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Sumo: More Than Just a Martial Art – Origin

Date Published: Last Update:2015/05/22 Traditional Culture ,

Sumo (相撲, spelled as sumou in romaji, literally means “striking one another”) is a competitive full-contact wrestling sport where a rikishi (wrestler) attempts to force another wrestler out of a circular ring (dohyō) or to touch the ground with anything other than the soles of the feet.

Origin of Sumo

Sumo is a Japanese style of wrestling and Japan’s national sport. The sport originated in Japan, the only country where it is practiced professionally. It is generally considered to be a gendai budō (a modern Japanese martial art), though this definition is misleading as the sport has a history spanning many centuries. It originated in ancient times as a performance to entertain the Shinto deities. Many rituals with religious background, such as the symbolic purification of the ring with salt, are still followed today. In line with tradition, only men practice the sport professionally in Japan. Life as a wrestler is highly regimented, with rules laid down by the Japan Sumo Association. Most sumo wrestlers are required to live in communal “sumo training stables”, known in Japanese as heya, where all aspects of their daily lives—from meals to their manner of dress—are dictated by strict tradition.


Sumo Tournament held in Ryōgoku Kokugikan 両国国技館 in Tokyo. (Photo by Stefan Bock on Flickr)

In addition to its use as a trial of strength in combat, sumo has also been associated with Shinto ritual, and even certain shrines carry out forms of ritual dance where a human is said to wrestle with a kami (Japanese for a Shinto deity). It was an important ritual at the imperial court. Representatives of each province were ordered to attend the contest at the court and fight. They were required to pay for their travels themselves. The contest was known as sumai no sechie, or “sumai party.”

Cross-influence from other nations adjacent to Japan, sharing many cultural traditions, cannot be ruled out, as they also feature styles of traditional wrestling that bear resemblance to sumo. Notable examples include Mongolian wrestling, Chinese Shuai jiao, and Korean Ssireum.

Over the rest of Japanese recorded history, sumo’s popularity has changed according to the whims of its rulers and the need for its use as a training tool in periods of civil strife. The form of wrestling combat probably changed gradually into one where the main aim in victory was to throw one’s opponent. The concept of pushing one’s opponent out of a defined area came some time later.

Also, it’s believed that a ring, defined as something other than simply the area given to the wrestlers by spectators, came into being in the 16th century as a result of a tournament organized by the then principal warlord in Japan, Oda Nobunaga. At this point wrestlers would wear loose loincloths, rather than the much stiffer mawashi wrestling belts of today. During the Edo period, wrestlers would wear a fringed decorative apron called a kesho-mawashi during the bout, whereas today these are worn only during pre-tournament rituals. Most of the rest of the current forms within the sport developed in the early Edo period.

Professional Sumo History

Professional sumo (大相撲 ōzumō) can trace its roots back to the Edo period in Japan as a form of sporting entertainment. The original wrestlers were probably samurai, often rōnin, who needed to find an alternative form of income. Current professional sumo tournaments began in the Tomioka Hachiman Shrine in 1684, and then were held in the Ekō-in in the Edo period. Western Japan also had its own sumo venues and tournaments in this period with by far the most prominent center being in Osaka. Osaka sumo continued to the end of the Taishō period in 1926, when it merged with Tokyo sumo to form one organization. For a short period after this four tournaments were held a year, two tournaments in locations in western Japan such as Nagoya, Osaka and Fukuoka, and two in the Ryōgoku Kokugikan in Tokyo. From 1933 onward tournaments were held almost exclusively in the Ryōgoku Kokugikan until the American occupation forces appropriated it and the tournaments were moved to Meiji Shrine until the 1950s. Then an alternate location, the Kuramae Kokugikan which was near Ryōgoku, was built for sumo. Also in this period, the Sumo Association began expanding to venues in western Japan again, reaching a total of six tournaments a year by 1958 with half of them in Kuramae. In 1984, the Ryōgoku Kokugikan was rebuilt and sumo tournaments in Tokyo have been held there ever since.

In our next post, we will feature more about Sumo rules.


1. Sumo. Wikipedia.

2. Sumo. Japan Guide.

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