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Japanese Icons – Sumo Wrestling

Powerful, stoic, poised, almost nothing is as iconically Japanese as the sumo wrestler

In collaboration with Monsutā, Japanese Icons brings you the biggest stories from the birthplace of Monsutā’s lineup of drinks, Japan. Winning the coveted title of Japan’s Best International Lager in 2022, and recently launching a range of alcoholic lemon, mango and pineapple chūhai’s, Monsutā, along with its iconic Sumo, is a brand that symbolises and celebrates the best of Japan. From music to film, sports to gaming, this series celebrates the Japanese Icons that share the Monsutā legacy.

Powerful, stoic, poised, almost nothing is as iconically Japanese as the sumo wrestler. Over centuries, the strict lifestyle and gruelling training regimen of rikishi have produced some of the most imposing, explosive and disciplined athletes in the world and yet it’s rare for even the most famous sumo to become a household name outside of Japan. Despite its relatively basic premise and the Netflix series Sanctuary gaining popularity online, much of what makes sumo Japan’s national sport is still relatively opaque to overseas viewers and, coupled with the language barrier, it is hard to know who’s who as a newcomer to the sport. So, whether you’re planning to watch the next Grand Sumo Tournament online or in person, or perhaps even considering a drastic career change, Rolling Stone and Monustā, featuring the iconic sumo on its cans, have put together a guide to understanding the most iconic jobs in the world of sumo.


While 90s WWE fans might be more familiar with the pro wrestler of the same name, rikishi is the Japanese term for sumo wrestlers in general and, more specifically, the wrestlers in the lower four of the six professional divisions. Wrestlers in the two top tiers, makuuchi and jūryō are more specifically referred to as sekitori and enjoy the added benefits of greater pay and status that go along with their higher ranking. Within the top makuuchi division, wrestlers are further divided into the top san’yaku (or titleholder) ranks of yokozuna, ōzeki, sekiwake and komusubi and lower maegashira ranks. 

Currently sitting as the only top-ranked yokozuna is Mongolian-born Terunofuji Haruo who earned the title in 2021 after becoming the first-ever wrestler to claw their way back to the top makuuchi division from the second-lowest jonidan division, becoming the sports 73’rd yokozuna in July 2021. For several months, he shared the top spot with fellow Mongolian yokozuna Hakuhō Shō who, with records including most top division championships, most career wins, most tournaments ranked as yokozuna, and most tegata handprint signatures signed in one minute, is widely considered the best sumo wrestler and one of the best athletes of all time. Currently sitting below Terunofuji are Japanese-born Takekishō, and Mongolian-born Kirishima and Hōshōryū in the ōzeki rank.


Calling the shots in the centre of the ring are the referees or gyōji. Leading a life almost as regimented as the rikishi themselves, gyōji generally begin training in their teenage years and remain in the sport until they retire at age 65. After beginning training, newcomers usually undergo a three-year apprenticeship before rising through the ranks, with 30 to 40 years of experience required to referee the top-division makuuchi matches. Progression through the ranks can depend on anything from overall seniority to quality of voice, leadership skills, speed and agility, and even calligraphy skills. In case their jobs weren’t already stressful enough, the two top-ranked gyōji or tategyōji carry a dagger with them to represent their willingness to commit seppuku if they have a call overturned by a shinpan during a match. 


Sitting around the dohyō (ring) most at risk of being annihilated by 150 kilograms of rikishi are the five judges or shinpan. Generally made up of former high-ranking wrestlers, shinpan have the power to call a meeting in the centre of the ring to have a decision overturned should they disagree with it. Perhaps not willing to force an unnecessary gyōji resignation or seppuku, overturned decisions are rare and their duties around the ring are usually limited to keeping track of time during pre-bout rituals and letting the gyōji know when it’s time to start the match. Outside of matches, shinpan play a large role in deciding sumo rankings in between tournaments and making recommendations for a wrestler’s promotion to ōzeki.


The workhorses of the sumo world are the yobidashi or announcers. Playing the role of tournament handymen, their job goes way beyond merely calling in the fighters to everything from literally bringing in the soil and constructing the ring to cleaning up and collecting drinks for the other match officials. Much like the wrestlers and gyōji, yobidashi live an extremely hierarchical lifestyle, are assigned to a particular training house (or stable) and take on shikona or ring names often derived from the name of the master they were instructed by. 


If you ever wondered how sumo wrestlers get their hair looking so neat, the answer is the official sumo hairdressers or tokoyama. Tokoyama are assigned to particular sumo stables and receive extensive training in traditional hairstyling techniques, typically taking at least 10 years to rise from the lowest to highest ranks of the profession. Tokoyama are expected to fix sumo wrestlers’ hair during bouts, where required, and only the highest-ranked tokoyama are allowed to come near the hair of the top-ranked yokozuna. 

For many of the main players in the sumo world, their lifestyles are inextricably linked to their job titles and each role in sumo plays an important part in maintaining one of Japan’s biggest cultural properties. 

While you may not be considering a shift to the world of sumo any time soon, combining thousands of years of tradition with mind-blowing power and athleticism, it’s easy to see why the image of the sumo is held in such reverence globally and why Monsutā chose the sumo as the icon for its lineup of drinks. So next time you open a can of Monsutā, think of the yobidashi, shimpan and gyōji that make the rikishi’s jobs possible and the tokoyama out there keeping their hair on point. Monsutā will be back with another Japanese Icon in a couple of weeks. Until then, crack open a can of Monsutā and launch into the world of sumo. 

Monsutā alcoholic beverages are available at BWS, Dan Murphy’s and Jimmy Brings. 

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