The University of Iowa

Sumo, Kendo, and Shinto

December 7th, 2015

By Luke Bader*

Hey Everyone!

How was your week off for Thanksgiving? I hope you all had a good chance to visit with friends and family and also eat your fill of turkey, stuffing, potatoes, and of course, pie. Being here in Japan, I’ve obviously been unable to celebrate in the traditional way. However, throughout the month of November I’ve been keeping myself busy in a few other ways.

Today I thought I’d share with you a little about some of the things I’ve been up to this month:

Sumo 相撲:

If I was to bet on what is one of the top things Japan is known for, I’d probably put my money on Sumo. During the first week of November I was lucky enough to go on a trip with some of my fellow classmates to a sumo tournament being held in Fukuoka (Nov. 8). Having never been to a sumo match before, it was extremely entertaining to witness such a unique part of Japan’s historical culture that has continued today.

 For those who don’t know, Sumo is a traditional (going back several centuries), highly competitive full contact form of wrestling. There are many rules that go along with sumo wrestling but the basic goal is for one of the two wrestlers to force the other out of the ring or for one of them to touch the floor of the arena with a part of their body other than their feet. In Sumo, aside from the physical nature of the sport, there are a number of ritual aspects that stem from the ancient Japanese religion of Shinto such as using salt to ‘purify’ the ring before each match, and having a Shinto priest give a blessing to each of the wrestlers.

The following is a link to a video I took of a single match during the tournament. This one lasted longer than most because it was performed by professional wrestlers:

Kendo 剣道:

Something my university here in Nagasaki offers is a short semester course on Kendo, or, the traditional art of swordsmanship (lit. “sword way”). Kendo uses bamboo swords called “shinai.” The basis for Kendo is learning how to properly wield the traditional Japanese sword, the Katana. Today, Kendo is widely practiced in dojos across Japan and regular tournaments are held for “kenouda” (someone who practices Kendo) to compete and gauge their skills.

I have to say, Kendo has probably been one of my favorite things I’ve done this semester at school. It required a lot of repetitive practice with foot and handwork but under the guidance of our teacher, Shimosato-Sensei, it was a very rewarding (and not to mention, fun) experience.

kendo photo

I think we’re ready to be on the ‘The Deadliest Warrior,’ don’t you think?

Shinto 神道:

(While Shinto is a fascinating religion which I could honestly spend all day writing about and only scratch the surface, I will try to give a brief explanation)

Shinto is the traditional religion to the people of Japan. While over the centuries when Buddism made its way over from China, the two religions tended to blend together and form a hybrid version, Shintoism has still had a tremendous impact on the history and culture of Japan. Shinto is (without a doubt) a polytheistic religion, meaning it involves the worship of many gods/goddesses (or as they are called in Japanese, Kami). In fact, one nickname that Japan has come to be called is “The Land of Eight-Million Kami.”

The special worship sites of the local Kami are called Jinjas. Jinjas can be big or small, depending on the importance given to the deity, but all of them usually have a small statue or object to honor the kami.

During my stay here, I have tried to visit a few of them. A few days ago I visited a famous one called ‘Suwa Jinja’ located here in Nagasaki with a few of my friends. I have to say that the architecture of these sacred sites never fails to impress me with their beauty, no matter if they are big/small or elaborate/simple.

Also, taking the opportunity, I slipped over to the gift shop area and picked up a few お守り(omamori), or charms/amulets used for protection and for luck. Easily, visiting Jinjas has been one of my favorite things about visiting Japan!

photo of Luke and friends

Me and some friends standing in front of a row of scared archways (tori) at Suwa Jinja

Here is a question aimed at anyone who has happened to travel to another country. What was the predominate religion there? Christianity? Islam? Buddhism? Hinduism? While you were there did you check out any of the major religious sites? If so, I invite you to share a link to your photos in the comment section below!

Thanks for reading everyone! まったね!


Fun Facts (About the above):

  • Sumo is actually the official sport of Japan. Although when looking at devotedness of the baseball fans on TV here in Japan, you might have thought otherwise.
  • The concept of the sport of Kendo is to discipline the human character through the application principles of the katana, including the code of the samurai, Bushido.
  • The word “Shinto/神道” means “Way of the Gods”.

*Luke Bader is a senior majoring in international studies with a minor in Japanese and a certificate in writing at the University of Iowa. This semester, the Jesup, IA native is studying abroad on the USAC Nagasaki Program in Japan.