As yokozuna (‘grand champion’) Asashoryu wins his 5th tournament of the year, and ozeki (‘champion’) Kaio falls one win short of his promotion criteria despite besting Asashoryu on the final day, it seems to be an appropriate time to look at the far-from-ancient origins of the championship system in Japanese sumo.
The most interesting and significant aspect of the modernization of sumo is probably the development of the championship system. It has always been obvious, in Japan as elsewhere, that some athletes are better than others. The traditional way to discover who was “the greatest” was for claimants to the title to challenge one another. In chivalric terms, one “threw down the gauntlet.” It was not until the nineteenth century that European and American sports evolved from such more or less impromptu challenges to modernity’s rationalized format of regularly scheduled competitions specifically designed to determine the best athlete or team. Sumo, too, evolved in this way.
From the middle of the eighteenth century, four regularly scheduled tournaments per year, each lasting approximately ten days, were staged in the three cities of Edo, Osaka, and Kyoto. Before the nineteenth century, spectators attending these tournaments apparently had little interest in comparing one wrestler’s past performance with another’s. It was not until the Meiji period that spectators began to evince interest in a wrestler’s performance over the course of an entire tournament. In fact, the word “tournament,” used here to translate the Japanese term basho, should not be taken to mean a series of matches climaxing in a final bout to determine a single winner. In a sumo tournament, wrestlers do not advance through rounds in the manner of tennis players at Wimbledon nor do they wrestle against all the other contestants in round-robin style. Each wrestler has only one match per day and the tournament champion is the winner of the topmost division, the makuuchi.
It is difficult now to imagine sumo without this championship system. Which of the previously most successful wrestlers will win the next tournament is the focus of fan and media interest. Most sumo enthusiasts are surprised, therefore, when they learn that the concept of a tournament championship is a relatively recent innovation. In fact, it did not exist at all until well into the modern period. The long, complicated, and little known development of the championship system is a fascinating case study in the modernization of sumo.
In the Tokugawa period, the focus was still on individual matches. After a particularly thrilling match, excited fans often threw money or articles of clothing into the ring. The winning wrestler kept the cash and sold or pawned the clothes. In the Meiji period, new forms of appreciation and reward appeared, forerunners of today’s championship system. Like the athletes of Europe and North America, wrestlers began to receive trophies and other prizes awarded for their performance over the course of an entire tournament rather than for victory in a single match. These awards were donated by private groups, which makes the precise origins of the practice difficult to document. Newspapers, which regularly sponsored baseball and other modem sports, were often the donors.
At first, there was ambiguity about exactly what it was that the wrestler had done to deserve his reward. Initially, trophies were presented to wrestlers who were undefeated, but undefeated records were not necessarily identical because there were two different kinds of draws and absences were not recorded as losses. It was not uncommon for more than one wrestler to finish a tournament without a defeat, in which case each received a trophy. For example, after a tournament in January 1889, Konishiki [‘little brocade’] (a small fellow not to be confused with his huge twentieth-century namesake) was awarded a trophy by the Tokyo newspaper Jiji shinpo despite the fact that he had not won all of his matches. He had seven victories, a draw, and a match for which the decision had been deferred. Two undefeated lower-division contestants were also awarded trophies after they wrestled to a draw on the last day of the tournament. According to the newspaper, if no wrestler went undefeated, no trophy was awarded.
A shift in the criteria for awarding trophies occurred in 1900, producing the kind of tournament champion that we now take for granted. In January of that year, Osaka’s Mainichi Shimbun offered to award a keshomawashi (ornamental apron) to an undefeated wrestler of the makuuchi division. If no wrestler survived the tournament undefeated, the apron was to be awarded to the wrestler with the fewest losses. If two or more men tied for the fewest losses, then the prize was to be given to the man who defeated the greatest number of higher-ranked opponents. These new criteria provided for a single champion.
SOURCE: Japanese Sports: A History, by Allen Guttmann and Lee Thompson (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2001), pp. 109-111