Sumo


A ritual-laden, Japanese wrestling sport that is generally thought of as the national sport of Japan. Extremely popular in prewar Japanese American communities from Hawai'i to Central California, sumo was also a part of community life in many of the concentration and internment camps in which Japanese Americans were held during World War II.

Sumo has a 2,000 year history in Japan and has been a professional sport there for 300 years. Its origins stem from folk rituals tied to good harvests, and it was particularly popular in rural areas. It emerged as an important part of Japanese American prewar life among the Issei, a high percentage of whom migrated from rural parts of Japan, and later among the Nisei. Sumo's popularity crossed class and generational lines, with working class Issei and Kibei farm laborers being among the top wrestlers. Sumõ was particularly prominent in Central California farming communities. There were also several Nisei who pursued professional sumo careers in Japan before the war.[1]

Sumõ was also a part of life in many of the incarceration sites that held Japanese Americans. Tournaments were held by mostly Issei men held at the Santa Fe Internment Camp and for children and young men at Crystal City, as well as in many of the "assembly centers." Though the War Relocation Authority pushed Western pursuits, sumõ tournaments also took place in many of the WRA camps, particularly those that housed people from Central California and in post-segregation Tule Lake.

Though some community leaders attempted to restart sumõ tournaments after the war, the sport largely disappeared from ethnic community life after the early 1950s, due in part to Nisei and Sansei preferences for other pastimes and to the loss of sumõ facilities in Japantowns shrunken by redevelopment and suburbanization. Hawai'i serves as a partial exception, where the success of several Hawaii-born wrestlers in Japan starting in the 1970s along with visits by Japanese sumo wrestlers made many Hawai'i residents fans of professional Japanese sumõ.

Authored by Brian Niiya, Densho

For More Information

Azuma, Eiichiro. "Social History of Kendo and Sumo in Japanese America." In More Than a Game: Sport in the Japanese American Community. Edited by Brian Niiya. Los Angeles: Japanese American National Museum, 2000. 78–91.

Niiya, Brian. "More Than a Game: Sport in the Japanese American Community—An Introduction." In More Than a Game: Sport in the Japanese American Community. Edited by Brian Niiya. Los Angeles: Japanese American National Museum, 2000. 14–67.

Opler, Marvin K. "A 'Sumo' Tournament at Tule Lake Center." American Anthropologist 47.1 (Jan.–Mar. 1945): 134–39.

Thayer, John E., III. "Sumō." Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan, Vol. 7. New York: Kodansha, 1983. 270–74.

Footnotes

  1. One of them, Harley Ozaki of Colorado, reached the Makunouchi division, the highest professional division, in 1944 under the name "Toyonishiki." He was subsequently drafted into the Japanese Army, ending his sumõ career and lived out the rest of his life in Japan. See Brian Niiya, "More Than a Game: Sport in the Japanese American Community—An Introduction," in More Than a Game: Sport in the Japanese American Community (Edited by Brian Niiya; Los Angeles: Japanese American National Museum, 2000), 48, 152.