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.
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.
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.
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.
The sport, of course, reaches beyond Japan. Hawaii, for example, shows great enthusiasm for sumo and has actually had good success in international tournaments.
- View more images of “sumo” in our Prints and Photographs Online Catalog.
- Compare and contrast by taking a look at some of our holdings on “wrestling” in general.
- Explore more of our beautiful Japanese Fine Prints in our Prints and Photographs Online Catalog.
- Looking to see something perhaps a bit more graceful? Check out a couple of Library’s films of Japanese dance and acrobatics at the Japanese village at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition.
- Dig deeper in the Library of Congress Asian Division’s Japanese Collection.