throw the salt, return to the center of the dohyo and assume the shikiri position.

The bout

After they have returned into the circle for the third time, the gyoji informs them that the time limit allocated for the preparation has been reached, and that they should now finally start the bout.
(see bottom : Time of preparation)

The tachi-ai

The bout doesn't start by any special signal given by the referee, but when both wrestlers feel that they are mentally "ready", and that their preparations have synchronized. It is only when both of them have placed their fists on the ground that the bout truly begins. But if the gyoji decides that one of the wrestlers has not placed both of his fists on the ground before the start (or if the opposing rikishi decides that he wasn't completely ready) the bout is stopped cold (matta). The two opponents must now turn back to the starting position.
(see bottom : The false starts)

The tachi-ai, that moment when two rikishi throw themselves against their opponent, is one of the most important phases. In fact, a good start most often allows the rikishi in question to fight the bout in the style that fits him the best.

In sumo, the bouts are quite brief, and last in average less than a dozen seconds. This is, of course, only an average value, because the quickest bouts don't last more than a half a second, while the longest bouts can even extend to several minutes, occasionally even seven or eight minutes!
(see bottom : A pause in the middle of too long bouts !)

All the while bout lasts and the rikishi struggle to defeat their opponent, the gyoji observes carefully the least of their movements and gestures, and shouts words of encouragement.

The winner

There are two ways to win a sumo bout. In the first case, one of the wrestlers forces his opponent to step out of the area marked by the sacred circle. The bout is stopped the moment even a toe mars the outer surface of the dohyo. The second option is to throw down your opponent, whether inside or outside of the circle. Generally speaking, the moment a wrestler touches the ground with any part of his body except the soles of his feet (hand, elbow, knee, head…), he is declared the loser.

The kimarite

There exist in all 82 techniques (kimarite) that can be used to win a bout, from the simplest to the most complex ones, and almost impossible ones. In the whole palette, only several of them are used regularly.
Along with these official techniques, there are 5 other situations which result in the end of the bout although no particular technique was used, for example when one of the wrestlers slips and falls down by himself, or if he accidentally steps out of the dohyo during an attack.
It may happen occasionally that a rikishi gets injures and is forced to withdraw from the rest of the tournament. Then his opponent for the following day will benefit from a default victory. (see bottom : Victory by default)
Equally, a very rare way of ending a bout is a disqualification of one of the rikishi for making a forbidden move against his opponent. For example, it is forbidden to strike with the closed fist, to aim for the eyes or ears, to pull the hair or strike the opponent in the genital area.
Finally, one last way to lose the bout is to lose one's belt! If one of the wrestlers happens to lose his mawashi and finds himself in the birthday suit, he is actually declared the loser. But this happens very rarely, because in most cases the gyoji becomes aware that the mawashi is starting to unravel dangerously, and it is his duty to replace it and tighten it.

Once the bout is finished, the gyoji turns towards the winning side (east or west), and points his war fan (gunbai) in that direction.

The shimpan

The outcome of the bout is occasionally very tight, because it can happen that both wrestlers fall down at the same time, or that one of them furtively touches outside the ring. Since the gyoji isn't infallible, he is assisted by 5 judges (shimpan) seated all around the dohyo. They also keep an eye on the rikishi during the bout, and are occasionally even better placed than the gyoji to observe a particular situation.

The mono-ii

Thus, when one of the judges thinks that the decision made by the referee is not correct, he raises his hand, and the mono-ii takes place: the shimpan meet at the centre of the dohyo, to exchange their views on what they have seen. In case of extreme uncertainty, they can consult a video record of the bout. In any case, the gyoji is present during the discussion but doesn't have any say unless he is specifically asked.

Once they are all agreed, the judges return to their places around the dohyo, and the shimpan bucho (chief judge) announces the decision over a microphone. Three options are possible:
   - gunbaidoori: the council has decided that gyoji's decision was correct.
   - sashi-chigai: the gyoji has misjudged the situation, his decision is reversed.
   - dotai: the shimpan couldn't decide the winner with certainty, and the bout must be started over (torinaoshi).
Note: a mono-ii can equally be asked for by a rikishi who, sitting by the dohyo and waiting for his bout, is certain that he has observed something out of the ordinary. This event is certainly extremely rare, and if it happens, the rikishi in question is not allowed to participate in the discussion, which is reserved for the shimpan.

After the bout

Once the bout is over, each wrestler returns to his side, east j or west j, and the gyoji returns between the two, on the south side j. All three bow, and the loser (east side in our example) is allowed to leave the dohyo k. Before walking down the alley (hanamichi) m that will take him to the changing room (shitaku beya), he bows one last time in the direction of the dohyo l.

