For the 140 or so years non-Japanese have known of the existence of sumo, many have referred to it as Japan’s national sport. But are they correct about the status of this ancient form of wrestling found only in these islands, misinformed entirely, or just partly right?

Wherever opinions stand surrounding this ongoing debate, several facts cannot be ignored when considering the status that sumo so often has heaped on its shoulders by the well intentioned:

Sumo is often called “kokugi” in the Japanese media and by the population at large, and kokugi is a phrase most dictionaries translate as “national sport.” Likewise, sumo is performed at a stadium known as the Kokugikan — with “kan” meaning hall or stadium.

However, few with an in-depth awareness of the professional game would ever refer to sumo as simply a sport. It’s more of a “way,” with sumodo a term often heard in professional circles. Also, unlike nine other nations, Canada (lacrosse in summer and ice-hockey in winter), Argentina (pato — a sport played on horseback similar to polo), and Mexico (charreria rodeo) included, Japan has no legally recognized national sport. The nations that do see national recognition bestowed on the sport close to the nation’s heart see increased promotion in schools through the education system, and at the national level for their chosen sports.

If sumo is to be correctly termed “the national sport,” as it is by many Japanese and non-Japanese fans, there can surely be no other pretenders to a similar title.

But what of kendo, a form of stick fighting, which has been around in its current form for a thousand years, compared to the 250 years sumo has been practiced in organized tournaments? As a method of disciplinary instruction that went on to form the backbone of much of the famed warrior culture in the Middle Ages, kendo only became recognized as a sport at the same time as sumo — in the Meiji Era of national restoration (1868-1912). Before that, kendo, and sumo were both “do” — a manner of self-improvement by way of rigorous mental and physical training.

Even judo, although founded later than sumo, was entrenched in its own recognized home named the Kodokan (meaning in literal form: lecture-way-building) over a quarter of a century before the first sumo Kokugikan was built in 1909.

When I asked Aiko Kajikawa, a long-time fan of sumo from Funabashi in Chiba Prefecture and a person more than willing to share an opinion on all things sumo, that most prefer to leave vague, whether or not sumo is the national sport, she said, “No, for the simple reason that it has (never) officially been recognized as the national sport, but sumo is usually referred to as a national sport in Japan — as are judo and kendo.”

An arguably more authoritative view is held by Yukio Sato, a member of the All Japan Judo Federation Education and Proliferation Committee.

“We recognize that no authority supports the idea of sumo being the Kokugi — the only national sport — although it is true that sumo is customarily referred to in this way in the press,” Sato said. “The ‘myth’ was probably partly brought about as sumo tournaments are held in a building named Kokugikan, meaning the hall of the national sport.”

Going on to mention the lack of legal recognition by the government or any official sporting body, Sato said, “The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology has never announced that sumo or any other sport is “the” or even “a” kokugi. Sumo is, however, just like judo, acknowledged as one of the 10 officially recognized budo (Japanese martial ways), as listed on the Budo Charter, established in 1987.”

So, whether or not sumo is in fact “a” national sport may actually be a better question; its lack of a legal status a proverbial nail in the coffin as many Japanese, when asked, acknowledge that such recognition is vital in labelling something “the” national sport.

After all, and presuming the national sport to be one that would receive a degree of governmental sponsorship and support, many would be shocked to learn that compulsory public schooling does not even permit the sport to form part of its curriculum in sports classes, although after-school and university sumo clubs do exist. The sport, and general interest level surrounding it, would obviously benefit if it were made official. Attendance levels would accordingly rise since those trying sumo at school would head to tournaments at weekends to see “the real thing,” and, perhaps most importantly of all to many fans, the emergence of a domestic grand champion would come closer to being realized with higher numbers potentially opting for careers in sumo.

To the same question, university teacher and Japanese sumo writer Michiko Kodama said sumo is not the national sport “because the phrase ‘national sport’ refers to a sport that originated in a given country based on the beliefs and culture of the people. Therefore, kendo and judo can also be considered national sports of Japan.”

Overall participant numbers also cast doubt on sumo being the national sport, since baseball, soccer, judo and kendo can all lay claim to higher numbers of individuals active in enjoying them — particularly at the grassroots level.

Whether or not sumo will ever be given full governmental recognition as a national sport (and this is something I can only see happening if all other “ways” are similarly recognized in typical Japanese style), the forseeable future will remain filled with claims that sumo is the Japanese national sport — only now you know the reality behind the situation and can put those claimants straight.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.