Sumo Wrestling 2

Group: Evan, Evan, Sahil, Jimin

Primary Document: Sociological Journal: Sumo

Watercolor Painting: Sumo Wrestling #2

Sumo Wrestling 2

The painting, Sumo by Gene Sogioka, portrays a typical sumo match between two wrestlers at an internment camp during the World War II period.  Numerous individuals crowd around the ring as they watch the two wrestle.  Other wrestlers sit by on the sidelines as they are perhaps awaiting their turn to enter the ring.  Standing beside these wrestlers are a few men in suits who are perhaps betting over the wrestler they think is going to win.  Mr. Sogioka contrasts the dull and dreary atmosphere brought upon by the barracks with the luminous and vibrant aesthetics of the sumo ring.  Interestingly enough, the light seems to emanate from the ring itself, hinting at sumo symbolizing a beacon or hub of amusement in the otherwise bleak camps.  Off in the distance we see numerous shrouded figures, which likely implies that not everyone in the camps partook in these events.  The painting effectively highlights the generational gap between the Issei and the Nisei as one generation struggles to preserve its culture while the other strives to maintain a positive public image and assimilate into Western white culture.  The painting nonetheless depicts sumo as a source of entertainment and unity away from the hardships of life in the internment camps.

 

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Sociological Journal Sumo

This sociological journal, as a part of the Bureau of Social Research, serves the purpose of keeping a “close and scientific watch on the human side of things in the development of Poston.” The excerpts we have pulled out are composed of daily accounts of several individuals who were at Poston. Some delineate the details, ranging from broad to minute, of the events surrounding a Sumo match at Block 59 within the camp; some demonstrate the division between youth and adults regarding Sumo and Japanese culture. From these reports that took the form of “thousands of observations,” recorded as journal entries, we gain an insight into predominant themes of the time, such as tension between the Issei and the Nisei, preservation of Japanese culture vs. assimilation into Western society, and the response of white Americans to Japanese traditional culture. It is important to note that these journal records are “for research purposes only.”

 

Encyclopedia Entry

Sumo wrestling finds its origins in the Shinto religion with an approximate 2,000 year history in Japan.  It was initially used in rituals that were conducted in hopes of a prosperous harvest season.  It emerged as an important aspect of Japanese American prewar life among the Issei.  Since sumo did not have any roots that were established upon a class-based history, sumo’s popularity transcended class and generational borders[1].  Sumo quickly established itself as an integral aspect of Japanese culture and history as it grew into a spectator sport during the Edo Period.  Most of the tournaments in the internment camps were conducted by the Issei men, who hoped to use sumo not only to preserve their own culture in the internment camps, but also hope to pass down this traditional sport to future generations.  The Issei saw sumo as a lifeline to their old culture and as a means to retain it during a time of heavy racism and prejudice.  Sumo thus became seen as way to uplift the Nisei and educate them, as “Issei parents believed that sumo helped” the Nisei “acquire mental toughness and physical strength”[2].  Outside of the internment camps, Issei community leaders formed organizations centered around sumo in order to help the “second generation fully understand and appreciate Japan and its culture”.  The Americanized Nisei, however, saw sumo as an obstacle that would revoke the strong relation that they had built with the whites.  To the Nisei, sumo was perceived as an act of rebellion through refusing to assimilate to the white American culture of the time and therefore did not indulge in sumo as much as the Issei did.  This further widened the generational gap between the two generations and the popular sport, which once had no borders, found itself quickly growing obsolete.  This primarily became true especially with the rise of the Sansei during the postwar period as sumo eventually declined in popularity.   Sumo eventually began to lose its religious background in American as it grew into a simple competitive sport in comparison to its historical spiritual background and roots. The Americanized Nisei and Sansei began to show an overall preference for other pastimes over the traditional Japanese sport and art of sumo wrestling and with that the fall of sumo began.

