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Photo Vault: Slim sumo wrestlers

A photograph from 1885 shows that not all sumo wrestlers were heavyweights.

Japanese wrestlers, c 1885 Photo by SSPL/Getty Images

Sumo wrestling is thought to date back to prehistoric times; wall paintings suggest it evolved from ritual harvest dances. Centuries of Japanese art has followed depicting the sport of sumo, highlighting each generations most famous rikishi. The wrestlers celebrated on those classic woodblocks are, more often than not, big boys. The abundance of supersized heroes in sumo art have convinced most of us that all rikishi were larger than life. These depictions have also shaped modern sumo, with wrestler weights increasing each year as Japan continues to associate that image with their national sport.

However, not all sumo wrestlers were big. Men, and women, of all shapes and sizes have donned the mawashi and stepped into the dohyō.

For an example of lean and mean sumo wrestlers, look no further than today’s featured image from the Photo Vault. This photograph — from the Howard and Jane Ricketts Collection — dates back to September 3, 1885. In it you see five sumo wrestlers who look like they would be at home in the UFC’s flyweight division.

The naked wrestler in the centre, with his back turned, is adorned with a traditional irezumi (tattoo). That style is associated with the yakuza; Japan’s organized crime clans. However, just as not all sumo wrestlers were big, not all irezumi wearers were criminals.

Tattoos like those in the picture were certainly popular with Japan’s criminal class. But they were also worn by firefighters, who believed the ink offered them spiritual protection from the flames.

If the man in the picture was a member of the yakuza that wouldn’t be much of a surprise. The yakuza have had a long association with sumo. They have a very recent association with the sport, too. In 2010-11 a massive yakuza influenced match-fixing and gambling scandal was uncovered. Thanks to that, and both a hazing scandal and a sensational assault in a karaoke bar, the sport’s popularity is currently at an all time low.

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