Buke sumō was a type of military training first practiced during the Nara period (710 to 794).
Toward the end of the Nara period, in Enryaku 11 (792), the kondei system was adopted to train soldiers for the defense of the country. Sumō (known as sumahi-no-sechie), along with archery (jarai) and and horse-mounted archery (kisha) competitions were held at the palaces of the Imperial Court, serving as a means to identify individuals to serve as security personnel. Over the years, these events became increasingly festive, and the original purpose to facilitate the selection of stalwart youth was lost so that, in Jōan 4 (1174) of the Heian period, these events hosted by the Imperial Court came to an end.
During the Kamakura period (1185 to 1333), well-known sumō wrestlers included Hatakeyama Shigetada, Kawazu Sukeyasu, and Matano Kagehisa. Minomoto no Yoritomo (an influential bushō and politician from the late Heian and early Kamakura periods) enjoyed sumō, and had his retainers participate. During celebrations at the Tsurugaoka-Hachiman Shrine, sumō events were always held along with competitions featuring horse-mounted archers who would shoot at targets while riding past as well as horse races. The format for the sumō events adopted many aspects of the sechie, or events held at the Imperial Court. Thereafter, sumō was popular throughout the duration of the Kamakura bakufu.
Sumō in the Muromachi period
With respect to the Muromachi period, there are no detailed accounts similar to the Azuma Kagami that serves as a historical chronicle of events of the Kamakura bakufu. Therefore, it has not been established whether large-scale sumō events continued to be held under the direction of the Ashikaga shōgun during the Muromachi period. Cultural interests of the Ashikaga administration based in Kyōto emphasized artistic beauty captured in the Kitayama and Higashiyama cultures.
Sumō in the Sengoku period
In the Sengoku period, buke sumō remained popular among provincial daimyō for military training. In the provinces, sumō was historically practiced as a form of physical training in the context of a feudalistic system established by bushi at the local level. The movements in sumō proved useful training for close combat whereby soldiers would grapple while dressed in body armor. Moreover, sumō contests were performed as a means to pass spare time while soldiers were on deployment. Occasionally, this involved matches against wrestlers who regularly participated in tournaments or as part of Shintō rituals.
In 1477, after the end of the Ōnin-Bunmei War that caused widespread destruction in Kyōto and its environs, some members of the nobility having an interest in sumō as a cultural pursuit, as well as practitioners, moved away to outlying provinces, facilitating the spread of sumō for purposes other than combat. Owing to the cultural influence of these former inhabitants of Kyōto, civilians in outlying areas began to participate in a form of sumō known as tochi sumō, or local sumō. This gave rise to full-time practitioners who traveled within provinces engaging in sumō as a livelihood, particularly in the environs of the capital. Some of the strongest groups of sumō practitioners achieved victory in competition against the soldiers who trained under the command of sengoku daimyō.
Oda Nobunaga, who took the initiative in a bid to reunify the country, enjoyed watching sumō. According to the Shinchō kōki (an authenticated biography of Nobunaga), he frequently watched sumō events. His successor, Toyotomi Hideoyshi, is also cited as watching sumō at his palace in Kyōto.
Originally, sumō was primarily performed whereby a strong individual would be challenged by random onlookers, but then evolved into a format whereby only the practitioners of sumō would engage in a bout while onlookers would pay a fee to attend.
Sumō in the Shintō religion
With respect to its lineage, sumō has long traditional ties to Shintō rituals. Shinji sumō is a form of sumō with a history as long as sumahi-no-sechie first practiced in the Nara period. Shintō festivals featured performances of buraku (traditional music and dance) as well as sumō and other activities. A format known as kanjin sumō involved sumō performances at events to mark the construction or renovation of shrines and temples as a means to raise funds. This followed in kind after nō performances held for the same purpose. With the end of open conflict and the advent of the Edo period under the administration of Tokugawa Ieyasu, buke sumō had lost the underlying reason for its practice. As kanjin sumō entered the mainstream, sumō gained prestige on account of Ieyasu attending events.
While originally for charitable purposes, performances of activities such as nō and sumō for commercial purposes gradually took root. Thereafter, tochi sumō evolved into kōgyō sumō. or performance sumō.