Okinawa Sumō (Shima) II

Previously, I have written a number of articles about the term tegumi. As it turned out, tegumi was once a name used for what came to be called Okinawa sumō since at least 1897. So lets seek a better definition of Okinawa sumō.

Hokama (1999) divided “traditional Okinawan sports” roughly into 1. karate, 2. kobudō, 3. mura-bō (bōjutsu), and 4. Okinawa sumō. Here follows his description of Okinawa sumō (Hokama 1999:25-27). 

Characteristics of Okinawa Sumō

Competitions of Okinawa sumō are held along with local festivals in each village. They are related to the unity and harmony of the villagers and play a role as an occasion for communication.

In addition, it is related to the healthy development and the improvement of physical strength among young people, and cultivates an “Attitude of courtesy and respect for others” and “attention to safety.”

It helps to increase the interest in sumō by an understanding the differences between Japanese sumō, which follows the idea of competitive sport, and Okinawa sumō.

It is characteristic that it is a lively competition with the spectators having a good time watching the contest of strength and the outcome of the fights.

By the way, the origin of Okinawa sumō was called mūtō or otherwise uētoi, which is mainly grappling, and kicking and striking techniques are prohibited, and in part it closely resembles Mongolian wrestling, and it has also some parts in common with amateur wrestling. It has the characteristic that two person grapple with each other, or control the other person until one opponent is defeated. Forbidden techniques include neck choking, poking someone’s eyes, punching, and kicking. It is said that mūtō, which existed from the Meiji era (1868) to the Taisho era (1912-1926) to the middle of the Showa era (~1945), changed its shape and was traditionally handed down to the present Okinawa sumō.

The Competition Method

There are a chief referee (sumōtō), referees (gyōji), and ushers (yobidashi, who calls the names of wrestlers, sweeps the ring, etc.). Sergeant Yabu (Kentsū), Yanashiro Chōmo, and others known from karate also served as chief referees of Okinawa sumō.

Until before the war, there were few permanent sumō rings, and it was often held at the yard in front of a public hall, at sandy beaches and the like. After the war, it became more common to compete in a standardized sumō ring.

There is no rising from a crouch to charge as in Japanese sumō. According to the rules, the belt is tied and the match starts from mutually grabbing the belt in a right cross grip (migi yotsu). The sumō ring is generally a seven-meter circle.

The game is decided when both shoulders touch the ground, and it is a big difference from Japanese sumō that stepping out of the ring or touching the ground with one’s hands does not mean defeat.

There are techniques such as pulling techniques (hiki-waza), lifting techniques (nose-waza), throwing technique (nage-waza), and hooking techniques (kake-waza).

As a child I have also often watched the sumō matches dedicated at Nami no Ue Shrine. Recently, I have also watched it in the areas of Yonabaru and Katsuren.

The method of tightening the belt is to fold it twice and tie it in a bowknot loose enough so that one fist can be inserted.

There are the following four ways to grab the belt.

1. overhand grip (junte), 2. underhand grip (sakate), 3. large underhand grip  (ōsakate), and 4. a mix of overhand and underhand grip.

The techniques have names peculiar to Okinawa sumō, that is, the Okinawan dialect is used, which also adds to the charm of Okinawa sumō.

First of all, this text provides a good and valid overview. It should be noted that while Hokama Tetsuhiro does not mention the term tegumi, he does mention mūtō, just as Nagamine Shoshin did in his 1986 book:

This kind of [sumō] competition was called ‘tegumi’ in Naha, and ‘mūtou’ in the Tomari and Shuri regions.

Hokama Tetsuhiro said that mūtō existed from the Meiji era (1868) to the Taishō era (1912-1926) and to the middle of the Shōwa era (~1945), when “it changed its shape” and was handed down to the present Okinawa sumō. However, this chronology is difficult to hold up because the term sumō was already used for it in newspaper articles since 1897. Maybe the term mūtō was continued to be used until around 1945 in colloqiual language.

BTW, the now defunct Shuri Naha Dialect Dictionary of the University of the Ryukyus had the following entry on Okinawan sumō:

Shima. Sumō. It starts with both opponents gripping each others belts and holding each other. Throwing the opponent and putting him on his back on the ground means victory. It is done two times in a row. The one who has suffered consecutive defeats is called Nujumi / can say Nujumi, and can ask for a rematch, which the winner can not refuse.

As regards the changes made from the colloquial tegumi and mūtō to the formal Okinawa sumō, there are a few points to consider. Funakoshi said about tegumi that he and his close childhood friends would often play it, that it was done in regulat clothes and that it had no rules except there were so-called fouls (forbidden moves). Striking with the fist and kicking with the foot were understood as being prohibited, as well as the use the knifehand (shutō), strikes with the elbow (enpi), grabbing the hair and pinching. So this safe and social part of tegumi did not change at all in its newer form called Okinawa sumō. Rather, the change – or rather the formalization – was about the regulated use of chief referees, referees and ushers, certain rings, the use of sumō belts instead of regular clothes as mentioned by Funakoshi, and later the use of white jackets and trousers from jūdō and white and red belts to distinguish the fighters; These are the things that were modernized.

