Quick, name a Japanese sport! Well, you probably said "sumo" because you've already read the headline of this article. But when it comes to the martial arts, sumo is inextricably associated with Japan. But how did it get started, and why is it still so popular? Read on for those answers and more.
A shaky (but violent) start
The first mention of wrestling in a Japanese text was in the Nihon Shoki, one of the oldest books of the region's history, finished in the year 720. Records of fights that roughly resemble today's sumo don't emerge until much later, in the medieval period. Samurai, who often fought each other one-on-one, would learn wrestling techniques to help them in bouts.
Organized fights for entertainment purposes, however, didn't come about until the early 1600s. The transition from war to stable peace under the new Tokugawa regime left many samurai unemployed. These masterless samurai (ronin) were bound to their own elite class and were not allowed to find work among the lower classes of merchants, artisans and peasants. Some ronin who found themselves in need of some cash would put on street-corner sumo matches for money. Meanwhile, other samurai fought in shrines or temples to pay for those shrines' renovations.
In certain entertainment districts, known as sakariba, the street fights would get out of hand "“ the violence would escalate beyond the one-on-one combat, and spectators might get involved and cause property damage. As a result, for decades the government tried to get sumo off the streets. Their first attempts in the 1640s were met with little success, but they had a bit more luck in 1661, when the shogunate decreed that even feudal lords (daimyo) were not allowed to hire wrestlers for entertainment. Sumo didn't stop completely, but its practice dropped off precipitously for about 20 years.
Making sumo legit
So, how did a sport that the government once banned turn into a symbol of Japanese culture? The trick that enabled sumo's rise from the ashes was a deft melding of nationalism, organization and the Shinto religion.
The ban on sumo was lifted in 1684 after the government was convinced that the sport emphasized the philosophy and spirit of Shinto, an ancient Japanese religion formed from strands of local beliefs, Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. At this point in the Tokugawa reign, the notion of a unified, national "Japanese" culture was slowly but surely beginning to come into place; this gradual evolution was accompanied by a growing distaste for all things inauthentic and foreign. So, associating sumo with what was widely accepted as the native religion was one hell of a PR stunt. It worked "“ led by ronin Ikazuchi Gondaiyu, promoters negotiated an end to the ban with the shogunate.
The concessions that promoters like Ikazuchi had to make, however, came in the form of new rules that all fighters would have to observe. These rules are now considered indelible to the sumo legacy. They included the creation of a dohyu, or ring, surrounding the fighting area, and a ban on particularly violent fighting techniques like teeth smashing and eye gouging.
The new regulations also called for the gyoji, or referee, to wear clothes that make the sport seem even more steeped in tradition than it is. The ref's cotton or silk getup is meant to resemble the clothes of a 12th century warrior, and those large wooden fans the gyoji carry (gunbai) are replicas of fans that samurai would use to signal messages to troops. By connecting sumo with religion and Japanese history, its modern organizers instantaneously gave it a sense of heft and importance that propelled the sport forward.
How do you become a hero?
Of course, no national sport would be complete without a little healthy idol worship. By the 1780s, you could buy mechanical wind-up toys of the wrestlers on the street, and wrestlers also began to sell tegata, hand prints like the one pictured to the left. The winners in the top division of fighters were well-respected, especially among the lower classes, but a vibrant hierarchy soon developed around them. Around this time, the term "yokozuna" came into play to refer to the very best wrestler, the one all the spectators and other wrestlers were supposed to look up to; the Japan Sumo Association, which is like the NFL of wrestling, officially wrote the yokozuna into the rules in 1909. To get promoted to the elite position of yokozuna, a wrestler must win at least two tournaments in a row. But alongside the pride of being named to such a privileged spot there is also the expectation that the champion will continue winning. If the yokozuna loses too much, he is forced into retirement.
But whether you win or lose is also a big deal to the other sumo wrestlers. At the end of each of the six annual tournaments, those with losing records get demoted and go down in salary; those with winning records move up in the ranks. Even if the title of yokozuna is out of reach, being promoted to the top division, the Makuuchi, is an honor, plus it yields the best pay.
Consequently, sumo is taken a lot more serious than, say, the WWE, and not just because it's not staged. These days, wrestlers enter training organizations, known as stables, in their early teens, and stay for the rest of their careers. Working your way up to the top of a stable, and then to the Makuuchi over the course of a successful career, is a marathon effort and a demanding challenge. Even if some of the traditions associated with the bouts were generated inorganically, sumo is grounded in a sense of honor and merit. The modern-day rules were developed over the course of four centuries, but sumo gains a deserved legitimacy from its timeless nature.
(Photos licensed under Creative Commons and public domain: top photo by Yves Picq; gyoji photo by Eckhard Pecher; tegata photo by Wikipedia user Malnova).