Origin story notwithstanding, a mythical event is a mythical event, and grappling, with the winner “taking down” the loser, is universal and timeless, and so is its more secular role as venue for spectator sports and gambling. The 8th C. official histories of Japan contain a story about two lords grappling, with the loser forfeiting his realm to the other. There’s also a striking 16th C. folding screen depicting Oda Nobunaga and his favorite male attendant—yes, other warrior traditions also transcend time and space—watching someone who surely must have been Sasuke, the African samurai “as powerful as ten men (according to a contemporary account),” wrestling a similarly muscular Japanese, while nine more waited their turn. Many more records of more or less memorable events must exist in between—Nobunaga, for one. was known to stage them for his own enjoyment—but I’ll stick to memory for now.
Sumo certainly has powerful associations with religion, but it works both ways, and not just with Shinto even broadly constituted. Origin stories often feature one god or other. But that speaks to the nature of life in the premodern world and its connection to a pantheistic world view. Godhood is conferred on objects both mundane and profound; heroes, villains, and otherwise nameless victims are deified. It could very well be that the existence of sumo spawned the myth, not the other way around.
Sumo is also associated with another, historically just as important religion: Buddhism. Sumo, like so many primary forms of mass entertainment in Japan, flowered during the Edo era, when urban centers became the stage for tournaments among strongmen, some sponsored by daimyo lords and other men of means. Many of these tournaments were fundraisers sponsored by Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. The most famous far was held in Edo, at Ekouin, a Buddhist temple, and drew large crowds to box seats, bleacher seats, and concession stands (some things never change). (The first record of this stage-and-spectator-seats setting was what I like to think of as a Buddhist marathon dancing event. But I digress.) This was not an accident. Buddhist sects and their temples played a dominant role in the organized public and private lives of the Edo-era Japanese, already having literally incorporated key Shinto deities under their wings.
But what does the last point have to do with the origin story? The men who launched the Meiji Restoration launched many attacks against the forces of the Edo-era status quo, the swift, often violent separation of Buddhism from Shinto being one of them. This served two purposes: wrest control over the lives and deaths of the newly leveled and secularized citizens of Japan away from the temples and into the hands of the new Meiji government, and help exalt the emperor as the sole spiritual head of a sacred realm. Sumo, like many other forms of established arts and entertainment, had to face a brave new world, as its old patrons and sponsors were gone, or greatly diminished. Is it possible that its leaders decided to emphasize its origin story to bind itself tightly to the new status quo, while appealing to the nostalgia of its fans for the old order by defying the new convention of no topknots? Speculation. So, easily falsifiable by appropriate research. I’ll leave it at that.
And now, a final thought. My first point here expressed my amusement over the irony that one of professional sumo’s most iconic rituals—surely most poignant—was one of the latest to take hold (and also strictly secular). The second point, together with the first, highlighted the syncretic nature of rituals in sports events and their transition from novelty to transition. For the singing of the national anthem (and now the Air Force flyovers) as well as the seventh-inning stretch (and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”) were once novel, though they are routine today.
Now, let the fat lady sing.
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