A Hard Fight by Sumo Westlers (Deba-no-umi and Kimenzan) By Shunro Katsukawa (1760-1849)

Sumo is a Japanese kind of wrestling and Japan's national sport. It originated in ancient times as religious performances to the Shinto gods.

Sumo appears in the earliest histories of Japan, the Nihon Shoki and the Kojiki, and in early Shinto. By the end of the Heian period (794-1185), it was established as a court ritual for some three hundred years. In the later feudal periods, it was occasionally used as a method of resolving political disputes by sending forth sumo wrestlers to decide the issue.

In the Edo period, sumo became a popular feature of urban culture among the merchant class and it emerged as a professional sport with rules and ceremonies which are closely related to today's. By the early 20th century the various governing bodies of sumo finally joined to create a single professional organization for the sport.

The exact origins of sumo are uncertain, but evidence suggests that it could have originated in one of the neighbouring countries of asia. Two countries that played a major part in influencing Japan in ancient times were China and Korea. Although the game is now most distinctly Japanese, various aspects are thought to have been influenced by these countries.

The Japanese have embraced this sacred sport as part of their culture, and it has been included in many myths and legends throughout the ages, including those concerning the foundation of the Imperial line and the Japanese race itself.

Sumo as a military art
From 719, by Imperial edict, the most skilled men in horse-racing, archery and sumo were ordered to be gathered from the provinces in order to partake in the courts most important ceremonies. Officials representing the Imperial guard were sent out to recruit these strong men from all corners of the country, and encouraged everyone to try for selection.

By the close of the 10th century, the power and wealth of the Imperial court began to decline, bringing an end to the lavish feasts and extravagant performances for which sumo was famous. The popularity of sumo therefore declined, and the army as part of their training adopted the sport. In its early stages, sumo had been quite rough and violent, though during the Heian period, techniques had been refined, and proper rules established, making it suitable to be included in military training.

From 1156 to 1185, Japan was embroiled in a fierce civil war over the succession of the Imperial line. Following the establishment of the first Shogunate in Kamakura from 1185 to 1392, sumo began to be practiced more and more as a martial art by the warrior classes. It is said that Minamoto-no-Yorimoto (reigned 1148 - 99) was an enthusiastic follower of sumo and encouraged its inclusion in military training.

In feudal Japan, warfare comprised mainly of encounters between individual warriors, so to have sumo skills was extremely advantageous. Sumo, archery, swordsmanship and the equestrian arts were the basic skills practiced for military training. Sumo was viewed as particularly important as an essential skill for mortal combat, as it allowed a warrior to throw his opponent to the ground to kill or subdue him. Various new and more sophisticated techniques were developed accordingly, in order to make it more effective during combat.

The Ashikaga period (1338 - 1568) was the period in which sumo was most widely practiced as a military art, as it was a period of almost incessant warfare. The major feudal lord of the 16th century, Oda Nobunaga held major tournaments at his castle, during which the ring was marked out on the ground for the first time.

Sumo in religion
But Sumo began chiefly as a part of Shinto rituals in ancient times. In early legends recorded in Japans first written documents in the 8th century, it is written that, “sumo was practiced as part of fertility and divination rituals dedicated to the native spirits"(P.L. Cuyler, pg 26)

Throughout the ages, sumo has been invariably linked to Japans national religion, and even today the symbols and ceremonies are held in great esteem, as they represent the religious heritage and sacred traditions of Japan. Indeed, most of the rituals still practiced today stem from the time when sumo was practiced at shrines.

Ancient Japanese society was very much an agrarian one, with most activities based on the agricultural calendar, depending on the production and harvest of crops. Shinto, Japan’s national religion, has played a major part in the development of sumo, as it was as part of these religious ceremonies that sumo was initially practiced. Archaeological evidence suggests that sumo wrestling was performed as part of Shinto rituals and ceremonies as far back as the Tumulus period (250 -552).

Sumo was performed to entertainment dedicated to the deities during important festivals as an offering in order to please the gods and consequently be assured of a good harvest and divine protection. It was often performed along with ritual dancing and religious dramas, as well as with other ritual sports, performed as godly entertainments, such as “horse-racing (keiba), tug-of-war (tsuna-biki), and kite-flying (tako age)” (P.L. Cuyler, pg 26)

From the Nara Period (646 -794) sumo was closely associated with the Imperial court and its ceremonies, being a popular form of entertainment for the noble and aristocratic classes. For approximately 1200 years preceding the Nara Period, it became associated with sumptuous banquets and lavish tournaments in the style of those held at the Chinese Imperial court and with military training.

It wasn’t until the early 17th century that sumo returned to its religious roots. A structured organisation was formed and authorities began to curb the bawdy and often violent behaviour that had come to be associated with sumo wrestling in the entertainment districts of the large cities. Sumo was consequently banned in public places, and became restricted to performances on Shrine grounds, mainly as benefit sumo and as part of rituals. It was during this period that sumo began adopting the religious purification rituals of Shinto, taking on religious significance.

In Edo Tokyo initially sumo was totally banned in public places for a short period of time. Bans were soon lifted, however, and the game was restricted to Shrine grounds in 1684, though in Kyoto and Osaka, orderly benefit-sumo contests had been an established tradition for some time. In the early 1600’s, as sumo gained popularity as a form of entertainment, it began to be performed as “benefit-sumo” at shrines. This period was a period of rapid growth, and sumo was performed in order to raise money for various religious institutions, usually to repair or build new shrines, or to assist in construction or maintenance of shrine property, such as roads, bridges or buildings. The religious authorities charged entrance fees, which were then redirected to the cause in need.

Sumo Rituals
Konaki-zumo (Child-crying Sumo)
Practiced in the Heian Court, child sumo has been quite popular throughout history, and remains widely practiced throughout Japan.It is held at local shrines, usually during winter after the thanksgiving rituals for the harvest are over, and involves children born in the previous year. How the ceremony is performed varies from area to area, but the basic idea reflects the old common proverb, “A child crying will thrive”, where the first child to cry becomes the winner and receiver of good fortune.

Shinji-Zumo (God Service Rituals)
These rituals are held annually, and involve wrestlers from surrounding districts vying for the favour of the Gods, in order to be assured of a good harvest. These rituals date back to ages past “as divination rituals, when representatives of different villages or clan groups competed for the blessings of the deities”

Hitori-Zumo (One Man Sumo)
This is an interesting ritual performed at various shrines throughout Japan. It is regarded as “not so much a contest of strenght as it is an appeasement of some kind, a ritual act of contact between man and spirit."(P.L.Cuyler, pg 31)

Sumo in modern times
Nowadays, sumo has become a professional sport and is extremely popular; arenas for sumo are plentiful throughout Japan. Since it is native to Japan, it can perhaps better be described as the national sport rather than baseball, the only competitor for the title.

Special tours are organized in other parts of Japan and overseas in order to popularise the sport. Matches of the upper divisions are televised daily on the nationally-owned Japan Broadcasting Corporation (or NHK as it is known in Japanese) so it can be very difficult to make an appointment between 4 and 6:30pm during a tournament. The sport has benefited greatly from slow-motion television which can repeat the furious action slow enough for the viewer to comprehend the result.