sumo wrestling

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A form of Japanese wrestling that is one of the oldest martial arts, accounts of which, from the 8th century ad, have dated the sport as far back as 23 bc: in the 8th century, annual matches were staged at the imperial court (Nara); and over these earlier centuries sumo acted also as a form of ritual linked to religion and seasonal festivals. The foundation for sumo as a professional competitive sport was laid in the later 16th and early 17th centuries, during the Tokugawa shogunate, and in the newly developing urban centres of Japan. The ring ceremony that is the basis of the modern contest, and its associated bow-dance ceremony, were introduced at the end of the 1790s for contests staged for the shogun (the general). Patricia L. Cuyler (Sumo: From Rite to Sport, 1979) writes that this ‘lifted the sport out of the vulgar world of entertainment’, giving it ‘a sense of ritual that later became its major characteristic’. In the early Meiji period in the later 1800s, as a Japanese preoccupation with modernity marginalized traditional practices such as sumo, the sport was rejuvenated in what Allen Guttmann and Lee Thompson have called a simultaneous modernization and retraditionalization of the sport (Japanese Sports, 2001). In 1909 the first covered hall was constructed for the sport, and referees were required to dress in traditional 11th-century costume and headgear. In 1926 a national federation was established which, among other reforms, evolved a coherent national championship system, in which individual victors could be identified in tournaments. Radio broadcasting also began in 1928, and increased interest in the live event. Television in the 1950s and the 1960s consolidated the sport's place in the national culture.

Attempts have been made to transplant the sport into other sporting and media contexts, and potential new audiences have been intrigued by the combination of preparatory ritual—in the crouching pre-combat shikiri of the oversized figures of the combatants—and the explosively short physical contest in the actual confrontation. In the UK, for instance, Channel 4 Television sought to popularize the sport, and scientist Dr Lyall Watson was commissioned to educate this potential new public in his book Sumo (1988), featuring pictures of the typical 26-stone mid-20s wrestler: ‘It is a spectacle with colour and texture, a ceremony of style and beauty, and a conflict filled with drama and suspense. But perhaps most important of all, it is a matter of dignity. And that today is rare.’ After some initial interest in the transmissions, there was little established or growing market share: the novelty of the event, and its visual distinctiveness, were an insufficient basis for the sport to flourish in a context where it had no basis in the sporting culture or the national tradition or history. Nevertheless, a quarter of a century after its formation in 1992, the International Sumo Federation had gained recognition for the sport on the Recognised Sports List of the International Olympic Committee, and had 87 affiliated national associations.

Subjects: Sport and Leisure.

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