 

 

Historical Analysis

Though it holds a faint presence today, sumo wrestling was once one of the most popular cultural and communal sporting events in Japanese-American communities. The history of sumo in American was turbulent from its first introduction to Hawaiian communities in the late 1880’s through its rise to popularity in the 1920-1930’s, and its eventual decline post-World War II. At its height in popularity during the 1930’s, sumo offered more than a century of history and tradition to over a thousand Japanese American wrestlers along the Western coast of America. Despite its 1,500 years of illustrious history, sumo wrestling saw its popularity begin to falter during the grueling years of incarceration that the Japanese experienced in internment camps during World War II. Sumo’s decline was a direct result of heightened wartime persecution that caused many Nisei wrestlers to deviate away from Japanese activities, join American pursuits, and consequently the manifestation of generational rifts between the Issei and Nisei.

Sumo’s origins date back to ancient Japan where sumo was first used during rituals of the Shinto religion. Its modern spectator aspect was only introduced in the early Edo period as Japan began to internationalize and emerge from isolation. Yet despite its newly donned entertaining and competitive nature, sumo has managed to adhere to its spiritual overtones. This is evident even today in the Shinto priest garb donned by referees, and the sand that the wrestlers bout on as a symbol of purity in the Shinto religion[3]. As many aspects of old Japan remain in sumo, such as hairstyles, “traditional dress, and ancient customs, professional sumo is more than just a sport; it’s a living example of traditional Japanese culture”[4].

Unlike its steady growth and development in Japan, sumo’s journey in America would experience many highs and lows. The first American exposure to sumo wrestling was in 1853 upon Commodore Matthew Perry’s arrival in Japan. With America forcing Japan out of isolation and open to Westernization, sumo eventually began spreading to the West. In 1885, Japanese immigrants landed in Hawaii and brought the first bouts of sumo to American soil[5]. As sumo began to develop within Japanese American communities, many Issei wanted their children to learn sumo as a passing down of cultural heritage.

From the early 1900’s up to the 1940’s, sumo grew furiously among Japanese American communities and gained unprecedented popularity amongst both Issei and Nisei groups.  The Issei wanted the Nisei generation to act as a bridge between Japan and America.  This required the Nisei generation to learn about Japanese arts, culture, and tradition, which resulted in the rise of popularity of sumo, kendo, and judo[6].  The Issei saw sumo as a form of education to teach the Nisei generation the Japanese spirit and values that had allowed Japan to become a world power.  In order to help facilitate the Nisei’s education, Issei leaders organized central sumo organizations in the late 1920’s and 1930’s.  The first American Sumo Association was established in Los Angeles in 1925 and many others popped up across California in the following years[7].   Each of these organizations would sponsor regional tournaments for young wrestlers and would host a state-wide tournament each year.  As sumo’s popularity grew, Japanese American wrestlers traveled to Japan to learn more about the sumo world and its culture[8]. As the 1940’s began, sumo was at its height with over 1,000 wrestlers participating in tournaments across California.  It seemed as though sumo would continue to grow and potentially even reach other demographic pools.

