Customs and Rituals

Does the sport of Sumo wrestling have any Shinto connections?

Japan’s ancient and still wildly popular sport of Sumo wrestling is not itself a religious ritual, but it has surrounded itself with rituals associated with Shinto tradition. Once, these matches occurred on shrine grounds as part of the larger category of activities called “divine entertainment.” Today the bigger matches take place in specially decked-out arenas, and are scheduled in fortnightly tournaments at set times of the year. Action occurs under a shrine-like roof suspended high above the floor. Two enormous wrestlers—the heavier the better, in general—confront each other in a raised circle of well-tamped earth bounded by the heavy braided ceremonial rope called the shimenawa. As they enter the ring, the giants sprinkle handfuls of salt to purify the space. They squat and spread their arms in an ancient Samurai gesture designed to assure opponents that they carry no weapons. A referee dressed in ancient ceremonial garb signals the beginning and end of a match and declares a winner, using deliberate, archaic gestures. Sumo champions are among Japan’s highest paid and most popular athletes. The best of them do countless product endorsements, and parades of Sumo greats led Olympians into the arena when Japan hosted the games at Nagano in 1998. Complex as the phenomenon has become in Japanese society today, Sumo has its roots in the same simplicity and basic feeling for nature that pervades so much of Shinto tradition.


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