Japan from the inside out

Squaring the circle in sumo

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, October 11, 2009

IN BOXING, the prizefighters square off against each other in a small square arena known as a ring, despite its shape. In sumo, the rikishi square off against each other in a real ring, though the name of their battleground—the dohyo—contains no connotations of its shape.

Some sumo theorists hold that the ring is a symbolic representation of Japan or the universe. Others say the sport came to Japan from China through the Korean Peninsula, and the spirituality underlying the Japanese version is a blend of Shinto and Taoism. In the latter theory, the dohyo represents the yang element, or the sun. Either would seem to be a reasonable explanation for the circular shape of the dohyo.

‘Twas not ever thus, however.

For example, the rikishi in the sumo competition held earlier this week at the Sho’okita Primary School in Sho’o-cho, Okayama, fought in what is believed to be the only remaining square dohyo in the country.

All 213 of the school’s pupils participated–including the girls–with each of the students representing either the red or the white team. That’s the classic Japanese color scheme for two squads in a competitive event. The first graders performed the initial ring-entering ceremony, and all the students made up their own shikona, the distinctive names by which the rikishi are known.

The dohyo itself dates back about 500 years when the local feudal lord moved the Hiyoshi Shinto shrine. The daimyo thought sumo improved the fighting spirit, so he built the dohyo to toughen up the members of his clan. Sumo has close connections to Shinto, and tournaments were held at the same shrine during festivals as an offering to the divinities. That practice ended during the Second World War, but it was revived again as a school event in 1967.

Nambu sumo in Morioka

Nambu sumo in Morioka

The phrase “only remaining square dohyo” is the key that unlocks a door to another corridor that is largely forgotten today. As any other sport, sumo has evolved over the years, and other variations flourished before the current form became the standard. There was once a style known as Nambu sumo, named after the ruling clan in what is now Iwate. The square dohyo was used in Nambu sumo, but only for the frequent barnstorming tournaments held in different towns to provide popular entertainment. Records indicate that round dohyo were used in Nambu sumo when the matches were held at Shinto shrines.

It also seems to have been widely known outside of Iwate. An account survives of a tournament held in Kyoto in 1732 between the rikishi of the Nambu style and those of the Kyushu style.

Regular performances of Nambu sumo ended about 100 years ago, but the folks in Iwate never forgot about it. Three years ago, local groups held a Nambu sumo tournament with a square dohyo in Morioka that the organizers say required six months of study and preparation. There isn’t much information about that tournament on the web, either in Japanese or English, but one Japanese blogger who made a special trip to see it found the differences fascinating.

He wrote that a great deal of time and effort was spent to recreate the rituals before the match, which he thought emphasized the religious aspects more than the contemporary version. He also said the rikishi began the match standing upright rather than from the crouching position used for modern tournaments. The match commenced on a signal from a third person. The victors were those rikishi who threw their opponents to the ground, or caused them to fall to the ground, rather than throwing them outside the ring. The observer said it reminded him of judo or Western-style wrestling. Here’s a brief second-hand account in English from a sumo fan who ordered DVDs of the tournament from Iwate and got information from people who were there. According to his description, one of the participants said the emphasis on throwing the opponent to the ground gives it a resemblance to traditional Mongolian wrestling.

The square rather than round shape of the dohyo doesn’t necessarily negate the theory that the ring represents the sun, by the way. The old Chinese character for sun is 日, and even those who can’t read it can still recognize the shape!

Afterwords: The name of the Shinto shrine in Okayama might be the Hie-jinja. Both readings are possible, and I couldn’t find enough information on this shrine to know for certain.

2 Responses to “Squaring the circle in sumo”

  1. KRN said

    In ancient Chinese cosmology the earth was square and heaven round. I believe that the older version of the sun kanji was actually circular with a dot in the middle instead of a middle horizontal line. Could the square shape of the dohyo be an ancient connection of sumo to the continent?

  2. I wasn’t aware of the square dohyo as part of the history of Sumo..nice article..KRN makes a good suggestion there about the Kanji, possibly from China..sounds logical.

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