However, in 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 in response to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor[9].  The order relocated all people of Japanese ancestry to incarceration camps outside of the Pacific military zone.  This incarceration period would last for three years until 1945 and would mark the decline of sumo wrestling in America. Upon relocation, each individual was only allowed to bring a very limited number of physical belongings.  This resulted in a focus on community activities in incarceration camps that were typically centered on physical activities and old traditions.  In the beginning, sumo wrestling was one of the most popular community activities that camp inmates could participate in.  Although the War Relocation Authority strived to reduce Japanese influence within the camps and pushed for inmates to pursue American pursuits, Issei leaders would organize sumo tournaments for younger Nisei men.  Since each internment camp’s population was assembled by geographic location, some camps had more inmates who were interested in sumo than others.  For example, sumo wrestling was very popular in Central California before the war; thus, internment camps where those Japanese were relocated saw a large sumo presence[10]. A few of the camps with the liveliest sumo-wrestling communities included the Santa Fe, Sacramento, Tule Lake, and Poston incarceration camps[11].  The Poston internment camp outside Arizona offered sumo wrestling matches that sometimes saw “[crowds] of perhaps 500 people”[12]. One Poston camp sumo ring was painted by Gene Sogioka during his stay at the internment camp and shows a similar setting as depicted in sociologist Alexander Leighton’s account of the camp.  Like those at most camps, sumo participants at Poston had to wrestle on makeshift arena rings of “about 15 feet wide of raised dirt”[13].  Actual ring dimensions as dictated by sumo regulations are supposed to be very specific.  Formal competition rings are called “dohyos” and are exactly 4.55 meters in diameter and made of rice-straw bales on top of clay and sand.  Though sumo participants couldn’t replicate the physical setting of sumo, they still engaged with the same level of ceremonious rigor.  Each group of wrestlers were required to “[start] with the bows and ritual stretching” before using salt “for cleansing the spirit and keeping from being injured”[14].  These spiritual and ceremonial components of sumo were actually the traits that the Issei generation wanted to pass down to the Nisei.

In the beginning, sumo wrestling was still a very popular activity in the camps.  However, as tensions between America and Japan heightened throughout World War II, sumo began to lose its popularity among the Nisei generation.  As WWII raged, anything associated with the Japanese became a target for persecution within the camps.  As such, many Nisei, who identified as Americans, began to reject their ethnic and cultural heritage.  This included their participation with sumo.  Over time, more and more Nisei began to side with their American counterparts and judged sumo as a representation of a hostile Japan as opposed to the composed and friendly traits that the Issei sought to highlight[15]. Many of the younger Japanese teens and children who didn’t grow up with sumo saw the sport as foreign and extreme.  While watching a sumo wrestling match at the Poston internment camp, Alexander Leighton heard several Japanese teens not only display their ignorance of the sport by asking “How do you win this thing?”, but also mock the ritual stretching by calling it “the silliest thing”[16].  It was also common for Nisei onlookers to ridicule the ceremonial mawashi that wrestlers wear as being strange and funny looking.  As the Nisei generation began steering away from sumo, a rift began to develop between the Nisei and Issei groups.

Catching upon this trend, the War Relocation Authority began offering a variety of American community activities in the internment camps such as baseball, basketball, and dancing.  In the Poston internment camp, Alexander Leighton accounted a Y.B.A dance practice with “American jazz [and] couples dancing” being held in a recreation hall near the sumo wrestling ring[17].  In his account, he noted that there were roughly 500 people watching the sumo wrestling match and only roughly 20 couples in the dance hall, which gives the impression that sumo wrestling was still at its height of popularity in the internment camps.  In contrast, Gene Sogioka’s “Sumo 2” depicts a very different atmosphere surrounding sumo as he only drew a handful of people watching.  Here, it is important to distinguish the difference in time periods of Alexander Leighton’s account and Gene Sogioka’s painting.  Alexander’s account of the sumo wrestling match was in September of 1942, the very beginning of the Japanese’ incarceration years.   While the exact date of Gene Sogioka’s “Sumo 2” is unknown, his painted works spanned the two years that he resided in the Poston camp.  Therefore, there is a good possibility that this particular work was drawn in the later years of incarceration when sumo had declined in popularity, indicating a more accurate portrayal of the state of sumo in 1945.

Sumo’s decline following the war was even more pronounced as many sumo facilities in Japantowns were uprooted by suburbanization and redevelopment, Nisei showed higher preferences for other pastimes, and the repatriation of many Issei community leaders[18]. Beginning after WWII and into the 1950’s, many sumo rings were lost to redevelopment such as the removal of the Sacramento ring to the construction of the Los Angeles police department building[19]. In addition to the loss of physical equipment, sumo saw many of its foundational leaders return to Japan and many more of its Nisei wrestlers convert to American sports. During this time, American baseball had become a very popular community pastime among Japanese Americans[20]. As such, sumo largely vanished from Japanese community life after the early 1950s, albeit some community leaders’ attempts at recommencing sumo tournaments in the post-war period.

