Origins 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.’
Sumo in Pre-modern Japan
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 in Kamakura).
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 spectators.
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 Modern Sumo Kyokai
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 the sumotori.
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 Sumo Kyokai.