Although sport is contemporarily seen as a secular activity in Western societies, Shinto religion is omnipresent in the sport of sumo that has come to epitomize Japanese culture. As an exclusively Japanese sport, sumo is unique in that it originated in the country and was not introduced by foreign nations (Pempel 1998). Throughout Japanese sports, equal emphasis is placed on physical fitness and aptitude as well as spiritual strength, known as ‘konjo’ (Maguire & Nakayama 2006). As further discussed by Maquire and Nakayama (2006), a strong sense of spirituality increases the mental concentration and the will to succeed, which are both essential for victory in Japanese sports such as martial arts, judo, and sumo. Correspondingly, it has been largely contested by the Japanese public and the Japan Sumo Association, that non-Japanese wrestlers, who are not thought to possess the necessary qualifications of ritual knowledge and spirit, threaten the sanctity of sumo (May 1989). Similarly, Masao (1998, 25) asserts that the success of sumo lies in “the demand that the rikishi adhere strictly to its rules and etiquette.” It is this adherence to the traditional Shinto rituals that surround the sport of sumo that has transformed sumo into the contemporary national sport that is reflective of Japan’s divine origins and culture.
Since the 6th century, sumo contests have been an integral part of Shinto ceremonies in Japanese villages, and were commonly performed at religious shrines during seasonal festivals in hopes of pleasing the gods and receiving a bountiful harvest (May 1989). Within contemporary sumo, numerous religious rituals are performed in order to purify the competing wrestlers, known as ‘rikishi’, and establish the arena as a sacred site that can invoke a deity (Maguire & Nakayama 2006). Gyoji, or sumo officials, initiate the competition by blessing the sacred ring through the initial ceremony known as dohyou-matsuri (Light & Kinnaird 2002). Dressed in colourful robes and black hats similar to those worn by Shinto priests during the Heian period between 794 and 1185 CE, the gyoji bury salt, kelp, dried squid, and chestnuts in the centre of the clay ring, or dohyo as a sacrifice to the Shinto gods (Light & Kinnaird 2002). Numerous other rituals are performed including the pouring of sake around the dohyo, the blessing of a sakaki tree, and prayer to the gods for the protection of the participating rikishi (Light & Kinnaird 2002). Following the dohyou-matsuri, the dohyou-iri ritual commences in which the rikishi are introduced to the audience by the gyoji. The introduction of the rikishi is thought to introduce a cosmic energy in the dohyo, and after clapping rituals are performed, divine figures, referred to as kami, are believed to be present within the ring (Masao 1998).
The extensive preparations and rituals for the bout largely aim to enact a divine presence within the sacred ring. The dohyo is marked with twisted straw rope, while straw sacks denote the surrounding rectangle. Both of these are considered to be traditional Shinto ritual items (Masao 1998). The rikishi faithfully perform the same purification rituals consisting of repeated physical movements around the arena, including bowing to his opponent, stamping his foot on clay dohyo, known as shiko, tossing salt in the ring, and slapping his belt (Light and Kinnaird 2002). Although the bout itself lasts only a matter of seconds, the ceremonial aspects and religious significance of the bout cause sumo to be a widely attended sporting event by the public. Combat between the two rikishi is “understood as a mythical battle fought between positive and negative elements of the cosmos” (Masao 1998, 20). The victor of the bout is considered to be the recipient of divine intervention, though both wrestlers are regarded as mystic or divine-like figures. Consequently, they are both touched by observers upon leaving the ring in hopes of gaining the rikishi’s physical power (Masao 1998). Sumo competitions can be transcendent experiences for both the competitors and the spectators, and thereby can result in religious and mystical enlightenment.
While sumo ritual is largely derived from ancient rituals performed in Shinto religion, the rituals were to some extent contrived in the late 18th and early 19th century in order to integrate sumo into Japanese culture after a decline in sumo’s reputation (Light & Kinnaird 2002). During this era, sumo had developed into a common form of street fighting among the Japanese working class, yet it was only once Shinto rituals and new traditions were incorporated into the sport that sumo became regarded as a dignified sport (Light & Kinnaird 2002). The incorporation of rituals derived from the indigenous religion of Japan, Shinto led to the adoption of sumo as the national sport, and the inclusion of sumo as a defining facet of Japanese culture (Light & Kinnaird 2002). The Shinto religion does not revolve around a set of strict doctrines that should be obeyed, unlike many Judeo-Christian Western religions, but emphasises purification of an individual’s body and soul through means of ritual performances (Light & Kinnaird 2002). The purification of competitors, as well as religious worship to Shinto kami is achieved through sumo participation due to its entrenched religious rituals.
