Origins in Korea


Throughout history, Japan has had quite close ties with Korea; ties which were especially strong from the 6th to 8th centuries. It is thought that Korea may have played a part in influencing the development of Japanese sumo wrestling, with the discovery of remarkably similar frescoes, clay figures and decorations on ceremonial vessels in both Japan and Korea.

Detail of a print depicting a Korean delegation to the Imperial court

Particularly striking are the frescoes decorating the walls of a stone slab tomb at Takamatsu, in Nara prefecture in Japan. They depict paintings of wrestlers which bear a striking resemblence to those found in the T'ung Kou Basin of the Yalu River region in North Korea. This region is located near the ancient capital of Koguryo, which was one of the largest and most prosperous cities in the period following the decline of the Chinese Han Dynasty colonies. Having a large population of noble classes, it seems wrestling was practiced as a form of entertainment in noble circles.

Wrestlers depicted on the walls of the "Tomb of the Wrestlers" in the T'ung-kou basin of North Korea. (Cuyler, 1985, pg 13)
The most famous depictions of these forms of entertainment is in the "Tombs of the Wrestlers", one of the excavated tombs of the T'ung kou region (at left). The walls are decorated with scenes of noble guests being entertained by wrestlers, with the figures wearing wearing loincloths similar to those worn in Japan.

Although it appears to be a Mongolian style of wrestling, it is remarkably similar to early records of Japanese Sumo wrestling. As in early Sumo, the wrestlers are in various similar poses, such as grappling positions.

In the Yamate region of Japan, archeologists have also discovered Korean style ceremonial vessels illustrated with wrestling scenes, which certainly suggests Korea had some kind of influence in Japn at the time.To the right are wooden figurines of sumo wrestlers, thought to be at least a thousand years old, known as engishiki dolls. They are made in a remarkably similar style to those found in Korea, indicating the influence Korea may have had on Japan at the time.

Engishiki dolls