Oh! Sumo!

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    Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), Hokusai Manga (Sketchbook), Japan, Edo Period, 1817, Woodblock print, Gift of Mrs. C.M. Cooke, Sr., 1960, (09900)

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    Utagawa Kuniaki II (1835-1888), Sumö Bout at Yayoi Shrine Attended by Meiji Emperor, Japan, Meiji Period, 1885, Color woodblock print, Anonymous gift, 2006 (28681)

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May 17, 2007 - July 22, 2007
James A. and Mari Michener Gallery (21)

Exhibition Overview

Sumö, the national sport of Japan, is a unique form of wrestling that is almost 1500 years old. Sumö is mentioned as a contest of strength in Kojiki (the Records of Ancient Matters) compiled in A.D. 712, and as an entertainment for the emperor’s Korean guests in Nihon Shoki (the Chronicles of Japan) compiled in 720. In the Nara and Heian aristocratic periods (710-1192), sumö was performed at annual ceremonies in which the imperial family prayed for a good harvest. Samurai warriors were encouraged to practice sumö. During the early Edo period (1615-1868), professional sumö groups were formed to entertain the rapidly expanding middle class. This was when sumö came into its own as the national sport of Japan.

During the Tenmei era (1781-89) sumö’s popularity began to spread, and many sumö prints were produced. Like other genre prints of actors and beautiful women, the images of famous sumö wrestlers were extremely popular with the public. Sumö was a favorite entertainment of the Edo people.

However, in the Meiji period (late 19th century), sumö became a political issue. During the early Meiji period, Japan wanted to catch up with the West and become a world leader. The ruling parties of Japan feared that sumö wrestlers with their loincloths and topknots conveyed an uncivilized image of Japan. However, many Japanese questioned wholesale Westernization and remained loyal to their tradition and culture. In 1885, the Meiji Emperor (1852-1912) held a sumö bout attended by many aristocrats and politicians. This event re-established the status of sumö.

Many fabulous sumö prints in the Honolulu Academy of Arts’ collection depict popular wrestlers from the Edo period to the present. Their finely delineated forms are achieved with bold lines and often exaggerated features, emphasizing their physical prowess. Their topknots and loincloths reflect a long unchanged history. 

Sumö is now becoming an international sport, with especially close connections to Hawaii. The first non-Japanese wrestler to win the top division championship was the Hawaiian Takamiyama in the 1970s. He was followed by Konishiki, the first Hawaiian to reach the second-highest rank of Özeki. In 1993 Akebono became the first Hawaiian Yokozuna (the top rank), followed by Musashimaru. The Academy is fortunate to have a print of Musashimaru, a recent gift from Mr. Philip Roach Jr., who has donated many modern Japanese prints to the Academy.

The Academy will exhibit approximately thirty prints of sumö wrestlers and sumö wrestling by many artists of the Utagawa and Katsukawa schools. In addition, there will be prints by the renowned artist Hokusai, as well as paintings depicting sumo.