History of sumo

Sumo, which is a national sport of Japan, has a long history but it is also a popular sport today. Why has it kept its popularity? One of the reasons is that it had many changes of meaning in the long history. This research paper discusses these meanings of sumo. They are sumo as a ceremony for emperors, as a martial art, as an occupation, and as a sport.

The first meaning is sumo as a ceremony. There were sports which were similar to sumo all over the world long ago. For example, the ornamental bronze dolls which were wrestling were discovered in the ruins in Babylonia. It seems that they were made about five thousand years ago. In Japan, a sumo doll was discovered in ruins of the Tumulus period. According to folklore, it is known that the people in the Yayoi era wrestled sumo in order to pray for bumper crops to their gods. Sumo developed as a ceremony which told their fortunes and which enshrined their gods. By the way, the oldest record of sumo in Japan in writing is in the "Nihon Shoki" in 642. It shows the history of sumo's existence.

The second meaning is sumo deeply related with emperors. In the Nara era, the Emperor Shoumu commanded people of position in various districts to present sumo wrestlers, and the matches were held in the presence of the emperors. According to the Shoku-Nihon-ki, the first match for the emperor was held on July 7, 734, but it seems that it existed before that. The matches for emperors became more popular in the Heian era. They were called "Sechie Sumo", which were wrestling sumo and a party for nobles. Though it had been held for 300 years, it became extinct in 1174 during the Emperor Takakura's reign. However, the prosperity of sumo related with emperors had a great meaning for Japanese culture. (Ikeda, 1987)

The third meaning is sumo as a martial art. When political power changed to samurais, sumo was made use of by them as a martial art. In the Kamakura era, Yoritomo, who started the Kamakura shogunate, sometimes held the sumo events. However, it was not held between the late Kamakura and the early Muromachi era. In the Warring States period, sumo as a martial art was popular. Above all, Nobunaga, who was one of the famous leaders in Owari, liked sumo, and he often held its events. At that time, sumo's referees appeared. (Ikeda, 1987)

Next, sumo as an occupation developed in the Edo period. There were two types of sumo in the early Edo, one of which sumo was an occupation; the other was called tsuji-sumo, which welcomed people to take part in matches on the spur of the moment. The latter often made trouble with quarrels or arguments, and they were usually commanded to stop sumo. However, the former were allowed to continue sumo by making the rules of sumo. In the late Edo era, sumo prospered in Edo, where the Tokugawa shogun lived. At that time, sumo wrestlers belonged to every stables and trained there. Sumo was very popular in the 1790s. Around that time, sumo as an occupation became established. Today's sumo is deeply related to the sumo of the late Edo era.

Finally, today's meaning is sumo as a sport. When the Meiji Restoration occurred, sumo was faced with a crisis because of the collapse of the shogunate and the pressure of Western change. The Meiji government tried to forbid sumo, but it could be kept by the help of Takamori Saigo and Kiyotaka Kuroda, who were well-known people in the Meiji government. On the other hand, the sumo for the Emperor Meiji was often held, and the popularity of sumo began to recover after a long stagnation. In 1909, the Kokugikan Sumo Arena was built in Ryogoku, Tokyo. It stabilized sumo as a sport because it was permanent. Though sumo had some problems, such as the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, from the Taisho to the Showa era, it was in the golden age through a militaristic time.

However, after World War II, the recovery of sumo was slow because baseball was suddenly popular. The reason for the revival was the televising of sumo was started from 1953. In addition, sumo tournaments increased to six in a year. During that age, there were a lot of popular sumo wrestlers. For example, Kashiwado and Taiho, who were the grand champion sumo wrestlers, made famous one of the most memorable times which was called "Haku-hou Era". (Ikeda, 1987)

At present, sumo is changing to an international sport as well as a Japanese national sport. Many foreign sumo wrestlers join Japanese sumo from the United States of America, Mongolia, and Argentina. Now, there are a lot of people who wrestle sumo all over the world. Therefore, it will be said Sumo may become an Olympic event in the near future, recently. If it is realized, it is no longer just a Japanese sport. Moreover, women's sumo has appeared. Now is the age that not only men but also women wrestle sumo as a sport. All people can be interested in it. Sumo has had a lot of changes of meaning. It is worthwhile to watch the changes of its meaning after this. Each meaning made the present sumo. It seems that it is just a matter of time before sumo is called an international sport.


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