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.
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 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?
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.
(Photos licensed under Creative Commons and public domain: top photo by Yves Picq; gyoji photo by Eckhard Pecher; tegata photo by Wikipedia user Malnova).