Journal of Combative Sport, Feb 2002

A Celebration of Tradition and Community: Sumo in the Pacific Northwest, 1905-1943

By Joseph R. Svinth

Copyright © Joseph R. Svinth 2002. All rights reserved.

An earlier version of this article appeared in Columbia: The Magazine of Pacific Northwest History, 13:2 (Summer 1999), pages 7-14. Financial supporters for the research involved included the Japanese American National Museum and King County Landmarks and Heritage Commission.

Although Commodore Perry’s men watched a Japanese sumo tournament in 1854, sumo’s first exhibition outside Japan was probably the contest staged for King David Kalakaua of Hawai’i in February 1885. (The barrels of rice wine that the king awarded as prizes also provide the first mention of sake outside Japan.) By June 1896, there was a full-fledged basho, or tournament, held in Honolulu, and shortly after the turn of the century, Japanese immigrants were busily organizing exhibitions and tournaments throughout the Pacific Northwest. For example, there was mention of Issei sourdoughs demonstrating sumo in Alaska during the winter of 1904-1905, and on Tuesday, January 3, 1905, the expatriate Japanese of Vancouver, British Columbia celebrated the fall of Port Arthur with a sumo tournament staged at Vancouver City Hall.

According to the Vancouver Daily Province of January 4, 1905, in sumo:

There are practically no holds below the belt – not that they are prohibited, but a moment’s consideration of the tactics will show that low holds are useless… It is not necessary to place your opponent on his back, and hold his shoulders on the mat… Not at all. Just push your opponent off the mat and he is beaten, although he may be standing as steadily on his pins as you are. Trip his toe so that he touches his fingers on the mat and he walks smilingly to his corner a beaten man. Dodge him, when he lunges at you so that he slips to his knees, and he retires to the rear row. Another thing, the Jap never argues with the referee. There appears to be absolutely no doubt about the rules of the game. When a man is beaten he knows it. The preliminaries of drinking water and pinching salt took far longer than the matches themselves, added the Daily Province. Nevertheless, despite the trips to the salt mines, said the reporter, the "bouts seldom last more than a minute at the rate the little Orientals carry them out. Neither are there distressing waits. One duel is over and another commences immediately." Winners probably included the 140-pound Matty Matsuda, for a few months later, Matsuda became a professional wrestler, and the Seattle Times attributed his start to a win in a sumo tournament.

Matty Matsuda, 1920s, at which time he was part of Ed "Strangler" Lewis’s troupe and billed as the "Lightweight Champion of the World." Courtesy William Baxter.

There were sumo tournaments in nearby Steveston, British Columbia, too, as during the 1970s, an elderly Japanese Canadian named Hideo Kokubo told interviewer Daphne Marlatt about the sumo ring that had been built in Steveston during his childhood. "A few people who did sumo in Japan and liked it taught it here," said Kokubo, who added that the Steveston tournaments were generally timed to coincide with Japanese New Year’s celebrations.

Sumo began to be mentioned in Seattle newspapers about the same time. For example, a steamship carrying the Japanese national sumo champion Hitachiyama docked in Seattle on Thursday, August 22, 1907. Said an unsympathetic reporter for the Seattle Times afterwards:

Mr. Hitachiyama is on a tour of the world, and he left Seattle this morning [August 23, 1907] for New York [and later Washington, DC, where he had an audience with Theodore Roosevelt, who declined to wrestle him]. He has with him his suite of six wrestlers. He keeps most of them busy bringing him things to eat and drink… Mr. Hitachiyama does not believe in a restricted diet, and he eats most of the time he is not drinking. Having previously witnessed a sumo tournament in Japan, [EN1] William Inglis, director of the Seattle Athletic Club, took some friends to the finals of a Seattle sumo tournament that concluded on Monday, March 6, 1910. The local coach was the Seattle judo teacher (and professional wrestler) Tokugoro Ito. Although this evening featured the adult finals, earlier there had been a division for schoolboys. Frank Yamamoto, Mac Yasuda, George Ishihara, Mori Shigaki, Fred Hamada, and Clarence Arai were among the junior players mentioned in the Seattle papers.

Tokugoro Ito, ca. 1910.
Copyright © Dan Deaver 2001. All rights reserved.

