All About Japan

The Past and Future of Japanese Sports

Sports Sumo

Why do people watch sports? According to Lee Thompson, a professor at the Faculty of Sport Sciences of Waseda University in Tokyo, “We like sports because they tell a story, and these stories tell us about who we are.”

Thompson teaches classes on sports and their representation in the media since, as he puts it, “most of us . . . rely on the media to tell that story.” As a sociologist who established his career in Japan, the U.S. national has examined the influences of the media and modernization on Japanese sports.

While an exchange student in Japan, he worked for national broadcaster NHK as well as two cable television companies, which piqued Thompson’s interest in the media. Later, his research on the popularity of live TV broadcasts of sumo and professional wrestling in the 1950s inspired him to focus on the media’s role in depicting sports for his graduate studies at Osaka University.

Further research led Thompson to examine the modernization of sumo in response to changing times and media. He discovered that sumo matches in Japan’s Edo Era (1603–1868) were quite different from those today. “For example, they didn’t compare individual records over the course of a tournament and use that to determine a single overall winner—what you saw was what you got,” he explains. Thompson believes that modern newspapers introduced the championship as a way to generate interest and sell more copies.

Contrary to the appearance of traditions unchanged since the feudal era, Thompson also found that some key elements in sumo were introduced in the past century. By way of example, he elaborates on how the referee clothing resembling the garb of a Shinto priest was added in the early 1900s, while the roof that hangs over the ring was incorporated in the 1930s, modeled in the same architectural shinmei-zukuri style as Japan’s Ise Shrine.

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