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

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