Japanese Sumo Wrestling is one of the oldest martial arts in Japan. Sumo wrestlers were a favorite subject on Japanese woodblock prints. In contrast to some of the traditional Japanese art forms like kabuki, which has a heavy stand in today's world, sumo wrestling is enjoying a rising popularity - comparable to basketball in North America or soccer in Europe.
Sumo has its roots in the shinto religion. The matches were dedicated to the gods in prayers for a good harvest. The oldest written records date back to the 8th century. But it is probably more than 1500 years old.
Sumo prints from the 18th and 19th century prove the popularity of the sport in the past. During the last two decades the art of sumo wrestling could establish itself even outside of Japan. Akebono, an American born in Hawaii, became the first American champion to reach the highest rank.
A sumo wrestling match is accompanied by a lot of traditional ceremony. The marching-in of the wrestlers is a sequence of formal rituals. The wrestlers are accompanied by two assistants - one walking in front and one behind him - the one behind is usually hard to spot.
The referee is clad in a luxurious kimono and wears a strange hat. After performing a series of opening rituals, the contest begins.
The wrestling match is all about pushing or throwing the opponent out of the doyo - the ring - or to bring the other guy down on the floor.
Sumo does not know any weight categories. There are a few basic techniques - from pulling the opponents legs to grabbing his belt and trying to throw or carry the opponent out of the ring.
Here are some basic Japanese terms.
Among the Japanese woodblock print artists are few that made no prints with subjects of sumo wrestlers. Ukiyo-e was a commercial art and was meant to sell. In the 18th and 19th century it was more the publisher who decided about the subjects than the artist. He gave the commissions, risked his money and therefore tended to publish popular themes.
A few artists should be mentioned for frequent or outstanding (Junichiro Sekino) sumo prints.
Author: Dieter Wanczura