Sometime in the very early 1990s, Britain’s Channel 4 TV station started broadcasting Sumo on terrestrial TV. I don’t know why they took the chance of broadcasting such an exotic sport, nor did I care – it was on, it was Japanese, I must watch it.
I not only watched it, but I studied it: every Japanese sounding word I heard I wrote down on a piece of paper as well as the English translation. At that time I thought “Chiyonofuji” was Japanese for wolf, “Terao” = typhoon, and “Mitoizumi” = salt shaker… all pretty embarrassing mistakes to admit nowadays considering!
At this time, I hadn’t yet began kendo, I had played around with aikido and judo and thought that karate (what I currently practised) was the epitome of Japanese budo.
Fast-forward 20+ years on and now I live in central Osaka, under 10 minutes walk from the Prefectural Gymnasium where the spring Sumo tournament (basho) is held every March. Not only that, but one of my dojo (Yoseikai) is in the basement of the same building.
Of course, I’ve been to see the spring basho a few times, and have marvelled at the size of the rikishi (they are massive… much bigger than on a tv screen) as well as the spectacle of the event as well.
As you can see, I’ve had an interest in Sumo for a long time. Coming to Japan, learning the language, and studying more about the lifestyle of individual rikishi has engendered an even greater respect in me for them. Of course, Sumo has been marred in recent times by match fixing scandals and (to a lesser extent) bullying… but in all honestly, neither has dampened my enthusiasm much.
So, its of no wonder that I am intrigued by the fact that there was a point in time where kendo nearly took the same route as modern Sumo… that is, there was a possibility that kendo may have ended up as a professional sport with payed/salaried athletes. This possibility was perhaps slight (and since it never happened, academic), but it existed nevertheless.
When the Tokugawa-Bakufu was dismantled in 1867/68 budo education was thrown into turmoil: gone were the domain schools as well as the short-lived Kobusho, and with that budo instructors suddenly lost their profession. Many (now ex-) samurai were suddenly jobless and facing destitution. One person that stepped up to help these people was the ex-samurai, Kobusho kenjutsu instructor, and Jikishinkage-ryu kenshi Sakakibara Kenkichi. He instituted what was called “Gekken-kogyo” – the highly popular public budo shows. “Gekken” (alternatively “Gekiken”) refers to the nascent form of what we now call kendo (“kenjutsu” was another common term for sparring in bogu with shinai). Although mainly sword-based shows, bouts with other weapons also occurred, and women and even foreigners are also recorded to have taken part.
Sakakibara used the already established Sumo-kogyo (now called O-Zumo) as the basis for this new sword-based show as we can see by the use of banzuke, dohyo, yobidashi, gyoji, shinpan, colourful clothes, and so on, as well as splitting the competitors into East and West camps. A comparison between the wood block prints of Sumo and Kendo at the time reveals an amazing similarity.
These shows gathered ex-budo instructors up and they took part in bouts in front of a paying audience. The swordsmen themselves were ranked and payed. I'm not sure if their rank and compensation was based on their performance, but it wouldn't be hard to imagine that even if they hadn’t at this time, that it soon would evolve in that manner.
The shows almost instantly became popular and more sprung up in different parts of the country, mostly connected with Sakakibara and his jikishinkage-ryu students, but some not. Due to its popularity, a larger, specialised arena was built in Asakusa to deal with bigger events.
At this point you can imagine it wouldn’t have been a large step for Gekken to have become more formalised and professional, especially since it was following an already tried-and-tested model (Sumo-kogyo), but it didn’t.
There was a couple of problems that followed the success of the shows:
1. There was a sudden flood of competitors, most of whom were unskilled. This led to messy/scrappy fights where it became difficult to choose a winner;
2. The new Meiji government was sensitive to groups of people gathering and discussing political matters under cover of the shows (the same had happened in dojo in Edo during the Bakamatsu period).
Due to number 2 above, Gekken Kogyo eventually were banned and – even when the ban was lifted – its popularity never returned. The main reason for this is almost certainly that skilled competitors ended up being hired as policemen in the newly created Keishicho (Gekken became mandatory in part due to the arguments put forth by Kawaji Toshiyoshi in the Gekken Saikoron). At the end of the day, as you can see, Sakakibara’s wish of helping destitute budo teachers was in fact realised. This system continues in a modified form to this day.
Although it never happened, the professionalism of kendo into something akin to Sumo is an intriguing thought. Had it been realised, what would the kendo community and organisations look like today? Physically, would it be more or less athletic? Would it even have spread outside of Japan? Would you or I even be practising it?
Next time you are watching a sumo bout (or even better, when you go to see one), its worth thinking over.
Please check out the small gallery of pictures below, showing Ukiyo-e prints of both Gekken and Sumo, as well as Banzuke from both. For more information about the first picture in the gallery please read this article from 2010.