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Shinto ori­gins Shinto is ‘the way of the gods’ and, just as it is for many mor­tals, sumo wrestling is a favourite past­time. 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.

But what be­gins in the tem­ple often spreads to the court. The rulers of Ja­pan felt that they, too, should be able to en­joy the spec­ta­cle: it was surely wasted on the Shinto gods. Leg­end has it that the Em­peror Yuryaku (418-79) or­dered two naked women to sumo wres­tle be­fore a par­tic­u­larly ar­ro­gant car­pen­ter who claimed to have never made a mis­take. Dis­tracted by the women (though whether it was by their wrestling skills or their physiques, we shall never know), the car­pen­ter blun­dered in what he was do­ing, and was sum­mar­ily ex­e­cuted by the Em­peror.

For the most part, though, sumo was some­thing to be en­joyed by all in­volved – com­peti­tors and spec­ta­tors. From the Nara pe­riod (710-794) on­wards, wrestlers would be in­vited from across Ja­pan to pit their skills against one an­other in com­pe­ti­tions hosted at the im­pe­rial court. The tour­na­ments nor­mally co­in­cided with im­por­tant fes­ti­vals, and were ac­com­pa­nied by ban­quet­ing, mu­sic, and danc­ing. The sumo wrestlers were ex­pected to join in with th­ese lively ac­tiv­i­ties, too.

The sumo th­ese ear­lier wrestlers prac­ticed would be al­most un­recog­nis­able to their mod­ern coun­ter­parts. 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.

Sumo goes pro­fes­sional Sumo wrestling de­vel­oped into a se­ri­ous, pro­fes­sional event from the 14th cen­tury on­wards, be­com­ing par­tic­u­larly re­fined dur­ing the Edo pe­riod (1603-1867). The pop­u­lar­ity of sumo ex­panded from the im­pe­rial court, and newly wealthy mer­chants pa­tro­n­ised tour­na­ments. The best wrestlers from each prov­ince would be or­dered to at­tend na­tional com­pe­ti­tions, and many of them were sa­mu­rai who found it a fit­ting way to sup­ple­ment their in­come.

The first pro­fes­sional sumo tour­na­ment took place at the Tomioka Hachi­man Shrine in Tokyo in 1684, and it is there­fore re­garded as the birth­place of sumo as a pro­fes­sional sport. The shrine was pro­tected and pa­tro­n­ised by the Toku­gawa shogu­nate, and hence both the shrine – and sumo – was seen to be en­dorsed by the shogun. Two basho, or tour­na­ments, took place here each year, one in the spring and the other in the au­tumn, and the sys­tems and rules of sumo be­came in­creas­ingly so­phis­ti­cated.

The banzuke – the rank­ing of sumo wrestlers – dates from this pe­riod: the ear­li­est sur­viv­ing banzuke list dates back to 1761. Two weeks be­fore a tour­na­ment, sumo judges as­sign ranks to each of the 600 wrestlers, based on how they per­formed in the pre­vi­ous com­pe­ti­tion. The wrestlers’ shikona (ring names), home town, and rank are listed, with those who are ranked high­est ap­pear­ing at the top of the list, and in the big­gest writ­ing. Even today, the banzuke is writ­ten out by hand in el­e­gant cal­lig­ra­phy, and takes about a week to com­plete. Printed copies, on smaller sheets, can then be made and dis­trib­uted to spon­sors and spec­ta­tors.

When the first for­eign­ers were al­lowed to en­ter Ja­pan in the 19th cen­tury, shows of sumo wrestling were some­times pre­sented to en­ter­tain them. The Amer­i­can Com­modore James Perry ar­rived in Ja­pan in 1853, and de­scribed the wrestlers he saw as “overfed mon­sters”. The Ja­panese were sim­i­larly unim­pressed by a box­ing de­mon­stra­tion by Amer­i­can sailors: they de­cided they were far too scrawny. The for­eign­ers bought wood­cut prints of sumo wrestlers and geisha girls as sou­venirs, and wrote about what they saw, con­tribut­ing sig­nif­i­cantly to for­eign stereo­types of the Ja­panese, many of which are still held today.

Even today, the banzuke is writ­ten out by hand in el­e­gant cal­lig­ra­phy

Mod­ern sumo Though not quite the sport of the masses in Ja­pan (soccer has sneaked past it in pop­u­lar­ity in re­cent years), sumo wrestling re­mains in­cred­i­bly pop­u­lar. Ma­jor tour­na­ments are screened on tele­vi­sion, there’s stiff com­pe­ti­tion for the best ring­side seats, and the high­est ranked sumo wrestlers have be­come well-paid celebri­ties, beloved by their fans.

For a taste of Ja­panese cul­ture, vis­i­tors should at­tend a sumo tour­na­ment. Each tour­na­ment runs for 15 days. Al­though they take place in vast sta­di­ums, at week­ends and on na­tional hol­i­days the tick­ets fre­quently sell out. To be sure of get­ting good seats, you’ll need to pre-book your tick­ets through the of­fi­cial ven­dor, or on­line at­sumotick­ The most pres­ti­gious tour­na­ments take place in Tokyo, Osaka, Ky­oto, and

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