Sumo wrestling has been a part of Japanese culture for many thousands of years. The origins of the Japanese race itself are said to have been established by a sumo match. This legend is written in the "Kojiki", or the "Records of Ancient Matters", which provides us with some of the earliest written records of Japanese history and legends. The issues dealt with in the Kojiki were those concerning the Yamate clan, who compiled the book, and kept it safe in order to validate and establish their families claim to the Imperial line. The book dates from 712, and provides some of the oldest records of Japanese writing.

Legend tells us of the wrestling match between Takemikazuchi-no-Kami, a diety, and Takeminakata-no-Kami, the ruler of the common people, and describes the negitiations between the two races concerning the ownership of land. The divine race demanded the common race to surrender the land they owned, which did not greatly please the common race, so, as a result, Takeminakata-no-kami, the representative of the common race, challenged Takemiyazuchi-no-kami to settle the issue with a wrestling match. The diety accepted the challenge and went on to defeat his opponent in the contest, which was waged on the shores of Izumo on the Japan sea coast, in what is now known as Shimane prefecture, allowing them to take possesion of the land. This then established the supremacy of the divine race, and thus "succeeded in effecting an important national and social unity of the race."(Kozo Hiroyama, 1940, pg 10?) The present day Imperial family is said to be able to trace it's ancestors back to Takemikazuchi-no-kami, who is considered to be the founder of the Imperial line.

The print to the right is an early depiction by Kiyamasu I of Kintoku, one of the legendary Hercules of Japan, wrestling with a black bear.

In prehistoric Japan, it seems Sumo was performed in relation to Shinto, Japan's national religion, and dieties during agricultural rituals performed to pray for a good harvest. According to the "Nihon-gi", or the "Chronicals of Japan", the first match to be played between mortals is said to have taken place in 22BC. In that period it appears Sumo was quite different to Sumo today in that it was relatvely violent. The object was "to either kick and kill the other party, or cause himself to surrender himself utterly and unconditionally."(Hiroyama, 1940. pg13), making wrestling originally a form of combat. The print on the left depicts such a fight, showing Tameijiro dan Shogo, one of the 108 heroes of the Suikoden, grappling with an adversary under water.
The match of 22BC is said to have taken place in the presence of Emperor Suinin, the eleventh emperor of Japan, on July 7, 22BC in the seventh year of his reign. The match was requested by the Emperor and was between Nomi-no-Sukune, a potter from Izumo, and Taima-no-Kehaya from Nara prefecture. By all accounts it was a violent match, in which Sukune, after fierce wrestling, delivered violent blows and kicks to Keheya, breaking his ribs and loins, then trampled him to death. Sukune has since been regarded as the "Father of Sumo" (Lora Sharnoff, pg39), with many shrines throughout Western Japan, even to this day, honoring him and his bravery and courage.
In the Nihon-gi, Sumo was often mentioned in relation to the seventh day of the seventh month, an important date in both the Chinese and Japanese legend. According to ancient Chinese legend, it is the the night on which Kengyu (altair star in Aquila) and Sokujo (Vega star in Lyra) come togetheer for a once-a-year meeting. It is said they were once mortal lovers, but angered a jealous diety, and were banished to the heavans and allowed only once a year meet via a bridge built of magpie wings stretching across the heavens. this legend was adopted in Japan in the late 8th-9th centuries, however, it seems that even before this it was an important agricultural festival date in Japan. It was at these festivals that sumo was performed as part of the thanksgiving rituals.

(Right) A wrestling match between two legendary heroes

Sumo is also mentioned in relation to "Obon", or the annual festival of the souls of the dead. The preparation for Obon involves the cleaning of the graves of ancestors and ritual purification of the body. It was common to bathe in the rivers, but a common saying warned against bathing in the river on Tanabata (the star festival), with; "Take care or you'll be challenged to Sumo by the Kappa and be pulled in."(P.L. Cuyler, pg 25). The Kappa is a legendary spirit of the water, depicted in stone on the left at a shrine on Miya-Jima island, near Hiroshima.