The winner, on the other hand, assumes the sonkyo position for the final time j, while the gyoji steps in front of him k. If at least one kensho was placed on the bout, the gyoji places the envelope with the money on his war fan and presents it to the happy winner. The winner then performs, with his right hand, a series of gestures meant as thanks to the three gods of creation, Amenominakanushi no kami, Takamimusubi no kami et Kamimusubi no kami: with the edge of his hand he performs a downward chopping motion (tegatana), first on his left, then on his right, and finally in the middle. Then he takes the envelope containing the kensho, still with his right hand, and makes a horizontal movement with the same arm. Then he rises, and descends from the dohyo k (if he wasn't fortunate enough to receive the kensho, he simply makes that horizontal movement with his right hand when the gyoji steps in front of him).

Once off the dohyo, he still has to wait for some moments before going off to his changing room, because he has to offer the purifying water and paper to the rikishi who will follow him on the same side l.
Now it is his turn to bow for the final time in the direction of the dohyo m, turn and take the straight route to the bath n, while the next two rikishi begin the performance of the exact same ritual.

Additional explanations
Announcement of the wrestlers by the yobidashi, the gyoji and the loudspeaker

On the odd days (1st day, 3rd, 5th, …, 13th, 15th), the yobidashi (announcer) and the gyoji (referee) announce as first the rikishi who fight from the east side. On the even days, that privilege goes to the west side.

In addition to those two "official" announcements, another announcement is made through the loudspeaker. Immediately after the gyoji does so, the loudspeaker announces the side (east or west) of the rikishi, his name, rank, his place of origin and the name of his stable (heya).
At the end of a bout, he announces the name of the winner, as well as the technique used to win the bout.

Who hands the purifying water and paper?

The rikishi who won the previous bout (n-1) offers them to the wrestler that comes after him at the same side (n). It is a sign meant to bring him good luck.

The defeated rikishi (n-1), on the other hand, carries the defeat with him, and must not hand it over to the next rikishi on his side (n). That is why that task falls on the wrestler fighting on the same side, but in the following bout (n+1): that one, since he hasn't even fought yet, doesn't risk transmitting any bad "vibrations".

For the last bout of the day, a modification is provided. Essentially, although there is no trouble for a winning rikishi of the previous bout (n-1) to offer the water and paper to his successor (n), the wrestler (n) on the opposite side cannot count on the following wrestler (n+1), because he himself is the last one. So it is the last wrestler on that same side that has won his bout (n-2 or n-3) that fulfills this duty. And if all (n-2 and n-3) have been defeated, it is one of the assistants of the wrestler (n) that takes the responsibility.

Time of preparation

The time allocated for the rikishi to allow them to prepare themselves mentally and physically for the bout varies from one division to another.

In makuuchi, 4 minutes are allocated, starting from the moment rikishi climb on the dohyo. Until the start of the 20th century, there was no fixed limit, and this ritual of preparation could have been prolonged indefinitely!

One of the 5 shimpan (judges) seated around the dohyo is charged with keeping this time, by warning the gyoji (referee) when the time has passed.

The false starts

Provoked by too high tension, a lapse of concentration, or even intended to scare the opponent, the false starts (matta) have been penalized by a fee for a time. It seems that this practice has disappeared nowadays.

A pause in the middle of too long bouts !

It doesn't happen often, but it's not extremely rare either, that a bout extends to several minutes. Occasionally, during such bout the two opponents come to a standstill, unwilling to spend their strength uselessly in attempting an attack.

So, to allow them to regain their breath, at the end of 4-5 minutes of standing still, the shinpan charged with time keeping informs the gyoji that it is time to allow a break, the mizu-iri.

The gyoji informs the two wrestlers who must remain completely still for a several moments more, during which the gyoji marks the exact position of their feet on the ground, and memorizes the exact position of their hands. Once all is noted, the wrestlers release their hold, and turn towards their "corner" to drink a ladleful of water.

The bout restarts several moments later, when the gyoji has scrupulously arranged the two wrestlers in the same position they held before the interruption.

And if the bout happens to last another four or five additional minutes, the shimpan bucho (chief judge) can decide to stop the bout altogether, and to start it completely a new after two other meetings have taken place. Such an event is very rare.

Victory by default

Unfortunately it happens quite often that a wrestler injures himself with a nasty fall during the bout. If his injury isn't too serious he will certainly attempt to overcome his pain and appear for his fights in the following days.

However if he's not able to cope with the injury, he will be forced to withdraw, handing victory by default to his opponent the following day.

Actually, the order of bouts (torikumi) has already been determined for the following day before the day's bouts start, so withdrawals that follow cannot be taken into account. Neither it is possible to rearrange the complete order of the bouts just because of one injured wrestler.

That is why the opponent of the withdrawn rikishi has to appear on the dohyo on the following day. He won't have anyone facing him except a yobidashi holding a banner indicating the loss by default, and he'll naturally be declared the winner.