Sumo wrestling has been around since mythological times, with a brief history of more than 1,500 years!

相撲の歴史は神話時代から?1500年以上の歴史を簡単に解説!

 

Motenas Representative
Motenas Representative

Sumo is Japan’s proud national sport.

However, few people, even Japanese, know the history of sumo.

In fact, sumo is mentioned in myths such as the “Chronicles of Japan” and “Kojiki” and is said to have a history of over 1,500 years.

In this issue, we will take an in-depth look at the history of Japan’s national sport, Sumo.

By increasing your knowledge of traditional Japanese culture, you will be able to enjoy a different kind of conversation when entertaining foreigners.

What is the origin of sumo?

What is the origin of sumo?

First, let us look at the origins of sumo and how it came into being.

Actually, the detailed date of when sumo occurred is not known, but haniwa clay figurines of male sumo wrestlers have been excavated from a burial mound dating from the early 6th century.

The haniwa of this male wrestler statue is said to be a naked man with a loincloth wrapped around his waist, his arms outstretched in front of his waist.

In other words, the sumo posture we still think of today may have existed from this time.

This suggests that the prototype of sumo already existed during the Kofun period.

Let’s take a look at how sumo was formed along the way.

Power match” evolved into sumo wrestling.

Sumo originated as a contest of strength.

It is believed that the word “Sumo” originally comes from the word “Sumafu”.

The word “sumafu” means “to be a fight” or “to be a challenge,” and was originally used to refer to a contest, or a contest of strength.

This sumo-like contest of strength has been held throughout Japan since ancient times.

However, it is said that ancient power contests were in the form of so-called “wrestling” in which kicks and punches were also used.

Gradually, the original form of sumo was developed, including the practice of shikata before a contest of strength to “purify and purify the earth of evil spirits.

Sumo is passed down as a ritual of the festival

Sumo wrestling is believed to have been passed down as a festival ritual for several hundred years.

Sumo wrestling, in particular, was an agricultural ritual used to pray for a good harvest and to divine the outcome of the harvest.

It was around this time that the fight, the prototype of sumo, appeared as a myth in books such as “Nihon shoki” (the Chronicles of Japan) and “Kojiki” (the Records of Ancient Matters).

In other words, sumo has been passed down from this mythical time to the present.

Furthermore, in the Heian period (794-1185), Sumai-no-Sechie, or Sumai Sumo Meet, became an annual event of the Imperial Court.

Sumai-no-Sechie” was held on July 7 to pray for and give thanks for a good harvest.

From then until the Kamakura period (1185-1333), sumo was passed down as an agricultural ritual and courtly event.

Sumo Beloved in the Samurai Culture

In the Kamakura period (1185-1333), the samurai became the central figures, and sumo was practiced as a form of training for the samurai.

In the process, the number of warriors and generals who enjoyed watching sumo increased.

For example, Minamoto no Yoritomo, the famous founder of the Kamakura shogunate, liked to watch sumo, and there are records of many warriors watching sumo at Tsurugaoka Hachiman Shrine.

Warlords and warriors may have watched sumo battles in the same way we watch sports today.

In the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1568-1600), Oda Nobunaga is said to have enjoyed watching sumo, and there is a record that he gathered more than 1,000 sumo wrestlers at Azuchi Castle and had them wrestle.

It seems that strong wrestlers were sometimes rewarded or taken in as vassals, indicating a deep love of sumo.

At this sumo tournament organized by Nobunaga Oda, “gyoji” appeared for the first time in the role of facilitating and deciding who would win and who would lose.

The gyoji, an essential part of modern sumo, has remained unchanged for more than 400 years since the Azuchi-Momoyama period.

Edo Period|Popularity of Sumo rapidly increases.

Edo Period|Popularity of Sumo rapidly increases.

In the Edo period (1603-1867), sumo, which had previously been a pastime of the samurai, became popular among the masses.

It was as popular as Kabuki, and in the midst of its momentum, various changes occurred that led to modern sumo.

Let’s take a closer look at the evolution of sumo in the Edo period.

People begin to take up rikishi as a profession.

In the Edo period (1603-1867), sumo called “Kanjin Sumo” became popular for the purpose of raising funds for temple repairs and donations.