The venue for the tournament was the basement of the Adams Hotel, at 513 Maynard Street. The finals started at 9:00 p.m., and were not done until well after the last streetcars had quit running. Besides Inglis and his friends, the audience included several hundred men and perhaps thirty well-dressed women, most of whom were Japanese. The following day, a Post-Intelligencer reporter (probably sports editor Portus Baxter) told his readers:

Right in the center [of the hotel’s basement] the ring had been constructed… Instead of using padded mats, they built up an earthen platform twelve or fourteen feet square and a couple of feet high. The earth looked fairly soft until hostilities began and then it looked hard – and sounded hard.

A gaslight – the one modern intrusion – was swung over the center of the ring. At each end there were posts. On each post hung a rice-straw basket filled with salt and under the baskets were buckets of water with quaint drinking cups. Their use was seen later…

When it was time for hostilities to start, a little dried-up Japanese, dressed in gorgeous kimono and carrying a gorgeous fan, clack-clacked out to the platform and in a high-pitched voice intoned what sounded like a cross between a Methodist prayer and the Merry Widow waltz song. The sing-song gent was the announcer…

Then another official came through with some remarks. He talked in a guttural voice, pulling his words out in dying death-rattles. This was the gioji, or umpire, who corresponds to the American referee. He carries a lacquered baton.

It takes a Japanese wrestler longer to get ready for combat than it did [professional wrestlers Ben] Roller and Bert Warner to get together. [EN2] First each man goes to his own corner. He spits thoughtfully, takes a sip of water, tastes the salt, and then, after a couple of repetitions, goes back to the center of the ring. When the two sumo-tori, as the wrestlers are called, finally face each other, they squat down while the gioji mutters strange words over them. They make a few gestures, rise with humped backs and watch each other like cocks before a fight…

To win a bout, the wrestler must either push his adversary beyond the line of the ring or else throw him so that some part of his body above the knee touches the ground. Seldom do the bouts go more than a minute.

Shouts of encouragement rent the air while the men struggled. At the end of the brief battle each returned to his corner to wait the second bout. Each man’s second gave him a sip of water and a taste of salt. The water is symbolic of the wrestler’s willingness to sacrifice his life in the combat if necessary; the salt is symbolic of fair play; and as the men returned for the second bout salt was tossed upon their brown backs by each second…

Often one of the spectators would toss a hat into the ring at the conclusion of a particularly hard-fought and exciting match. The hat was picked up by a wrestler or his second, and later the owner of the hat redeemed it by paying the wrestler a sum of money approximately what the hat was worth. It’s another way of tossing money into the ring.

Winners included Sakuraga Dake, Shiroyama, and R. Minato.

From January 14 to 16, 1911, Ito staged another sumo tournament at Seattle’s Nippon Kan theater. Unfortunately the results were not published in either the Times or Post-Intelligencer. Five months later, on May 18, 1911, during the preliminaries to a wrestling match between Ito and a British wrestler named Joe Acton, Ito’s students also gave a sumo demonstration that was well-received by the mostly Japanese crowd.

Sumo tournament in Walville, Washington, ca. 1910. In 1909, the local lumber mill employed 74 Japanese workmen, and the occasion was probably the Fourth of July or Labor Day. Note the long johns, probably worn because of the presence of ladies in the audience. Courtesy the Pacific County Historical Society.

Between 1911 and 1928, English-language documentation of Pacific Northwest sumo is sketchy, and photographs provide most known glimpses of Northwest sumo tournaments of the era. For example, in South Bend, Washington, the Pacific County Historical Society has a photo of a sumo tournament that is dated circa 1910. The participants would have been local logging mill workers. British Columbia’s Cumberland Museum and Archives has photos of some sumo matches held near Cumberland around 1915. The participants in these Canadian matches would have included both loggers and coal miners, and the chief patron was probably the local businessman Eiikichi Kagetsu. From the 1920s, the University of Washington has a photo of a Seattle tournament, and the Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center has a photo of a Portland tournament dated February 13-14, 1926.


Oregon sumo tournament, February 13-14, 1926.



Courtesy Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center.

