Ancient Japanese society was very much an agrarian one, with most activities based on the agricultural calender, depending on the production and harvest of crops. Shinto, Japan's national religion, has played a major part in the development of sumo, as it was as part of these religious ceremonies that sumo was initially practiced. Archeological evidence suggests that sumo wrestling was performed as part of Shinto rituals and ceremonies as far back as the Tumulus period (250 -552).

Sumo was practiced in Shinto fertility and divination rituals, closely linked to the agricultural calender. The Japanese word for festival is "Matsuri", which actually means "to serve or entertain superior beings."(P.L. Cuyler, pg 26). Sumo was therefore performed to entertainment dedicated to the dieties during important festivals as an offering in order to please the gods and consequently be assured of a good harvest and divine protection. It was often performed along with ritual dancing and religious dramas, as well as with other ritual sports , performed as godly entertainments, such as "horse-racing (keiba), tug-of-war (tsuna-biki), and kite-flying (tako age)" (P.L. Cuyler, pg 26)

From the Nara Period (646 -794) sumo was closely associated with the Imperial court and its ceremonies, being a popular form of entertainment for the noble and aristocratic classes. For approximately 1200 years proceeding the Nara Period, it became associated with sumptuous banquets and lavish tournaments in the style of those held at the Chinese Imperial court and with military training.

An early depiction of Kajin-zumo.

It wasn't until the early 17th century that sumo returned to its religious roots. A structured organisation was formed and authorities began to curb the bawdy and often violent behaviour that had come to be associated with sumo wrestling in the entertainment districts of the large cities.

Sumo was consequently banned in public places, and became restricted to performannces on Shrine grounds, mainly as benefit sumo and as part of rituals. It was during this period that sumo began adopting the religious purification rituals of Shinto, taking on religious significance.

In Edo Tokyo initially sumo was totally banned in public places for a short period of time. Bans were soon lifted, however, and the game was restricted to Shrine grounds in 1684, though in Kyoto and Osaka, orderly benefit-sumo contests had been an established tradition for some time. In the early 1600's, as sumo gained popularity as a form of entertainment, it began to be performed as "benefit-sumo" at shrines. This period was a period of rapid growth, and sumo was performed in order to raise money for various religious institutions, usually to repair or build new shrines, or to assist in construction or maintenance of shrine property, such as roads, bridges or buildings.The religious authorities charged entrance fees, which were then redirected to the cause in need.