Although sumo had been practiced until then, the growing popularity of sumo among the masses led to the practice of sumo as a form of entertainment, and eventually people began to make a profession of being a rikishi.

At that time, Ienari, the 11th Shogun, and Ieyoshi, the 12th Shogun, also enjoyed watching sumo, and it seems that many people, from commoners to shoguns, enjoyed watching sumo as a pastime regardless of their ranks.

As sumo’s popularity grew, so did the competition for wrestlers, and some legendary wrestlers were born.

Birth of the three most powerful wrestlers

In the Edo period, there were three absolute champions, known as the three strongest rikishi.

  • valley wind Kajinosuke Tanikaze

    …He has a physique that is uniquely Japanese, with an estimated height of 189 cm and weight of 162 kg…He also has a record of 63 consecutive victories in a row using his own power.

  • Onogawa Kisaburo Onogawa

    …small in stature, with an estimated height of 176 cm and weight of about 116 kg, he is said to have been a strong, speedy, and skillful rikishi.

  • Raiden Tameemon

    …is said to have been an estimated 197 cm tall and weighed 169 kg, and held the ozeki rank of honor for more than 16 years. He is said to have been monstrously strong, and some moves were forbidden for the safety of opposing rikishi.

Furthermore, it was a time when not only the three most powerful wrestlers, but also other wrestlers, were at the peak of their strength, and the sumo performed at the time of the arrival of the black ships was famous as an eviso to show this.

In 1853, around the end of the Edo period, when the black ships arrived in Uraga, there is a record of sumo wrestlers performing sumo practice and carrying rice bales for show, some of them carrying eight bales at once, surprising the American soldiers.

One rice bale is said to weigh about 80 kg, so it is amazing to think that one person could have carried more than about 600 kg of rice.

Reference] D1: The Arrival of the Black Ships and Sumo – Sumo Digital Institute

Rules are being established in the Edo period.

The Edo period (1603-1867) was the period when the rules of sumo were established, and they have been handed down to the present day.

For example, it was during the Edo period (1603-1867) that the ring was set up in the shape of a circle, and the rules for determining the winning moves (the moves that determine the winner) were established.

It was also during the Edo period that the highest rank in sumo, yokozuna, which even those not familiar with sumo have heard of, was established.

The topknots of sumo wrestlers, which can still be seen today, and the wearing of kimonos in daily life have also remained unchanged since the Edo period.

In other words, modern sumo was established in the Edo period (1603-1867) and has been carefully preserved and passed down through the 2025 period, more than 150 years later.

Nevertheless, it was not easy to protect and carry on the tradition of sumo, which had been tossed about by the various vicissitudes of the times.

Especially around the end of the Edo period and the beginning of the Meiji period, sumo faced a period of great crisis.

Meiji Era – Showa Era|Decline Crisis and Establishment of Status

Meiji Era - Showa Era|Decline Crisis and Establishment of Status

When Western culture entered Japan with the Meiji Restoration, the world changed at a dizzying pace.

The influence of that era caused various traditional Japanese cultures to face a crisis of decline, and sumo was no exception to this trend of “old-fashioned” culture.

It was Saigo Takamori and others, who were at the center of the Meiji Restoration, who helped keep sumo alive at that time.

As a result of support from Saigo Takamori, Kuroda Kiyotaka, and others, wrestlers were exempted from the order to cut their hair, women were allowed to watch sumo, and they succeeded in maintaining their existence.

From there, however, there was no revival of the excitement of the Edo period, and popularity remained stagnant for more than 15 years.

The first chance for the popularity of sumo to recover came in 1884 when the Emperor Meiji visited the event.

Sumo wrestling at this time was very hotly contested, and the popularity of sumo began to recover as a result of the popularity of the event.

The first Kokugikan is built.

The first Kokugikan was built in 1909, about 25 years after Emperor Meiji’s Tenran Sumo, as a permanent sumo stadium.

Until then, sumo wrestling had been held in the precincts of shrines and other locations, so this was the first time that a building dedicated to sumo wrestling was built.

The original Kokugikan could accommodate as many as 13,000 spectators at one time, and many people enjoyed watching sumo, but it was completely destroyed by fire in 1917, about eight years after its construction.

