Kids Web Japan

The History of Sumo

Nishiki-e, a woodblock print depicting a sumo bout (Japan Sumo Association)
Nishiki-e, a woodblock print depicting a sumo bout (Japan Sumo Association)

Sumo in Myths and Legends

Martial arts similar to sumo have been performed worldwide throughout history. Some that remain today are ssireum in South Korea, boke in Mongolia, and yagli gures in Turkey. In Japan, figurines of sumo wrestlers have been unearthed dating back to the Kofun period (between the third and seventh centuries), and the sport is mentioned in the myths and legends of the Kojiki (712) and Nihonshoki (720) Japanese history books. When it was time to plant rice, sumo bouts were performed as a way to pray for a bountiful crop or to predict whether that year's harvest would be good. In the Nara period (710–794) and Heian period (794–1185), sumo became an event conducted at the imperial court, and bouts were performed in front of the emperor.

During the age of the samurai, physical strength was an important skill for warriors, and samurai families began to employ sumo wrestlers. According to the document known as the Shincho koki (from around 1610), one of Japan's most famous warlords, Oda Nobunaga, was such a devotee of the sport that he gathered wrestlers together to hold tournaments every year.

The Edo Period Saw the Current Rules and System of Sumo Take Form

Sumo basically took its present form in the Edo period (1603–1867). Matches were held to raise money to construct shrines and temples or to replace bridges, and thus the professional sumo wrestlers were born. A sport that was once enjoyed only by the rich and powerful became popular among the masses. Sumo events were often held in Edo (now Tokyo), Osaka, and Kyoto, and the sport's popularity grew with the sales of color woodblock prints (nishiki-e) featuring sumo scenes and pictures of wrestlers. The government of the time, though, often issued orders banning sumo since there was constant arguing and fighting that came with the sport.

For this reason, the organizers of sumo decided on a set of rules, including the creation of a list of 48 kimarite (winning techniques) and the round ring that is still used today. A system of stables was created to train wrestlers.

As many aspects of old Japan remain in sumo, such as topknots, traditional dress, and ancient customs, professional sumo is more than just a sport; it's a living example of traditional Japanese culture. As ambassadors of the sport, sumo wrestlers are contributing the spread of Japanese culture through overseas tours.

The Ryogoku Kokugikan sumo arena (Japan Sumo Association)