Inside the arena, Kyokutenho entertains a packed stadium during his danpatsu-shiki (the official retirement ceremony). © Lord K2

With a history spanning over 2,000 years, sumo offers an exhilarating taste of Japanese culture.

Shinto origins

Shinto is ‘the way of the gods’ and, just as it is for many mortals, sumo wrestling is a favourite pastime. For nearly 2,000 years, sumo wrestlers have performed their martial art, first in intimate shrines, and then in stadiums before thousands of spectators. At least as early as the 3rd century AD, the wrestlers would perform complex rituals to purify both their body and their spirit, and then fight for the entertainment of the gods during the matsuri (religious festivals). It was a sacred act of ritual, not a sport. Yet what began in the temples later spread to the courts, and sumo became something to be enjoyed by all involved– competitors and spectators.

There were few rules, wrestlers frequently drew blood, and you could box your opponent as well as wrestle him to the ground. In fact, not all the wrestlers were men: one particularly celebrated sumo wrestler was a nun! With topless women pitted against blind men, and prostitutes and warriors fighting one another to settle the political scores of their patrons, the sumo ring was not dissimilar to a gladiator arena.

Over the centuries, it gradually evolved to the extent that the sumo these earlier wrestlers practiced would be almost unrecognisable to their modern counterparts.

Hakkaku Stable, Tokyo. © Lord K2

The Evolution of Sumo

250-858: Between 250-552, sumo bouts were performed at Shinto shrines to entertain the gods during festivals. 710-794 saw the first recorded accounts of sumo bouts at the imperial court. According to legend, in 858, the Emperor Seiwa secured his throne after winning a sumo bout.

1185-1684: Between 1185-1333, sumo was used to train samurai warriors and to settle disputes. In 1684, the first professional sumo tournament was held at the Tomioka Hachiman Shrine in Tokyo.

1761-1884: 1761 saw the introduction of the banzuke, the written rankings for sumo wrestlers. In 1853, sumo wrestlers performed for Commodore Matthew Perry, one of the first foreigners to witness the sport. The Meiji Emperor visits a sumo match in 1884, raising its status to a national sport.

1909-1949: In 1909, construction of the first dedicated sumo stadium began. 1912 saw the birth of Futabayama Sadaji, the sumo wrestler who set an all time record by winning 69 consecutive bouts, and 12 yūshō (sumo championships). A merger of the Osaka and Tokyo sumo into a single, pan-Japanese organization took place in 1927, becoming the Japan Sumo Association. In 1931, the standard diameter for a dohyō – the wrestling ring – is set at 4.55m. The basho, or sumo tournament, is extended from 10 to 15 days in 1949.

1950s: In 1953, there was the first television broadcast of a sumo tournament. A year later in 1954, there was the opening of the Sumo Museum at Kuramae Kokugikan, the home of professional sumo prior to its move to Ryōgoku Kokugikan.

Sumo wrestlers can often be spotted walking around Ryogkoku in Tokyo. © Lord K2

1984: There is the reconstruction of the Ryōgoku Kokugikan, the home of sumo tournaments in Tokyo.

1990s: In 1993, Akebono, an American sumo wrestler from Hawaii, becomes the first foreign sumo wrestler to obtain the highest sumo rank, yokozuna. In 1994, sumo was rated as the most popular sport in Japan, significantly ahead of soccer and baseball.

2000s: The first US Sumo Open, the largest annual sumo tournament outside Japan, took place in the USA. In 2016, Sumo wrestler Hakuho wins his 37th championship with a perfect 15-0 score.

Read more in Asian Geographic Passport, ‘Travel Through History’, Collectors' Edition 2016-2017.

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Original article by Sophie Ibbotson, Photos by Lord K2.

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