11 January 2005

Street-corner Sumo in Tokugawa Times

Here's another bit of historical background to mark the start of the January basho in Tokyo, where fellow Mongolians Asashoryu ('Morning Green Dragon') and Asasekiryu ('Morning Red Dragon') currently share the lead at 4-0. This basho may set the record for the number of foreign rikishi in the top (makuuchi) division: 10 out of 40 active in the current tournament--6 Mongolians, 3 Europeans, and 1 Korean. (There are actually 42 rikishi on the makuuchi roster for each tournament, but one or two are usually on the disabled list.)
Legitimization of Edo-period sumo was a long and slow process. Tokugawa Iemitsu (1604-1651), the third Tokugawa shogun, banned sumo from Edo in 1648. The reason for the ban was the shogunate's characteristic concern for public order, which was often disrupted by tsuji-zumo (street-corner sumo). "Unemployed warriors and rough townsmen came into violent contact in these street-corner contests fought for small amounts of money tossed down by the onlookers who gathered around the impromptu wrestlers. Clashes between hot-tempered masterless samurai and commoners were incessant; drawn swords and the untimely death of a combatant or spectator were not unheard of." Bans on sumo were issued periodically throughout the Edo period--at least fifteen by the mid-nineteenth century--which testifies to the helplessness of the authorities in the face of the populace's determination not to be deprived of one of its principal pleasures. Eventually the outright bans were directed only at street-corner sumo. The authorities were content to regulate rather than to forbid benefit matches held at shrines and temples. These efforts to diminish the sport's level of random expressive violence exemplify what Norbert Elias has called "the civilizing process."

Promoters promised to control the incipient sport better and to donate a share of the profits to public works. Accordingly, benefit sumo was permitted in Edo in 1684, in Osaka in 1691, and in Kyoto in 1699. The authorities granted permits to hold benefit sumo almost every year after that.

From around 1750, the yearly calendar of meets settled into a pattern: spring and fall in Edo, summer in Kyoto, fall in Osaka. This did not mean, however, that stable sumo organizations existed in each of the three cities. The cities were merely centers where sumo groups gathered for major performances. Many of the wrestlers, especially those retained by a daimyo (lord of a domain), resided in their own regions. For these seasonal tournaments, wooden stands holding several thousand spectators were erected on temple grounds. Then, as now, wrestlers were ranked for each new event, but the ranks were not determined as they are now by performance in a previous meet. Rankings had to be rough and ready because the participants varied from meet to meet as promoters negotiated with various groups of wrestlers for each meet. With the passage of time, however, there was a degree of rationalization. Promoters identified the more capable wrestlers, invited them back for each performance, and ranked them less arbitrarily.

In some ways, however, Tokugawa sumo as a spectator sport still resembled the simulated mayhem of modem "professional" wrestling. At meets held in Osaka, for example, wrestlers who lived and practiced in the city and its surrounding region played the role of the good guys while wrestlers from elsewhere were the "heavies." It was the same in Edo and Kyoto. It was good business to let the hometown heroes win. Like the enthusiasts studied by Roland Barthes in Mythologies (1957) , the fans were enthralled by the allegorical drama enacted in the ring and seemed not to mind the fact that fixed matches were hardly unknown. The prestige of a retained wrestler's lord sometimes influenced the outcome of a match. Comparing records from the Edo period (1600-1868) is like taking at face value the results of modern "professional" wrestling.

Another uncanny resemblance to modern "professional" wrestling can be seen in onna-zumo (women 's wrestling), performed mostly, it seems, for men 's titillation. The names assumed by the women (or given to them by promoters) suggest the debased nature of the attraction: "Big Boobs," "Deep Crevice," "Holder of the Balls."

Another characteristic of modem sports is a tendency toward national and international bureaucratic organization. The predecessor of today's Japan Sumo Association can be traced back to an organization established early in the eighteenth century when the men who ran the centers where sumo wrestlers lived and trained formed a loose organization called the sumo kaisho. This organization achieved a stable form in 1751--the year that the English established their first national sports organization, the Jockey Club.
SOURCE: Japanese Sports: A History, by Allen Guttmann and Lee Thompson (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2001), pp. 22-23

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