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These elements of ritual, tradition, and cosmic comedy are wonderfully expressed in a set of Japanese stamps issued by the Japanese Postal Services Ministry in 1978. The whimsical images of sumitori are taken from 18th century prints by renowned artists. Several of the stamps in the set are se-tenant pairs, or stamps printed side by side. (Figure 2)


By the 18th century, sumo had already become a professional sport in Japan. The contenders were ronin, or masterless samurai, supported by feudal daimyo of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603- 1867). Prior to this, the wrestling form had been transformed from a prehistoric harvest festival combat to an entertainment for the imperial court. From the 13th through the 17th centuries, sumo was developed as a martial art by the samurai and was the inspiration for jujitsu. The ranking system and the circumscribed arena or dohyo were introduced during this period. Following the collapse of the Shogunate in 1867, the rikishi found new sponsors in townships throughout the country.  Honbasho, or tournaments, were held for the repair of shrines or other public works, a form of sumo known as Kanjin Sumo, or Temple Sumo. The shinden or Shinto shrine suspended over the modern dohyo recalls this historical stage in sumo’s evolution.

Figure 2


Wrestlers on Ryogoku Bridge, Edo

by Kunisada I  18th Century