Each sumo match is preceded by an elaborate ceremony called dohyō-iri which is based on Shintoist traditions.
The judges file into the ring with attendants and sword bearers.
Each official is supplied with a small ceremonial dagger, originally provided so that he could disembowel himself if he gave a miscall.
They perform a short ritual and then sit in their places. Next come two groups of wrestlers whose near-nakedness is covered by richly embroidered aprons.
Each group forms a circle, claps their hands, removes their aprons down to their thongs, and moves out of the way for the matches to begin.
The matches themselves require yet more ceremony: The two opposing wrestlers flex their muscles and scatter handfuls of salt onto the earth-covered ring before crouching, pounding the floor with their fists, and engaging in a long staring contest, called shikiri-naoshi, which is meant to break the other’s concentration.
This lasts four minutes and includes stomping and ceremonial water drinking. Finally, the wrestlers charge against each other, flesh against flesh, each trying to knock the other to the ground or out of the ring by pushing, tripping, slapping, yanking, lifting, and grabbing.
The actual wrestling takes much less time than the ceremonial preparations: anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes.
In the old days, about 2,000 years ago, a contest would often go on until one of the competitors killed the other.