The Origin of Sumo: A Story of Gods, Emperors, and the History of a Nation

Origin of Sumo.jpg
Sumo wrestlers entering the ring by Utagawa Kuniteru,1863.

The origin of sumo is an ancient one, filled with mysticism and mystique. The sport of giants we so fondly love today, came into being over two thousand years ago when two Kami (Shinto gods) clashed in a tumultuous battle for the fate of Japan. Legend has it that the god of thunder Takemikazuchi met his rival, Takeminakata, on the shores of the Sea of Japan in the first recorded sumo bout. Takemikazuchi bested Takeminakata, and thus the thunder god’s followers inherited Japan and established the imperial line that continues to the present day. Henceforth, sumo and Shinto were irreversibly married, and the sport became an integral part of Shinto festivals to entertain the very Kami who gifted sumo to humanity. Sumo also held a key part in the annual rice planting, as wrestling matches played the role of prayer for a bountiful harvest. During the Heian  Period (794-1185), the status of sumo was further elevated when the sport became a regular form of entertainment for the Emperor and the Imperial Court. Not to be outdone, the Daimyo lords began holding sumo matches in their own fiefs across the nation. As rikishi during this era were typically samurai or ronin, they would be invited into the armies of lords who valued their combat prowess.

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A mural depicting Oda Nobunaga, one of Japan’s most important Daimyo, observing a sumo bout. Nobunaga was a prolific supporter of sumo, and his influence on the sport can be seen today in the form of the raised dohyo.

As Japan descended into turmoil during the Sengoku period (1467-1600) the practice of  Kanjin, or public sumo bouts emerged, primarily as a means to fund temple renovations. Over time public sumo events spread out from the temples and into the streets of the major city centres of Japan. However, this street sumo was no longer the dignified sport that had enthralled Emperors and warlords alike. It was far more brutal, bloody, and lewd. Fearing the sport was negatively affecting public morals, the Tokugawa Bakufu (Shogan Government) put a moratorium on the sport, including events organized by shrines to pay for repairs. This ban was short lived and by the Genroku Period (1688-1704) public sumo returned stronger than ever, with the first sanctioned tournament taking place at Tomioka Hachiman Shrine in 1684. It was during this revival that many of the Shinto traditions and rules commonplace in modern sumo were adopted. These additions, such as a strict list of sanctioned techniques, were no doubt a move to improve the sport’s image in the eyes of the Bakufu. By the latter half of the 18th century, sumo’s popularity had grown to the point of being profitable and for the first time competing as a rikishi became a genuine profession. Rikishi such as Tanikaze and Raiden became superstars, and massive temporary venues were constructed to accommodate the throngs of fans desperate to see their favourite athletes compete. Professional sumo, Ozumo, was born.

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A temporary sumo venue on the grounds of the Ryogoku Eko-in Temple, Edo. The Eko-in was the seat of Edo/Tokyo sumo and the location of the annual fall and spring basho until the construction of the first Ryogoku Kokugikan in 1909.

While one could see sumo throughout the country,  the Tokugawa capital of Edo was the largest centre for sumo in the country. In 1761, the first banzuke was published, and the group tasked with developing these rankings became the foundation for an organized sumo association that would become the Nihon Sumo Kyokai. Edo, However, was not the only Ozumo hub in Japan. Osaka had also emerged as one of the major powers in the sumo world, and its rivalry with Edo (later Tokyo) Sumo would continue through to the 20th century.  With the end of Tokugawa rule in 1868 came the most serious threat sumo had ever faced. The end of the Bakufu saw Japanese society go through a massive restructuring during the Meiji Revolution, and sumo was seen as archaic and counterintuitive to the nations urgent efforts to catch up to the western world. Furthermore, with the Shogun and Daimyo system abolished, regional Ozumo organizations and rikishi no longer had the financial backing they once relied on to hold tournaments and make a living. In an attempt to weather these financial constraints, Tokyo Sumo established the system of salaries and governance that is still in place today.

American-Sumo
A sumo bout for a crowd of American sailors, 1854. The forced opening of Japan’s borders by Commodore Matthew Perry and his notorious black ships had a significant impact on Japanese culture and, by extension, sumo. Perry and his crew were not impressed by the sport. Rather, they described rikishi as “overfed monsters” and deemed sumo brutish and disgusting.

Sumo remained in a state of uncertainty until Emperor Meiji endorsed the sport through his attendance of a tournament 1884. While the Emperor may have incorporated sumo back into the Japanese consciousness, it wasn’t until the heated rivalry between Hitachiyama Tamien and Umegatani Taro II in 1902 that the sport would regain national prominence. Sumo was once again one of Japan’s most popular forms of entertainment. This success, coupled with the poaching of talented rikishi away from Osaka to the “big leagues” in Tokyo, lead to the merger of the two regional Associations in 1927.  Thus the Nihon Sumo Kyokai was formed, the governing body that would shepherd the sport through the 20th century and it’s greatest boom period ever. Despite its divine origins, sumo has weathered many trying times that nearly saw its extinction. Yet the sport that has delighted both rulers and commoners refused to fade into obscurity. Sumo persists into the current day and survives as the physical, spiritual, and lasting link to the ancient past of Japan.

Meiji-Sumo 2
Two rikishi compete before Emperor Meiji, seated in the top right. The Emperor’s endorsement of sumo marked a dramatic change in the public perception of the sport and ushered in its resurgence in Japan. According to some biographers, Meiji himself was a talented amateur sumo wrestler in his youth.
Onishiki 4
Onishiki Daigoro, sumo’s 28th Yokozuna who competed in the Osaka Association from 1906 to 1922. Following the merger of the two regional Ozumo associations, all Osaka rikishi were relegated to the Makushita division due to the perceived superiority of Tokyo sumo. The only exception were Osaka’s Yokozuna, as their rank protected them from demotion.

 

5 thoughts on “The Origin of Sumo: A Story of Gods, Emperors, and the History of a Nation

  1. thank you, liam
    well writ, and jampacked with interesting info

    gives us so much context
    please repost this at least once or twice a year

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