Yet while the religious expression in sumo has historically advanced the sport in Japan, before Reformation, it was a widely held belief in the Christian faith that recreational activities and sport posed as a distraction to worship and eventual salvation. As a result, “the cultivation of the body must be subordinated to salvation of the spirit” (Eitzen & Sage 1993, 85). The rise of Protestantism in the 20th century, however, gave way to a new perspective regarding involvement in recreational activities, and provided greater support from the church for sport, largely as a means of attracting potential converts (Eitzen & Sage 1993). In contemporary American society, Protestant ethics now wholeheartedly encourage sports activism, and view athleticism as a God-given gift that should be utilised to its utmost potential. Protestants view those endowed with physical strength, speed, and agility to have an obligation to succeed in sport since it was seen as “the only way of living acceptably to God…through the fulfilment of obligations imposed upon the individual by…his calling” (Eitzen and Sage 1999, 98). As it was God’s will, an individual’s success in sport would lead to personal salvation for fulfilling their ‘occupational calling’ (Eitzen and Sage 1999, 99).
Through Protestant evangelism, the human body and athletic performance is used as a means to glorify and worship God. An example of this is seen through numerous declarations by renowned athletics, such as Pete Brock’s of the New England Patriots comment, “My responsibility is to play to 100% of my ability as a way of thanking Him for what He’s done for me” (Hoffman 1993, 111). As described by Brock, the quality of his athletic performance is based on the physical exertion and effort that serve as a spiritual offering to God. Although sports are predominantly viewed by Christians in American society to be an unsuitable forum for godly worship, evangelism alters this depiction by constructing athletic performances in unholy venues as a ceremonial act of worship. The effort and aggression executed during the athletic performance and pain that is endured is for instance thought to be proportional to gratitude and love for God. Therefore, the determination to win and succeed, stems from the desire to express one’s dedication to Him, and thereby, attain salvation. Because competition is used as a means of expressing devotion and worshipping God, and as a result, aims to rid the raucous behaviour that can be prevalent at sporting events, Protestant evangelism sees a much greater sanctity in sport (Hoffman 1993). Evangelism aims to legitimise sport as a means of religious worship, and through the sacrifice of one’s own body, as the way to attain the soul’s salvation.
Major contemporary sports are perceived by many Christian communities as corruptive and too consumed with “the spirit of self-promotion” and devoid of the Christian ethos of consideration towards others (Hoffman 1993, 114). Consequently, sports have come to be regarded by as many Christians as an unholy activity which promotes outward aggression, potential violence and hatred towards the competition (Watson and White 2007). As advised by John Paul II, athletic involvement requires caution since it ‘may be used for other purposes with the danger of corruption and decadence’ (Watson and White 2007, 62). The corruption and unchristian arrogance that can ensue from a ‘victory-at-all-costs mentality,’ which Protestant evangelicals would largely support, given that success in the sport’s arena is defined by winning sporting events (Watson and White 2007, 71). Protestant evangelicals are faced with a resulting predicament in which their own religious ethos of success, self-discipline, and hard work, conflicts with the overarching Christian doctrine of ‘love thy neighbour’ in the context of sport (Watson and White 2007). Doug Plank of the Chicago Bears attests to the conflicting position evangelical athletes face. He claims that, “As a Christian, I learn to love, but when the whistle blows I have to be tough. You’re always walking a tightrope” (Hoffman 1993, 116). Evangelicals believe that success in sport is God’s intention and desire, and failure to comply is a dishonour to Him. However, the success gained in athletic victory in the eyes of Protestant evangelism is not seen for the purpose of personal gratification, but instead a sacrifice of the human body and endurance of physical pain in order to become the victor (Watson 2007). In the sect’s opinion, the glorification of God through intensity on the field is worthy of the aggression and lack of sympathy for the competition.
The use of sport by Protestant evangelism and Shinto religions as a means to glorify God and achieve spiritual salvation or purification defies the preceding assumption that worship is limited to sites with known sacred associations, such as a shrine or church. The incorporation of religious worship in a secular activity like sport redefines the capacity for religious expression in non-traditional forums. Both Protestant evangelism and Shinto religions thus demonstrate not only a substantive relationship between religion and sport, but also suggest the possibility for the use of other unconventional aspects of contemporary society for religious expression.
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