16 January 2005

Court Sumo: From Martial Art to Spectator Sport

In the early years of court sumo, wrestlers were recruited from the peasantry and selected more for their physical strength than for their technical skill. In all likelihood, there was no specifically developed technique for sumo as a combat sport and there was little or no sense of the wrestlers as professionals for whom the sport was a way of life rather than an occasional event. Around the twelfth century, however, the status of the wrestlers who appeared at the court tournaments seems to have become fixed, and certain provincial families regularly sent their sons to the court tournaments. (This gave them a connection to the central government through which they obtained posts such as provincial governor.) In this development we can see the beginning of the role specialization that is characteristic of modern sports.

Benefit sumo also seems to have contributed importantly to the specialization of the sport. The temples and shrines employed the services of professional or semi-professional groups of wrestlers which, if they had not existed already, were formed in conjunction with this new demand.

Eventually, some of these professional wrestlers began to hold performances of sumo for their own profit. In other words, they continued down the path that led to sumo as a more or less modern spectator sport. As in most modern spectator sports, economics rather than religion or politics was the driving force. It is also important to note that the origins of modern sumo were urban. The sport took shape in the three major cities of Edo (the former name of Tokyo), Osaka, and Kyoto. The promoters of sumo were not the wrestlers themselves, or even former wrestlers, but townsmen--the Japanese mercantile equivalent of the European bourgeoisie whose role in the modernization of Western sports can hardly be overstated. Thus began a differentiation of functions that, as often happens in the history of sport, eventually gave rise to what are now two distinct sports. As sumo became primarily a spectator sport, it began to lose its value as a practical, combat-oriented skill. The martial function of barehanded combat was emphasized by other activities. The Takeuchi school of unarmed combat, for example, emerged in the middle of the sixteenth century. The martial arts techniques taught in this and other schools were called totte ['grip'?], koshimawari ['round the waist'?]--or in the Edo period (1600-1868)--jûhô or jûjutsu ['soft arts']. The last term is, of course, more familiar today.
SOURCE: Japanese Sports: A History, by Allen Guttmann and Lee Thompson (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2001), pp. 20-21

After Day 8 in the January basho, Mongolian yokozuna Asashoryu remains in sole possession of the lead at 8-0, with four rikishi trailing at 6-2.

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