As with many forms of wrestling around the world, the
roots of Sumo are lost in prehistory.
Sumo is mentioned in some of the
earliest texts in Japan, under its earlier name Sumai, from the 8th century
A.D. However, these early forms would not be Sumo as it is known today, as
in many cases the wrestling had relatively few rules and unarmed fights to
the death were still referred to as 'Sumo'.
In addition to its use as a trial of strength in combat, it has also been
associated with Shinto ritual, and even today certain shrines carry out
forms of ritual dance where a human ceremonially wrestles with a kami (a
Shinto 'spirit' or 'god'). It was an important ritual at the imperial court.
Representatives of each province were ordered to attend the contest at the
court and fought. They needed to pay for their travels by themselves. The
contest was called Sumai no sechie (Party of Sumai).
Over the rest of Japanese recorded history Sumo's popularity has changed
according to the whims of its rulers and the need for its use as a training
tool in periods of civil strife. The form of wrestling combat probably
changed gradually into one where the main aim in victory was to throw your
opponent. The concept of pushing him out of a limited defined area came some
Sumo at the Great Amphitheatre in Veddo,
as illustrated in an 1867 publication, Sketches of Japanese Manners and
It is believed that a ring, defined by more than the area given to the
wrestlers by spectators, came into being in the 16th century as a result of
a tournament organized by the then principal warlord in Japan, Oda Nobunaga,
but at this point wrestlers would wear loose loincloths, rather than the
much stiffer mawashi of today. During the Edo period, wrestlers would wear a
fringed kesho-mawashi during the bout, as opposed to the merely ceremonial
role they hold today. Much of the rest of the development came in the early
Edo period to give the sport its current form.
It is worth noting that nations adjacent to Japan, having shared some
cultural traditions, also feature styles of traditional wrestling that bear
some resemblance to Sumo. Notable examples include Mongolia, the birthplace
of Asashoryu (the current Yokozuna), and Korea, where a similar sport called
Ssireum is popular.
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