It was rebuilt in 1920, but was destroyed by fire in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923.

Under these circumstances, an organization essential to the succession of the Kokugikan and sumo entertainment was established.

Establishment of the Dai Nihon Sumo Kyokai

In 1925, the “Dai Nihon Sumo Kyokai” was established.

This organization, which continues to this day as the Japan Sumo Association, continues to carry on the tradition and development of sumo by training wrestlers and organizing tournaments.

In the Showa period, the Dainippon Sumo Association also focused on reforming the ring and rules of sumo, which had been in place until then.

Reforming the playing field and rules

The rules of sumo had been inherited from the Edo period, but in the Showa period (1926-1989), various reforms were made to the format and rules of the sumo ring.

  • 1927: Establishment of the dividing time

    …Revised time to finish the match in time for radio broadcast

  • 1931: Reform of the ring

    …the size of the ring was widened to allow spectators to enjoy sumo longer.

  • 1952: Elimination of four pillars and adoption of a suspended roof and four-color tassels

    …To make it easier for spectators to see the ring, the pillars are eliminated and a suspended roof and four-colored tassels are introduced.

▼”Hanging roof and four-color tassels” still remain in the Kokugikan

Sumo wrestling in the Showa era was reformed to make it easier for spectators to watch, making good use of radio broadcasts and other changes of the times.

It is precisely because sumo has remained flexible to change while preserving and passing on traditions that it is still loved by people today as the national sport.

What is the future of sumo?

What is the future of sumo?

Originally a contest of strength and an agricultural ritual, sumo has grown to be called Japan’s national sport and has been handed down to the present day.

So how will sumo grow and be handed down in the future?

Given sumo’s position in the modern era, let us predict the future growth of the sumo world.

Women and foreign VIPs are also into modern sumo.

Once considered “something for men” such as warriors and generals to watch, today many women and foreign VIPs are also seen as Sumo fans.

Some female sumo fans are called “suume,” and they “push” sumo wrestlers like idols.

This can be attributed to the sumo world’s active use of television and other entertainment media, as well as social networking services, to keep up with the times and expand its fan base.

Furthermore, they have actively performed abroad, inviting foreign presidents to watch sumo matches at the Kokugikan, and in the past they have performed sumo at the White House.

As a result, sumo has built a fan base among overseas VIPs and established its position as the national sport.

Sumo is now creating the impression, not only among Japanese, but also among people overseas, that sumo is Japan’s national sport.

Foreign rikishi also become a part of the sumo world

In recent years, foreign wrestlers have become prominent in the sumo world.

For example, Mongolian wrestlers such as Asashoryu and Hakuho have become yokozuna, and Bulgarian-born Kotooshu has been promoted to ozeki.

The fact that sumo wrestlers from overseas are active in the sumo world is proof that sumo is attractive to people from other countries, and that the Japanese sumo world is flexible enough to accept people from overseas.

However, sumo is also loved by people because its customs and spirit have not changed since the Edo period, no matter how many foreign wrestlers there have been.

Sumo has maintained a traditional style that has not changed since the Edo period, including a spirit similar to that of the martial arts, in which “you must not gappo even if you win,” and the wearing of topknots and kimonos in daily life.

Such spirit and traditions are fresh and attractive to people overseas.

As our predecessors have done, I would like to continue to pass on the spirit and traditions of sumo while remaining flexible and responsive to the waves of the times.

Summary

Summary

Sumo wrestling has a history of more than 1,500 years, dating back to mythological times.

What was once passed down through the courts and among the warriors has now become something that anyone can watch, regardless of gender or nationality.

While carefully preserving the traditions and spirit that have existed since the Edo period, we have also adapted to the trends of the times by actively utilizing social networking services and appearing in entertainment media, and this is why we have been able to carry on the traditions while developing them up to the present day.

Let us also learn about the history of sumo and its depth and charm to keep “sumo in the future” alive.

[Reference site
Japan Sumo Association Official Website
The Origins of Sumo and the Samurai / Homemate – Sword World
Sumo, the national sport of Japan – National Diet Library

[Reference book
History of Sumo” (published June 30, 1994, by Ichiro Nitta)