According to the above, the tegumi of old was probably a belt wrestling, just as today. However, just as in case of sumō, before its standardization, there were regional differences in the rules all over Japan.

Finally, here are a few terms used in the Okinawan language (collected from Sakihara 2006: 61, 107, 112, 133, 140, 157-158, 178-79, 187):

  • Shima (sumō) [note that the Okinawan word shima is just the dialect pronunciation of the Japanese sumō]: Wrestling, particularly Okinawan style. See also nushi, nushi-gwā, hijai-nushi, machi-gwā, tīnu-jā, mē-gaki, tinmē-gaki, ninjā-gwā, Uchinā-jima, shima-nā.
  • Nushi (noseru). A wrestling technique in which the opponent in thrown down right to left.
  • Nushi-gwā. Sama as nushi.
  • Hijai-nushi: A wrestling technique in which the opponent in thrown down left to right.
  • Machi-gwā. A wrestling technique in which the opponent is collared and tripped.
  • Tīnu-jā. A wrestling technique in which the wrestler puts his arm on the opponent’s back and twists him down.
  • Mē-gaki. A wrestling technique in which the wrestler hooks the opponent’s foot from the outside and pushes him over.
  • Tinmē-gaki. A wrestling technique, similar to Meegaki, in which the wrestler hooks his foot over his opponent’s foot from the outside and throwes him down.
  • Ninjā-gwā. A wrestling technique in which the wrestler holds his opponent with one arm on his back and pulls his opponent down as he himself goes down on his back.
  • Uchinā-jima. Okinawan wrestling. See also shima.
  • Shima-nā. A sumō wrestling arena.

Maeshiro et al. (1993) unmistakenly defined sumō as a “traditional competitive sport of Okinawa,” not a martial art in sense of combat. It should also be noted that the Ōshima Hikki (1762) has an entry on sumō in Okinawa, and it clearly says that it is of the Japanese kind. Therefore, Okinawan sumō (and tegumi and mutō) might simply be regional variants of historical Japanese sumō as handed d own to Okinawa at sometime during the 18th century.

Moreover, Itani Yasuhiko clarified the following in the Bulletin of the Graduate School of Education of Waseda University (2010):

Yamashiro Chiaki, after including the young men’s associations’ folk entertainments of each village in a table, states as follows. “However, although the tradition and creation of folk entertainments has historically been positioned as a role of the young people within a village society, there is the danger that folk entertainments will disappear at the same time as the young men’s associations disappear.”

The situation is the same in the fields of traditional social physical education (such as tug-of-war, dragon boat races, karate, and Okinawa sumō).

“The physical exercise culture was carried out during the annual or seasonal events of the general public during the early and middle Meiji era. It preserved a ‘pastime-like function as liberation from labor’ which was linked to festivals, rituals, and entertainments that had been inherited in the villages and sections of villages. It can be inferred that traditional contests have been handed down as a physical exercise culture by the activities of the traditional young men groups.”

In short, Okinawa had a “pastime-like function as liberation from labor” which was linked to festivals, rituals, and entertainments in the villages of Okinawa, and to the traditional young men groups, which I already mentioned about here. Finally, as Maeshiro pointed out,

Also, in the daily life of the general public in the communities, before the modern sports propagated by the central government had become established, entertainment and traditional athletic culture were carried out, such as traditional karate and kobudō, sumō wrestling, dragon boat race, tug-of-war, and horse-racing. This coexistence of traditional athletic culture [of Okinawa] and modern sports culture [of the West and of Japan] is characteristic of physical education during the Meiji era.

Selected Biblio

Hokama Tetsuhiro: Okinawa Karate Kobudô no Shinzui (The True Essence of Okinawa Karate and Kobudō). Haebaru-chō (Okinawa-ken), Naha Shuppansha 1999.

Itani Yasuhiko: Kyūkan Onzon-ki ni okeru Okinawa no Seinen Dantai (Okinawan Youth Organizations during the Period of Preservation of Old Customs). Waseda Daigaku Daigakuin Kyōiku-gaku Kenkyūka Kiyō, Bessatsu 18–1 (The Bulletin of the Graduate School of Education of Waseda University, Separate Volume, Issue 18-1). September 2010.

Maeshiro Tsutomu: The History of Public Physical Education in Okinawa Prefecture during the Meiji era: Focusing on the Activities of Young Men’s Associations and the Association of Physical Education. Bulletin of the Faculty of Education, University of the Ryūkyūs, Part 1 and 2 (43), 377-386. 1993-11.

Sakihara Mitsugu: Okinawa-English Wordbook. University of Hawaii, 2006.

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