Japanese community newspapers probably provide additional details. Unfortunately, there was not an English-language Japanese community paper in Seattle until 1928. However, on January 11, 1930, this paper, James Sakamoto’s Japanese-American Courier, described Bothell, Washington’s Johnny Funai as the reigning Class B champion, and regretted that Seattle’s Eitaro Suzuki, the reigning Class A champion, had recently moved to New York and as a result was unavailable to defend his crown.

On a smaller scale, there were also many informal sumo contests held during company picnics and family gatherings. For example, the Iseri family of Ontario, Oregon has photographs that show informal wrestling matches staged during White River Valley picnics of the 1920s.

A sumo tournament held during a White River Valley (e.g., Auburn) picnic of the 1920s. Note star-spangled bunting, suggesting the occasion is the Fourth of July. The clothed men facing the camera are Sugiyama and Namba; the clothed man with his back to the camera is Murakami. Courtesy Mae Iseri Yamada.

Similarly, John E. Davis, who was raised south of Salem, Oregon, during the 1920s, later recalled: [EN3]

The [Japanese American] laborers from Roberts [a community near Salem] were driven to the picnic at Lakebrooke by my Father as a matter of company policy… We had a fine time at the picnic, I fared pretty well in the races but, as I was not trained in Sumo wrestling, even the little fellows half my size dumped me unceremonially out of the ring… Finally, in 1985, retired seed salesman Henry Schmunk Jr. wrote in a foreword to the White River Valley pictorial history: [EN4] My earliest association with the Japanese people was as a boy growing up in Portland [during the late 1910s and early 1920s]. Once a year the Japanese business people in the city and the Japanese farmers would have a picnic. This took place about a half mile from our home. On that day I couldn’t get home from church fast enough to change my clothes and head for the picnic grounds. They would let us Caucasian kids wrestle, run races and participate in games with the Japanese children. We enjoyed this especially because we were able to win lovely prizes and there was always so much good food to enjoy. Although immigrant sumotori had usually learned their wrestling in Japan, the methods used by the American-trained Nisei (second-generation) of the Pacific Northwest were often an idiosyncratic mix of football and judo. Johnny Funai, for example, played varsity football for Bothell High School while Eitaro Suzuki had turned out for Seattle’s Broadway High School football squad during his freshman and sophomore years. Suzuki was also a teacher at the Seattle judo club known as the Seattle Dojo, and a member of Japan’s 1932 Olympic wrestling team. In this, Funai and Suzuki were hardly unusual, either, as of the 33 Pacific Northwest Nisei sumo champions whose records were studied during the preparation of this article, 24 (73%) played varsity or semi-professional football and 22 (67%) were judo black belts. [EN5]

The first Puget Sound sumo tournament to be documented by the Japanese-American Courier took place in Seattle on January 25-26, 1930. In preparation, the farmers from White River and Fife trained in their barns while the sawmill workers from National and Selleck trained in their sawdust pits. [EN6] The townsmen from Seattle, however, trained on canvas mats laid out in the basement of the Nippon Kan theater. These mats were open from 7:00 p.m. nightly for several weeks before the competition so that "all those wishing to participate in the coming meet may come there to whip themselves into condition." The tournament itself took place upstairs on the main stage. Unlike judo matches, where the crowds usually sat in relative dignity, the sumo crowd yelled as if watching football or boxing.

During the wrestling, Seattle’s Kaimon Kudo, a judoka and future professional wrestler who stood 5’6" tall and weighed about 160 pounds, lost in the first round to a Portland dentist named Kiyofusa Kayama. In the second, Kayama was himself flattened by Sam Kraetz, the University of Washington’s 207-pound starting center, who had entered the event simply for the novelty.

The Tacoma Buddhist Church’s Seinen Kai, or Youth Organization, hosted a sumo tournament during the weekend of February 8-9, 1930. The communities of Portland, White River, Seattle, Fife, Puyallup, and Tacoma were all represented. Kayama, the Portland dentist, defeated Takido of Seattle to win the grand championship. Seattle’s Henry Yoshitomi won a medal in the junior division. Joe Nishikawa of Puyallup, Frank Takeshita of Kent, and Tom Iseri of White River were also winners, while Johnny Funai, Frank Sugiyama, and Ken Kuniyuki received honorable mention. This is the same Ken Kuniyuki who later became a leader of Southern California judo.

