While these hashioki may seem to suggest that sumo is a sport where pudgy guys wearing aprons or diapers stomp around, this indigenous Japanese sport is actually a sophisticated test of technique and concentration in addition to being a contest of strength.
The Japanese word sumo comes from the pronunciation of the kanji meaning “get together” and the kanji meaning “strike.” It is often translated as “to mutually rush at.” According to the Kojiki, an early 8th. century Japanese collection of myths, the first sumo match was between two Shinto gods to determine which of them would rule Japan. Sumo continues to have many ties to Shinto today.
The garment that a sumo wrestler wears is known as a mawashi. It’s about 30 feet long and two feet wide. The mawashi worn during tournaments are made of silk. Sumo wrestlers usually wear their hair in a oichomage or ceremonial topknot.
The other garment unique to sumo is the kesho-mawashi, or ceremonial apron. Higher ranked sumo wrestlers wear these aprons during the dohyo-ri or ring entering ceremony at the beginning of each match. Many rikishi receive their first ceremonial apron from their home town fan club when they graduate from apprentice to professional wrestler.
I purchased the following four vintage hashioki on eBay. Given the traditional Japanese prejudice against four, and the illustrations on these pieces, I have to believe that this set once had five, or maybe many more pieces.
The first hashioki depicts a particularly hefty sumo wrestler. His white belt or tsuna identifies that he has attained the lifetime rank of yokozuna, meaning Grand Champion, or the highest rank a wrestler can attain. The zig zag paper strips hanging from his belt signify lightening. Yokozuna are only promoted after winning two or more consecutive sumo tournaments, and they have rock-star celebrity status in Japan.
This hashioki shows a sumo match in progress. It gives a good view of a sumo dohyo, or clay and sand wrestling ring, and the tawara or rice straw bales that mark the edges of the 15-foot-diameter ring. Surprisingly, sumo depends more on strategy than bulk. There’s a lot of pushing and shoving, but a wrestler wins his match by forcing his opponent to lose his balance and step outside the ring, or to fall so that some body part touches the ground outside the tawara.
The inscription on this chopstick rest tells us that it depicts a dohyo-iri, or ring-entering ceremony, where all the wrestlers parade before a match begins. The wrestlers parade in rank order, and the leader in this illustration is a yokozuna.
This last hashioki depicts a particular sumo move, which supports the suggestion that this set originally had more pieces. The move is known as utchari, and it’s a dangerous move that can produce spectacular results. When a wrestler is pushed up against the edge of the ring he leans back, tempting his opponent to try to bump him out of the ring with his stomach. However, a skillful sumo wrestler sometimes manages to move to one side before this can happen, meaning that his opponent ends up falling flat on his face outside the ring.
While sumo tournaments are still televised on Japan’s leading television station, the sport has become less popular in recent years. This may be because some of the most successful or popular wrestlers are not Japanese, but come from places like Mongolia and Hawaii. Sumo has also been troubled by a series of scandals. Other sports, including soccer and mixed martial arts, seem to be wooing fans away from sumo, too. But sumo continues to be an iconic Japanese symbol, and to be a popular motif for hashioki.