Sumo and tradition

The NYTimes Lede blog [thanks, Mom!] linked Michael Phelps’ marijuana scandal to a scandal in Japanese sumo1 which has resulted in four retirements.

They almost got it right: they note that Sumo wrestlers are supposed to maintain “monkish” discipline, and there’s some real truth to that.2 They also made a classic error: I actually left a comment, which I almost never do at the Times:

“Shinichi Suzukawa” is not his “real name” but his birth name. Sumo wrestlers take on a new name when they enter the sport, and many will take on another when they reach high rank. After they retire, they give up their fighting name and take on a new name, often one based on their stable or coach’s name.

The Japanese tradition is much more flexible than the Western tradition in regard to names.

The name thing and the “monkish discipline” are clear reminders that Sumo, though it’s been a part of the entertainment world for a long time, has its origins in Shinto ritual. The accoutrement of the referrees are drawn directly from priestly garb; the throwing of salt and stamping rituals for purification, etc.

There was a pretty substantial period — most of the Tokugawa era, really — where Sumo seems to have been somewhat divorced of these practices (though ukiyoe of bouts show the presiding referees clearly in traditional garb), and sumo wrestlers were more like free agents and daimyo retainers, but when the modern sport is formulated in the Meiji and Taisho eras, it is clearly resacralized, almost certainly as a result of the state-sponsored resurgence of Shinto and the desire to connect it to a reimagined family-state tradition.

The name changes, then, are also part of this religious tradition: the tradition of taking a new name when taking religious orders is well-known in Buddhism; the tradition of taking on a new name for a new stage in life, and the pseudo-kinship relationship between a stablemaster and his wrestlers also play a role.

  1. yeah, MutantFrog got there first!  

  2. Though also some exoticism, clearly. All athletes are supposed to forego some pleasures in order to maintain high levels of physical training.  


  1. Love the banjo! I’ve always wondered why it wasn’t more popular in rock and punk: the sound profile’s fantastic.

    I left out the other irony: Buddhist monks in Japan have a long literary reputation — stories from the classical to early modern age — for debauchery and licentiousness. So they could, in an ironic sense (sarcastic?), be said to be entirely in line with the tradition of “monkish discipline.”

  2. I wonder, though, if this phenomenon has just as much to do with sumo wrestlers’ status as entertainers. Actors also change their names; so do geisha.

    Also, in the Tokugawa period sumo wrestlers were often connected to the underworld: low-level wrestlers, actors, itinerant prostitutes, and gangsters all traveled along the same circuits. Kanda Yutsuki has a fabulous book about this — she mentions how sumo wrestlers in the Inland Sea region fulfilled some of the same functions as yakuza in other areas of Japan. This makes perfect sense if you think about it — they had muscle (obviously), and because they were traveling all the time they had extensive connections that crossed political jurisdictions. So I guess this is my long way of saying that as a historian of the Tokugawa period, it doesn’t surprise me at all that sumo wrestlers sometimes behave badly!

  3. Well, my original point was that lots of Japanese professions, traditionally, involved new names, and that it’s not a matter of a “stage” name, but a really different attitude towards names and identity.

    What I don’t know is whether the current naming practice in Sumo really goes back to the Tokugawa era. Though the stable system shares some characteristics of the iemoto system, I really can’t think of another institution that works quite the same way.

  4. Actually, thinking about it some more, you did remind me that there is another profession organized more or less the same way as the Sumo stables: Edo prostitution.

    Curiouser and curiouser.

  5. Monks, in general, can have mixed reputations. I was thinking of Carmina Burana, myself. They provide contradictions: the legitimacy of discipline and charity, but the presumptuousness of the elites from whom they are drawn. In that way, they may serve as examples of behavioral extremes.

  6. Gern is right. “Shinichi Suzukawa” is his real name even after he entered the sumo industry.

    In the medieval period, Japanese did not use their real names, which was called 諱 (imina) or 実名 (jitsumyō), in their social lives but used their alternative names such as 通称 (tsushō), 字 (azana), 号 () or 官職名 (kanshoku-mei). The custom in the Edo period that professionals (such as craftsmen, artisans, artistes, painters, calligraphers, scholars, writers etc.) used alternative names was remnant of that custom. Although they used alternative names as professionals, they kept their real names in their private lives.

    The names of sumo wrestlers, shiko-na (四股名), are also remnant of the alternative names used in the pre-modern period. Although they use shiko-na when they work in the sumo industry, they keep their real names in their private lives.

    The name change of Buddhist monks is based on different custom; Buddhist monks discarded their real names when they became monks because they had to give up their whole lives as laymen.

    Also, it should be noted that present sumo business is descended from Kanjin-zumo (勧進相撲) business in the Edo period. Kanjin-zumo was sumo tournaments performed on the ground of shrines and temples in order to collect donation for constructing or repairing shrines and temples. Thus, sumo performance included religious rituals as an essential part of the performance.

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