Tacoma youth sumo tournament (Takoma Seinen Sumo Taikai), February 8-9, 1930.
Courtesy the Tamura Family Collection.

The Ohshu Seinen Kan, or Oregon Youth Association, hosted a sumo tournament in Portland during the weekend of January 31 to February 1, 1931. Forty-eight juniors and sixty-six adults entered this tournament. The venue was the Longshoreman’s Hall on Fourth and Everett Streets. The following Monday, Portland’s Oregonian reported:

The arena was a large ring with a dirt floor on an elevation in the center of the hall. The referee and announcer were dressed in robes. The referee carried as his badge of office a sort of fan-shaped paddle to which was attached two long silken cords.

The only uniform worn by the athletes was a loin cloth. Previous to entering the ring the contestants each tossed a handful of salt into the arena. This is considered a good luck omen. To start the match the contestants squatted in the center of the ring facing each other with both hands on the ground. At a word from the referee they grabbed each other. Each match was for three falls. When any part of a wrestler’s body touched the ground or when he went outside the ring it constituted a fall.

The grand champion was Don Sugai, a varsity football player and AAU wrestler for Salem High School who later became a well-known professional wrestler. Of his sumo skills, the Japanese-American Courier wrote that Sugai "made such a favorable impression by sending his opponent in an airplane spin that he was advanced to yakusae [champion] rank on the final night."

Sumotori from Auburn and Kent, Washington, probably February 1930. Back row, left to right: Mr. Iseri, Rev. Takemura, Mr. Togawa, unidentified. Front row, left to right: Sam Katsura, Tom Marutani, Tom Hirai, Tony Tsujikawa, D. Kajitani, Frank Takeshita, George Hirai, Mike Iseri, unidentified (perhaps Senda Gawa), Ted Takeshita, Ted Tsukamaki. Courtesy Mae Iseri Yamada.

The Tacoma Buddhist Church hosted another tournament on the weekend of February 25-26, 1933. Teams were expected from Wapato, White River Valley, Puyallup, Seattle, Tacoma, and Portland. The tournament started at 1:00 p.m. Seattle’s Kaimon Kudo and Fife’s Joe Nishikawa (both of whom became American-style professional wrestlers) were the champions. Don Sugai of Salem, Frank Takeshita of Kent, Nobuo Yoshida of Fife, and Juro Yoshioka of Puyallup also did well.

Wapato’s Yakima Valley Sumo Club organized a regional tournament on Sunday, November 12, 1933. The venue was a potato warehouse, and the instructor was Mr. Hayase. One hundred and ninety pound Frank Iseri of Wapato took first place, but Fife’s Nobuo Yoshida and Auburn’s Tom Hirai also did well. "Tom Hirai was my roommate at Selleck Lumber Mill," recalled Toshio Yamanaka during correspondence with the author:

and it’s too bad that he didn’t learn judo. He might have been like Kaimon Kudo being a pro wrestler and doing judo. Tom’s father was a sumo fanatic so Tom and his brothers, George and Jim, were all active in sumo. George played for Enumclaw in the semi-pro football league after high school and he was one of the best. He was also a boxer. Jim, his brother, was in a motorcycle accident and he couldn’t run due to his leg injury so no sports for him. The Ohshu Seinen Kan hosted another tournament in Portland in 1934. A photograph in the collection of the Oregon Historical Society gives indelible evidence of the involvement of both parents and the Young Men’s Association: while dressed in heavily embroidered attire, the oldest sumotori in the photograph is perhaps twelve years of age.

These tournaments celebrated both tradition and community, and were as memorable to the spectators as the participants. Over sixty years later, Tatsuro Yada of Salem, Oregon, told the author:

My wife accompanied her father as a youngster to some of the Nisei sports events, including the sumo tournaments at 3rd and Davis Street. She remembers the ritual they performed before the matches as well as some of the participants. Added Hood River’s Mokuo ("Frank") Tomori: [EN7] The Japanese Association of Portland often held sumo matches in the Armory Hall or a large garage. Kyoshin Club [a gambling club] sponsored the match, and the gambling bosses all showed up… The sumo wrestlers were amateurs from various places. I myself played in the matches among the top-ranked wrestlers, under the name ‘Tanihibiki.’

