Sumo Sights

On a recent trip to Japan, I was on a tour bus from Nikko to Tokyo. At one point, the driver suddenly lowered the overhead television screens and the tour guide began to narrate the final match of the March Sumo Wrestling Tournament taking place in Osaka. She explained the intricacies of Shinto traditions that inform the event and the long history Japan has with the sport.

This year was special, because Japan had been waiting many years for a homegrown wrestler to be crowned champion in Osaka. Kisenosato Yutaka took the win, and the screens went back up—but I left Japan fascinated by the sport, not having previously realized how symbolic every moment of the match is, and how much the audience in Japan clings to every grasp, slap and stomp of the sport.

I returned home and got to researching “sumo” in our collections. The below image gives a small glimpse into the rituals and traditions.

Sumo wrestlers. Photo by Stillfried & Andersen, ca. 1877. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3g14324

Sumo wrestlers. Photo by Stillfried & Andersen, ca. 1877. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3g14324

Japanese woodcut prints from the latter half of the 19th century, like the two below, demonstrate the traditional items worn by the wrestlers. On the left, you see the mawashi, belt or loin cloth, and on the right the kesho-mawashi, the more apron-like item, worn typically by upper divisional wrestlers during the moments of the ceremonial ring-entering.

Nishi no kata Kagamiiwa. Woodcut print by Kunisada Utagawa, ca. 1847. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/jpd.00793

Nishi no kata Kagamiiwa. Woodcut print by Kunisada Utagawa, ca. 1847. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/jpd.00793

Asashio Taro. Woodcut print, between 1868 and 1900. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/jpd.00860

Do you notice those lightning bolt-like tassels hanging around their waists in the photographs below? That belt is called a tsuna and holds five paper lightning bolts called shide. Only the yokozuna, the highest ranking wrestler, wears this belt.

Onishiki who won 10-day wrestling tournament, Japan. Photo by Bain News Service, between ca. 1915 and ca. 1920. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ggbain.24163

Onishiki who won 10-day wrestling tournament, Japan. Photo by Bain News Service, between ca. 1915 and ca. 1920. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ggbain.24163

Champion Japanese wrestlers. Copyright by Burr McIntosh, c1905. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b43743

Champion Japanese wrestlers. Copyright by Burr McIntosh, c1905. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b43743

There are many traditions and rules of the sport. The stomping you see before the match is to drive evil spirits from the ring, and the throwing of salt before entering the ring is meant to cleanse or purify that ring. The structure of the ring also carries symbolic weight, each element with precise measurements and reasons. For example, the four columns represent the four seasons of the year, and hold up the roofing that is to resemble a Shinto shrine, as seen in the 1916 photo below.

Military at Wrestling match at Yasukuni Shrine, Japan. Photo by Bain News Service, 1916 April 19. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ggbain.21507

Military at Wrestling match at Yasukuni Shrine, Japan. Photo by Bain News Service, 1916 April 19. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ggbain.21507

The sport, of course, reaches beyond Japan. Hawaii, for example, shows great enthusiasm for sumo and has actually had good success in international tournaments.

Japanese sumo wrestling, Honolulu. Photo by Bain News Service, ca. 1910. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a41750

Japanese sumo wrestling, Honolulu. Photo by Bain News Service, ca. 1910. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a41750

Sumo wrestler seated. Photo by Underwood and Underwood, c1907. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a52809

Sumo wrestler seated. Photo by Underwood and Underwood, c1907. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a52809

Learn More:

A Little Bit of Sunshine

Cold weather and I do not get along; I infinitely prefer the warm sun with a refreshing breeze. With the holidays behind and the remainder of winter ahead, I decided to search the term “sunshine” in the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog to give me hope of warmer weather to come. The photograph below of […]

Double Take: Christmas Tradition

While recently browsing through the National Photo Company collection, I paused when I saw this photograph. My first thought was “what happened to the top of the tree?” After puzzling about the tree for a while, I looked closer at the gathering of the Dickey family. I had to smile as I have been in […]

An Ordinary Cup o’ Joe

Whether you like your brew light, dark, milky or sweet, this chilly weather leaves many reaching for a hot cup of coffee to warm up and wake up. As I sipped my own morning cup, I wondered what images our collections would hold of my coffee drinking comrades. I searched our holdings for relatable and […]

Reaching Out with Prints and Photographs

We always enjoy opportunities to share samples of our holdings and resources at public events and had two chances to do so in the last couple of weeks. October is designated as American Archives Month, which provides a chance for cultural institutions to reach out to local communities and share the valuable resources available in […]

Picturing a Love of Reading

The love of reading crosses all boundaries, appealing to people of all ages, races, genders, and walks of life. For hundreds of years, readers have opened books to learn about history or science or to discover new, imaginary worlds. Books have furnished inspiration, excitement, and relaxation. The possibilities are limitless. Within our collections, I found […]