Sumo’s remarkable journey in America was highlighted by its immense popularity in Japanese American communities before facing the debilitating years of incarceration that led to sumo’s eventual decline. The discrimination that World War II placed on Japanese Americans caused many Nisei to avoid sumo as an escape from persecution, and join more favorable viewed pursuits such as American sports. This betrayal as seen by many Issei resulted in a fissure between the two generations. Whether sumo would have continued to flourish in the absence of incarceration or decline naturally is hard to predict. In fact, sumo has recently rebounded with a wave of success internationally as Western countries have developed an interest in Eastern cultures and sports. However, sumo’s potential will remain unknown as a result of World War II’s crippling effect on its growth and development.

 

[1] Japanese American Sumo in the Continental United States, 1900-1941 – Part 2 (Japanese American Sumo in the Continental United States, 1900-1941)

[2] Japanese American Sumo in the Continental United States, 1900-1941 – Part 2 (Japanese American Sumo in the Continental United States, 1900-1941)

[3] Guttmann, Allen, and Lee Austin Thompson. Japanese sports: A history. University of Hawaii Press, 2001. Pg. 28

[4] Guttmann, Allen, and Lee Austin Thompson. Japanese sports: A history. University of Hawaii Press, 2001. Pg. 34

[5] Guttmann, Allen, and Lee Austin Thompson. Japanese sports: A history. University of Hawaii Press, 2001. Pg. 55

[6] Azuma, Eiichiro. “Japanese American Sumo in the Continental United States, 1900-1941.” Japanese American National Museum Quarterly (1997): n. pag. Discover Nikkei. 28 Mar. 2014. Web.

[7] Azuma, Eiichiro. “Japanese American Sumo in the Continental United States, 1900-1941.” Japanese American National Museum Quarterly (1997): n. pag. Discover Nikkei. 28 Mar. 2014. Web.

[8] Azuma, Eiichiro. “Japanese American Sumo in the Continental United States, 1900-1941.” Japanese American National Museum Quarterly (1997): n. pag. Discover Nikkei. 28 Mar. 2014. Web.

[9] “Japanese Relocation During World War II.” National Archives and Records Administration. National Archives and Records Administration, n.d. Web.

[10] Azuma, Eiichiro. “Japanese American Sumo in the Continental United States, 1900-1941.” Japanese American National Museum Quarterly (1997): n. pag. Discover Nikkei. 28 Mar. 2014. Web.

[11] Niiya, Brian. Sumo. (2015, January 15). Densho Encyclopedia. Retrieved 20:45, November 30, 2015

[12] “Sumo.” Sociological Journal, 1942. Pg. 19

[13] “Sumo.” Sociological Journal, 1942. Pg. 19

[14] “Sumo.” Sociological Journal, 1942. Pg. 20

[15] Azuma, Eiichiro. “Japanese American Sumo in the Continental United States, 1900-1941.” Japanese American National Museum Quarterly (1997): n. pag. Discover Nikkei. 28 Mar. 2014. Web.

[16] “Sumo.” Sociological Journal, 1942. Pg. 19

[17] Sumo.” Sociological Journal, 1942. Pg. 21

[18] Azuma, Eiichiro. “Japanese American Sumo in the Continental United States, 1900-1941.” Japanese American National Museum Quarterly (1997): n. pag. Discover Nikkei. 28 Mar. 2014. Web.

[19] Azuma, Eiichiro. “Japanese American Sumo in the Continental United States, 1900-1941.” Japanese American National Museum Quarterly (1997): n. pag. Discover Nikkei. 28 Mar. 2014. Web.

[20] Breaden, Jeremy, and Steele, Stacey. Internationalising Japan: Discourse and Practice. Routeldge, 2014. Pg. 164

 

 

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