… On one occasion when I played a match, my partner was a crewman of a cargo boat from Kobe. As I won too often, the rooters for the crew member got angry… So the sponsor asked me to pretend to lose the match this time, which made my patrons angry, and everything fell apart.

The sponsor paid the hotel accommodations, meals and sake for the wrestlers and manager. But many people came to the city from various places to see the match and dropped money at hotels, restaurants and gambling houses, which meant that all in all Japanese Town in Portland prospered.

Tournaments were occasionally held to celebrate personal good fortune. For example, to celebrate his recovery from a serious illness, a Puyallup farmer named Zendayu Yamaji threw his own tournament on Sunday, August 25, 1935. About 30 sumotori and 400 spectators participated. Tom Hirai of Auburn took first while his brother George took second. Other wrestlers who fared well at this tournament included Fife’s Nobuo Yoshida, Masato Tamura, and George Makoto Iwakiri. Play must have been rough, too, as Ichiro Sakano, a judo instructor at Seattle’s Tentoku Kan Dojo, was commended by the Japanese-American Courier for his efforts as "caretaker of casualties."

The Japanese-American Courier hosted its own regional tournament on March 6-7, 1937. The idea was to assist the physical development of Japanese youth through wholesome recreational activities. To keep the second-generation happy, the promoters said they didn’t want stamping of feet, but wrestling. Indeed, said Courier sportswriter Bill Hosokawa, players were expected to:

fly at each other without waiting for the ‘spirits’ to tell them when… Enough of the age-old ceremony will be injected to retain the traditional touch to the sport, but if you expect the long-drawn, monotonous matches of Nippon, you’re mistaken. You’re going to see stream-lined sumo. The practice pit was erected at the Nippon Kan on Monday, March 1, 1937. Competition began at 6:00 p.m. on Saturday and 5:00 p.m. on Sunday. During the competition, said Hosokawa, "The farm-raised sons of the soil took home most of the prizes." In other words, Fife’s Nobuo Yoshida won the overall championship while Auburn’s Matsuo Sakagami took second. Explained Auburn’s Mae Iseri Yamada in correspondence with the author, "Their everyday physical labor was good training acquired naturally."

Twelve-year old Tak "Big Boy" Sagara of Auburn, who weighed 210 pounds, entered the junior competition in this tournament, and evidently he did well, too, as his father later took him to Japan to train. Although a photographer from the Seattle Star also attended the tournament, the Star’s editor decided that the sight of scantily-clad male Japanese anatomy would offend his readers, and he declined to print them.

The Courier held its next tournament on July 4, 1939. As in 1937, Yosajiro Doi was the tournament director. Invitations were sent to players living in Snoqualmie, Eatonville, Selleck, National, Long Beach, Wapato, Bainbridge Island, Bellevue, Fife, Tacoma, and the White River Valley. The match was scheduled to begin at 7:00 p.m., after all the baseball games were done. The scheduled site was a vacant lot near Main and Maynard. Seattle’s first outdoor sumo tournament, it reminded Yoichi Matsuda of being a kid in Japan, where sand-lot sumo:

was greeted with the same enthusiasm that the American kids go in for the sand-lot baseball. On warm summer evenings we’d hie down to the beach, choose sides and get set for the Japanese version of the little World Series. Unfortunately, this was Seattle, not Japan. Said the Great Northern Daily News on Monday, July 3: Showers which soaked the empty lot on the corner of Main street and Maynard avenue dampened not Yosajiro Doi’s spirit in promoting the Independence Day sumo tournament tomorrow evening. Doi announced that the joust will be held at Nippon Kan starting at 7 p.m. The public is invited. No admission will be charged. Despite unexpected clear weather and the distraction of a Japanese American Citizens League Dance at 13th and Pike, street dances on Main Street, and boat races and fireworks at Green Lake, hundreds of people turned out to see Doi’s joust. There were twenty-eight competitors. As usual, they were mostly judoka and football players. Said the Great Northern Daily News afterward: Harry ‘Harribo’ Yanagimachi didn’t exactly pound his chest and cry out, ‘aah,’ a la Tarzan early this morning [the competition continued well past midnight] when he won a gold cup for his outstanding grappling feat at the annual sumo tournament held at Nippon Kan. ‘Harribo’ merely defeated Baba, Tsuchiya, Tamura, Hirai, and Nose in succession as if he were throwing backfield men for ten yard losses on the gridiron turf.

