The Japanese race was historically an agricultural one in which religion and appeasement of the gods played a major role in order to ensure a good harvest. Sumo was used as a form of entertainment with which to entertain the dieties, and therefore ensure divine protection. The customs and rituals used in these ceremonies have been maintained throughout the ages and can still be found in sumo today.

The sumo match today is still viewed as being of religious importance, with the wrestlers themselves constantly reminded of their spiritual and religious duties and obligations when practicing the game. Through the various ceremonies, they are constantly reminded that gaining victory is only of secondary importance, and that "the greatest significance of Japanese wrestling is the harmonious blending of the profound religious sense of of courtesy with the whole-hearted struggle of contestants mobilizing all their mental and physical resources." (K.Hiroyama, Tokyo, 1940)

The centre of this religious significance is the ring (or Dohyo) itself. It is freshly made for each new tournament from tightly compressed clay which is obtained from special areas of Japan, and consists of a raised platform about 2ft high and 18 ft in diameter.The surface of this platform is covered with a thin layer of sand, which is a symbol of purity in Shinto ritual. Purity plays an important part in Shinto, which is reflected in many aspects of the ceremonies performed.

Diagram of the Dohyo

The roof above the ring, the Yakata also holds important religious significance. It is built in the style of the roof of a Shinto shrine, and is adorned with four tassels hanging from the four corners. Originally, in place of these tassels were four posts tied with coloured sashes, but complaints by the audience that they blocked the view caused them to be removed and replaced by the tassels.

The tassels are four different colours - white, black, green and red - all of which hold a symbolic meaning:

The purple bunting draped around the top of the roof is also of significance. It symbolizes the drifting of the clouds, with it traditionally being hung around the roof in acordance with the progression of the rotation of the four seasons, starting with black for winter. This was particularly important in agrarian Japan, as the rotation of the seasons was integral with religious rites and rituals.

A ring-entering ceremony

On the day proceeding a Grand Tournament, a special religious ceremony is held in order to remind wrestlers of their religious duties and to purify the ring in accordance with Shinto custom. This ritual is known as the Dohyo Matsuri and involves the offering of prayers for divine blessing. The ceremony consists of a senior ranking Gyoji (referee) dressed in the traditional white robes of a Shinto priest, acting as the officiate over the ceremony. Offerings consisting of kelp, cuttlefish and chestnuts are placed within the ring for the dieties of heaven, earth and the four seasons, and various prayers are offered for the safety of the wrestlers competing in the tournament.

There are also certain rituals that have been maintained and performed throughout history. One such tradition is the ring entering ceremony, held on the day of the tournament in which all the wrestlers, in their respective ranks, file into the ring and participate in a ceremony which purifies the bodies and spirits of the wrestlers. The ceremony is said to "signify a pledge to the dieties that the wrestlers will fight fairly and with the proper spirit" (P.L. Cuyler, New York, 1994?).

The Yokozuna, or Grand Champion, has his own seperate ring-entering ceremony, in which he wears a special Mawashi (apron) from which hang the five white zig-zag folded paper strips, found at the entrance to Shinto shrines, and used in Shinto ritual.
Another tradition is the act of throwing salt across the ring immediately proceeding a bout. The amount thrown depends on the wrestler, and can range from merely a pinch to a large handful, but the basic function is that of purification. This refers back to the time when salt "was believed to have a purifying power over evil spirits and against defilement."( K. Hiroyama, Tokyo, 1940)
Rehearsing for a Ring-entering Ceremony

Sumo wrestlers basic garment is known as the Mawashi, which is worn for both training and for official bouts. It is like a loincloth, to which, for official bouts the Sagari is added. This Sagari consists of a fringe of twisted string which is tucked into the front of the belt. This Sagari is significant in that it symbolises the sacred ropes that hang in front of Shinto shrines. It consists of an odd number of strings, as it is lucky in Shinto custom, usually varying between 17 and 21.