The ancient art of sumo has been a Japanese tradition for over a thousand years, where both form and ceremony continue to play a major role in creating the atmosphere surrounding each bout.

The wrestling takes place in an arena of sand, which was traditionally covered by a fourpillared roof modelled on those of religious buildings. The practice of wrapping these pillars in green, red, white, and black was initiated in the spring of 1858. Each colour represents one of the four seasons: green for spring, the East and Seiryu, the Green Dragon; red for summer, the South and Shujaku, a mythical bird; white for autumn, the West and Byakko, the White Tiger; and black for winter, the North and Genbu, a water spirit. At the foot of each pillar sits a sumo elder who acts as referee.
The ancient art of sumo has been a Japanese tradition for over a thousand years, where both form and ceremony continue to play a major role in creating the atmosphere surrounding each bout.

The wrestling takes place in an arena of sand, which was traditionally covered by a fourpillared roof modelled on those of religious buildings. The practice of wrapping these pillars in green, red, white, and black was initiated in the spring of 1858. Each colour represents one of the four seasons: green for spring, the East and Seiryu, the Green Dragon; red for summer, the South and Shujaku, a mythical bird; white for autumn, the West and Byakko, the White Tiger; and black for winter, the North and Genbu, a water spirit. At the foot of each pillar sits a sumo elder who acts as referee.

© 1999, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.

Baskets of salt are found at the base of two opposite pillars. Salt is symbolic in Japan as a purifying agent. Prior to each match, each combatant scatters salt around the arena in order to cleanse the area in which a violent match is about to take place. The scattering of salt is a tradition that has been practised at every sumo match since it was introduced in the 17th century.
Baskets of salt are found at the base of two opposite pillars. Salt is symbolic in Japan as a purifying agent. Prior to each match, each combatant scatters salt around the arena in order to cleanse the area in which a violent match is about to take place. The scattering of salt is a tradition that has been practised at every sumo match since it was introduced in the 17th century.

© 1999, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.

An artist’s depiction of sumo wrestlers

National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo, Vancouver Museum, Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, The Montre

© 1999, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.


Actually, the art of sumo was less favoured in the Meiji era when Japanese who were more interested in new activities frequently shunned the traditions of earlier times. Today, however, sumo is once again popular, not only in Japan, but also in many Western countries.
Actually, the art of sumo was less favoured in the Meiji era when Japanese who were more interested in new activities frequently shunned the traditions of earlier times. Today, however, sumo is once again popular, not only in Japan, but also in many Western countries.

© 1999, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.

The formalities of the prebout exercises, during which the opponents stomp their feet, clap noisily, throw salt, glare, and make threatening false starts, contribute to the excitement of the event. However, the bout itself rarely exceeds a minute. The wrestlers focus on pushing, a technique essential to sumo. The winner must either push his opponent out of the ring or cause any part of his body other than his feet to touch the ground. For a sumo wrestler to become Yokozuna, the highest class attainable, he must not only win matches, but also be of sumo "spirit".
The formalities of the prebout exercises, during which the opponents stomp their feet, clap noisily, throw salt, glare, and make threatening false starts, contribute to the excitement of the event. However, the bout itself rarely exceeds a minute. The wrestlers focus on pushing, a technique essential to sumo. The winner must either push his opponent out of the ring or cause any part of his body other than his feet to touch the ground. For a sumo wrestler to become Yokozuna, the highest class attainable, he must not only win matches, but also be of sumo "spirit".

© 1999, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.

Triptych woodblock print of a sumo wrestling match with the wrestlers in action, under the buddhist-styled roof, surrounded by an audience-filled arena

Edo-Tokyo Museum

93200920-22
© 1999, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.


Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • Describe sumo wrestling, including its history, traditional practices, the events during a bout, and its spiritual and cultural significance to Japan
  • Explain why sumo was not as popular during the Meiji period as it was previously
  • Relate traditional Japanese sports to traditional sports in their own culture

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