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  • Japanese: 相撲 (sumou)

Sumô, or sumo wrestling, is considered the "national sport" of Japan, and is often said to be a tradition going back to the most ancient times. Indeed, there is a line of development that can be traced, linking sumô to stemming originally from ancient festival rituals; however, like nearly all things in culture, it evolved and changed dramatically over time, and much of what is considered "traditional" about sumô today actually became fixed or standard only in the Meiji period.

Sumô was originally performed as part of shrine festivals, as part of Imperial court ceremonies such as osechie, or as part of military parades in which lords or officials "showed off" their best strongmen in front of the Emperor. As late as the 1500s, there was no wrestling ring; wrestlers performed sumô in an open, unmarked, area.

These early shrine festivals were often associated with shrines to Hachiman, a god of war. Matches at that time were performed in front of private patrons. While wrestling frequently took place in public down through the Edo period, the line between "professional" or "formal" sumô performed in public, and people simply wrestling in the streets, was vague enough in the eyes of the authorities that public sumô was illegal throughout the Edo period - thus leading it to be performed only within certain legal frameworks, e.g. as kanjin sumô, performances done in order to raise money for Buddhist temples or for other similar purposes.

Edo Period

It was in the Edo period that sumô became more of an entertainment form. By the 1750s, sumô was often being performed in a ring, under a roof, with a referee, and spectators who paid to see the match. Though conducted under the aegis of "kanjin-zumô," these matches shared much with the realm of entertainment: spectators bought food and drink at the event, and took breaks from watching the show to patronize teahouses nearby; further, certain wrestlers attracted considerable popularity, and were featured in ukiyo-e woodblock prints, becoming popular stars much like kabuki actors or famous courtesans.

A variety of terms were used to refer to sumô in the Edo period. Sumô was one of them; jûdô (lit. "the way of flexibility") was another. Prior to the development of Shaolin kempô in the 1650s, and of certain other formally structured martial arts, jûdô could also refer to military skills, fighting techniques more generally.

Many sumô wrestlers served individual domains or lords, in a role akin to goyô shônin. Though bearing a rather marginal status in earlier periods, alongside kawaramono and the like, in the Edo period some wrestlers were even granted the right to bear a surname, and to wear swords. They often traveled across the archipelago, or simply within a given region, to engage in symbolic battle against other domains, on behalf of their lord. Domains of Bizen province, Sendai, and Matsue were among those which strongly supported sumô, and dispatched wrestlers to major competitions in Edo and Osaka; meanwhile, domains such as Tosa and Satsuma also maintained notable "stables" of sumô wrestlers, but participated chiefly in more local/regional events in Shikoku and Kyûshû, not typically sending their wrestlers to Osaka or Edo. Many sumô wrestlers also developed professional guilds or families, akin to the family lineages of kabuki actors. The sumô ring and stage developed into a relatively standard form, and matches began to be regularly advertised used standard forms of banzuke (playbills). There was considerable overlap: wrestlers associated with a domain were also often prominent in the realm of popular entertainment, and were included in guild lineages and banzuke.

Wrestlers mingled among the urban population, developing relationships both positive and negative. On occasion, disagreements or even brawls erupted between groups of sumô wrestlers, and other groups. One particularly famous incident, known as the Megumi Kenka Incident, took place in 1804. Rumor or gossip of this street fight between a number of sumô wrestlers (some armed with swords) and firefighters (armed with hooked tools known as tobi) traveled widely, and is recorded in numerous diaries from the period.

In the Bakumatsu period, the temple of Ekô-in in Edo's Ryôgoku district came to be a standard set site for sumô. So long as weather was clear, competitions were held there for ten-day periods.[1]

Meiji Period

It was in the Meiji period that the Western or international "modern" concept of "sports" entered Japan, alongside such "modern" concepts as "national arts" and "national literature." Sumô was thus re-invented as the "national sport" (国技, kokugi), and came to be promoted as something essentially and distinctively Japanese, of which Japan could be proud, alongside such "traditions" as tea ceremony and ink painting. The modern system of rankings and competitions was established at this time as well.

Sumô performances held in Honolulu in 1885, in conjunction with celebrations of the arrival of the first Japanese immigrants to Hawaiʻi, likely mark the first time sumô was performed in those islands.[2] Sumô quickly became a popular pastime among local Japanese in Hawaiʻi, and the first "All-Island" competition (across all the islands of Hawaiʻi) was held in 1896.


  1. Gallery labels, National Museum of Japanese History.[1]
  2. Franklin Odo and Kazuko Sinoto, A Pictorial History of the Japanese in Hawaii 1885-1924, Bishop Museum (1985), 39.
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