THE HISTORY OF SUMO
Origins and Ancient Sumo . Sumo
in Pre-modern Japan
The Modern Sumo Kyokai
"Grand Sumo: The Living Sport
by Lora Sharnoff
This is from "Grand Sumo: The Living Sport
and Tradition" by Lora Sharnoff. D. Riley made some small
changes to shorten the text, but nothing which alters the content.
and Ancient Sumo
The earliest written mention of sumo is found
in the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters), a book from the year
712, which is the oldest extant example of Japanese writing. The
Kojiki relates a legend about how possession of the Japanese islands
was determined by a sumo match. According to the book, about 2,500
years ago, the gods Takemikazuchi and Takeminakata grappled on
the shores of Izumo along the Japan Sea coast in what is now Shimane-ken,
until the latter finally lost. Thus control of the archipelago
was ceded to the Japanese people led by Takemikazuchi, who is said
to have established the imperial family from which the present
emperor traces his ancestry.
Since the Japanese didn't keep any written records
until the 8th century, it is impossible to know, aside from legend,
exactly when sumo first developed in Japan. However, ancient wall
paintings indicate that its origins are very old indeed. In prehistoric
times, sumo appears to have been performed mainly as an agricultural
ritual to pray for a good harvest.
It is also impossible to determine whether sumo
is a completely indigenous sport or whether is was influenced by
similar forms of grappling from other parts of Asia and Eurasia.
Grappling seems to be a rather basic, instinctive sport played
mostly by men.
Sumo in its early days tended to be violent with
no holds barred--often a veritable fight to the finish. The Nihon
Shoki (Chronicles of Japan), from 720, records the first bout between
lowly mortals as taking place in 23 BC. Emperor Suinin (r. 29BC
- AD70) is said to have made a special request to Nomi no Sukune,
a potter from Izumo, to fight Taima no Kehaya, a bully and braggart
from what is now Nara-ken. The two grappled for quite a while until
Sukune finally rendered some devastating kicks to Kehaya's stomach
and solar plexus. Kehaya was mortally wounded, and Sukune, the
victor, has been immortalized ever since as the 'father of sumo.'
There are several other legends about sumo matches
held in the imperial presence before Japan adopted the Chinese
writing system in the 7th century. The first historically authenticated
bout took place in 642, when Empress Kogyoku (r. 642-45) assembled
her palace guards to perform sumo to entertain envoys from the
Paekche court of Korea. Later records mention sumo being performed
at the functions of the imperial court, including at coronation
ceremonies. The custom of 'tenran-zumo' (sumo in the imperial presence)
is still carried out at present, albeit in different form.
During the reign of Emperor Shomu (r. 724-49),
sumaibito (sumotori) were recruited from all over the country to
perform in the Imperial Palace garden at a festivity called 'sechie'
held each year on the 7th day of the 7th lunar month (early August
by today's calendars). At the same time cultured people would gather
as well at the palace to display their skills at writing poetry.
With the establishment of 'sechie-zumo,' sumo expanded from an
agrarian ritual to a large-scale rite to pray for the nationwide
peace and prosperity of Japanese society.
In the late 8th century, Emperor Kanmu (r. 781-806)
made sechie-zumo an annual event in his court, and the custom continued
through the Heian period (794-1185). During the reign of Emperor
Saga (r. 809-23) the practice of sumo was encouraged as a martial
art; rules were established and techniques refined.
After the establishment of the first shogunate
in Kamakura from 1185 to 1392, sumo came to be practiced all the
more as a martial art by the warrior class. Minamoto no Yoritomo
(1148-99), the most famous shogun of the era, was a sumo fan who
watched it along with demonstrations of other forms of military
training at Tsuruoka Hachimangu Shrine (now a popular tourist site
Oda Nobunaga (1534-82), a major feudal lord, was
particularly fond of sumo. In February 1578, he assembled over
1,500 sumotori from across the country for a tournament held at
his castle. Until then there had been no definite boundaries to
the arena in which sumo was held; the space was delineated simply
by the people standing around in a circle watching or waiting for
their own turn to fight. Apparently because many bouts were to
be held on the same day at Nobunaga's Azuchi Castle, circular boundaries
were drawn on the ground for the first time to speed up the proceedings.
These boundaries also had the effect of making sumo safer for its
The first documented evidence of a ring demarcated
by rice straw bales placed on the ground in a circular pattern
can be found in the Empo era (1673-81). In the early 18th century,
the bales came to be half buried in the ground circling the ring,
similar to the way they are at present.
From the Period of Warring States through the
Edo period (1603-1867), several daimyo began offering their patronage
to the strongest sumotori. Those employed by a daimyo not only
received a generous stipend but were accorded samurai status as
well. They were also presented ceremonial aprons embroidered with
the feudal lord's name. Such patronage guaranteed a good living,
so many promising rikishi vied
with each other in the ring to catch a daimyo's eye. The ranking
sheets listed the name of the fief they served rather than their
actual places of birth, as is done today in sometimes noting the
prefecture of family registry rather than birthplace.
The predecessor of modern professional sumo underwent
an almost parallel development throughout the Edo period and was
called 'kanjin-zumo,' implying that it was to be carried out to
collect donations toward the construction or repair of shrines,
temples, bridges and other public works. But some of the money,
of course, was also used to pay the rikishi,
many of whom at that time were ronin (masterless samurai). In due
time the money collected came to be used primarily as wages for
During the Edo period a ranking system and ranking
sheets were initiated. In 1761, the name of the sumo organization
on the ranking sheets was changed from kanjin-zumo to 'kanjin-ozumo,'
marking the first time the professional version of the sport was
called 'Grand Sumo.'
The sumo association from Tokyo, with 88 toshiyori
names, were added to the 17 from Osaka in 1927 to form the modern
of Basic Sumo Terms