Sumo wrestling is a Japanese phenomenon. It is the country’s most iconic sport and wildly popular not only in Japan but with fans throughout the world. Sumo is a fascination of mine as well, as are all combat sports. If you look past the surface of two giant men slamming into each other, there’s a load of technique involved in the sport including hand fighting, throws and footwork. It is quite an intricate sport once you get down to the nuts and bolts of it.
How did sumo begin? Where did it come from? On this History Lesson, we dive deep into Japan’s favorite sport and see where it came from.
Sumo: A Rich and Ancient History
The earliest written record of sumo wrestling is from 712 AD. The book, which is known as Kojiki, or Record of Ancient Matters, is thought time be the oldest known written text from the Japanese culture. The Kojiki is part of Japan’s predominant religion, Shintō. It is thought that sumo was a ritual dance and a prayer for a good harvest for the community’s crops.
However, according to Japanese legends, two Kami, or Japanese gods, were the first two to ever have a sumo match. Takemikazuchi–no-Kami was the deity of thunder and of the sword. Takemikazuchi is so important to the Japanese people it is said if you trace back the bloodline of the Imperial Family’s origin to Takemikazuchi. He was also part of a legend where a giant catfish was causing earthquakes in Japan. This guy was powerful.
Takemikazuchi’s involvement in the first sumo match dates back to the time before time. Takemikazuchi-no-Kami was a member of the divine race. His people and the common people had a dispute over some land in Japan. Takeminakata-no-Kami was the ruler of the common people and did not want to give up his land, looking out for the good of his own people. Takeminakata challenges Takemikazuchi to a wrestling match and winner takes the land.
Takeminakata was a deity as well. He was the god of wind, water, and agriculture. He was the god of warfare and hunting as well. Two medievil clans of samurai were dedicated to Takeminakata, the Hōjō and Takeda. Takeminakata was no slouch as well.
The two met in Izumo on the coast of Japan. The location became known as the Shimane prefecture, one of the best places to visit in Japan to this day.
The Day Sumo Began
The two met and wrestled for keeps. Ultimately, Takemikazuchi defeated Takeminakata and established the dominance of the deities over the common people. In the match, Takemikazuchi had a grip on Takeminakata’s arm and crushed his arm “like a reed.”
Then in another Japanese writing, The Nihon Shoki, describes another “first sumo match” from 23 BC. The 11th Emperor of Japan, Emperor Suinin, requested two men to fight for his pleasure. Nomi no Sukune and Taima no Kuehaya fought a wrestling fight that resulted in Nomi killing Taima for the Emperor. The bout was ordered because Taima would boast that he was “the strongest man under the heavens.”
According to history, Nihon broke his adversary’s ribs with one kick and broke his back with a second kick. Nihon was from Izumo, the same place where Takemikazuchi and Takeminakata had their gloried battle. Weather or not there is a connection there remains to be seen.
The match between Nihon and Taima was not a traditional sumo match, but it is given credit as the forefather of the sport.
What did early sumo look like?
As with many other combat sports, sumo was a much more brutal sport in its earlier days. Much like pankration, the Greek version MMA, sumo was a no holds barred fight. It was obviously a more grappling based type of combat because of how it evolved and what the sport ended up becoming. As mentioned in the fight with Nihon and Taima, there were kicks and punches and the breaking of bones. It was truly a gladiatorial-esque form of combat.
From the 15th century to the 17th century, Japan was in a state of constant war. So much so that Japanese scholars named this era “The Warring States Period.” The country was in constant conflict for almost 200 years and ultimately led to the unification of Japan as a whole. During this time, sumo were not only paid by private military individuals and were given the title of samurai. Sumo were, and still are, greatly respected in Japanese culture as great warriors.
During the 15th century, Oda Nobunaga, a Japanese warlord, called upon 1,500 sumotori (sumo wrestler) for a sumo tournament in his castle. It was so large that Nobunaga drew circles on the ground to speed things up and to have the tournament a little more organized. There had been no boundary set in sumo before this event.
The winner of Oda Nobunaga’s tournament seems to have been lost to time. What wasn’t lost was the winner receiving a bow and dancing for Nobunaga to show his gratitude.
After the loss of power from the Japanese Emperor and the bloodline’s authority due to Japan’s unification, sumo waned in popularity. It wasn’t until the 1600’s that sumo began to look more like what we know it to be today. Early in the Empo era which was from 1673 to 1681 that there was a circle in a ring bearing the resemblance to modern sumo.
During this period, sumo became so popular that it was banned for a time due to the unsanctioned fighting in the streets. Then, in 1684, the government sanctioned sumo for a charity event at the Tomioka Hachimangu Shrine. The government developed an official sumo organization to hold this event.
Japan Sumo Association’s Formation
The formation of the official sumo organization is the earliest version of what we know as sumo today. This time period saw a massive surge in popularity and a differentiation between early sumo. The sport went from a gladiator fight to a sport essentially.
It was during this time that sumo wrestlers saw it’s first yokozuna, the highest rank in sumo, in the sport. Onogawa Kisaburō and Tanikaze Kajinosuke were the first two awarded the rank by a sanctioning body. While yokozuna didn’t officially become recognized as the highest rank, it was officially recognized in 1909.
Then, on December 28, 1925, the Japan Sumo Association was formed, giving the sport the structure we see today.
Sumo’s history is an utterly fascinating one. From legends of gods fighting to fights to the death, it’s a sport that’s been around for centuries. As it continues to grow, so does it’s history, adding to an already rich story.
Enjoy a highlight of yokozuna, Hakuhō, arguably one of the best wrestlers of all time!