Depictions of Sumo Wrestling in Shunga

Professional sumo wrestling began in 1684 at the Tomioka Hachiman Shrine in Edo city. From 1768 until 1909, the wrestling matches were held at the Buddhist temple Ekō-in, also in Edo. Women were banned from participating in professional wrestling. Even today, women are not allowed to touch the dohyō ring in which wrestlers compete for fear that their spiritual impurity might soil the sacred space.

In unofficial wrestling matches, however, the ban often was ignored, and records indicate that from the mid-18th century until the 1950s, all-female matches and mixed-gender matches appear to have enjoyed wide popularity. The events were considered novelty spectacles (misemono) more than serious sport: bouts in which women competed against such opponents as blind men and sheep were common during the late 18th century. At the time that they were produced, therefore, ribald parodies of sumo competitions such as those presented here must have been met with reactions ranging from deep outrage to amusement.