The final match of the night featured Mitsuru Yano of Seattle and [Tom] Hirai of National, which the former won after a gruelling struggle.

Although no one could have possibly made a living doing sumo in America, the tournament was, by AAU standards, a professional rather than amateur event. Besides the gold cups given champions like Harry Yanagimachi, division champions like Mitsuro Yano and George Hirai received sacks of rice and runners-up like Masato Tamura, Keijiro Sasaki, and Tom Hirai received cases of soda pop. In other words, they received economically valuable prizes. And this doesn’t count the white envelopes filled with cash that winners of individual bouts received from their fans, who meanwhile bet with their coworkers and friends on the outcome of the next bout. Fortunately, the AAU never caught on, as if it had, many Northwest Nisei would have been permanently barred from high school and university athletics.

Harry Yanagimachi, while a football player at the University of Washington, ca. 1940.
Courtesy Yuki Yanagimachi.

The Courier’s third sumo tournament was held during the weekend of March 2-3, 1940. As usual, the venue was the Nippon Kan. Yosajiro Doi was tournament director and Heiji ("Henry") Okuda was tournament chairman. Toshio Yoneyama of Sherwood, Oregon, threw Mitsuru Yano of Seattle to win the grand championship. Meanwhile, Masao Kato of Portland won the round-robin individual title while the college and semi-pro football players Roy Nakagawa of Auburn and George Hirai of National were named runners-up.

Three California professionals named Minoru Chikami, Yoshiya Kinjo, and Takayuki Tashima provided pre-match training. The involvement of Californians in Northwest sumo is hardly surprising, as sumo was very popular in the Golden State. [EN8]

Portland’s final prewar sumo tournament took place on the weekend of February 8-9, 1941. Said the Great Northern Daily News afterward:

Leading Nippon sumoists are noted for having excessive weight around their waists, but Seattle sportsmen in the same field proved that the lack of a ‘plump stomach’ is no serious handicap…

Mitsuru Yano, one of the best Queen City [e.g., Seattle] judoists, returned home with the largest gold cup available, a sack of rice, a blanket, and five dollars. Jim Kats Yoshida earned three sacks of rice to carry home, and Joe Nakatsu came home plus two barrels of shoyu [soy sauce]. Peter Fujino, Bengal football star, also reached the locals un-emptihanded.

Seattle’s final prewar sumo tournament took place at the Nippon Kan on Sunday, March 30, 1941. California’s Toshio Koga, who had wrestled professionally in Japan (his ring name was Rai-no-umi), was present to provide training, and the tournament photo can be seen in the Nippon Kan files in the University of Washington’s Special Collections.

Although the 1942 season was hard hit by the wartime relocation of Pacific Coast Japanese Americans, it was not ruined, as sumo immediately resumed in the camps. For example, there were several tournaments at Puyallup’s euphemistically-named Camp Harmony. Leading players included Harry Yanagimachi, Mitsuro Yano, Mitsuo Mizuki, Tom Hirai, and newcomer Shozo Komorita. There was also a full-scale tournament at Hunt, Idaho’s Minidoka Relocation Center on April 3-4, 1943. The latter tournament started at 1:00 p.m. daily and lasted until it got too dark to see. The ring was built in the warehouse area in Block 22, and as seating capacity was limited, spectators were urged to bring their own chairs. The chairman as usual, was Yosajiro Doi. Winners included Tom Hirai, Harry Yanagimachi, Mitsuo Mizuki, Pete Fujino, Mitsuru Yano, and Shozo Komorita.

Since sumo was very popular in pre-WWII California, during WWII, sumo tournaments were, unsurprisingly, especially popular in relocation centers where there were many Californians. [EN9] Seattle’s Hank Ogawa, for example, learned to do sumo at the Santa Anita Assembly Center in 1942. Ogawa had been a football player and judoka in the Northwest before the war, and after being sent to the assembly center, he started learning sumo from a California champion named Hiroshi "Bud" Mukaye. In the camps, Ogawa preferred sumo to judo because sumo, unlike judo, was a paying proposition. Matches were held every Sunday during the summer and fall, and the fans would put money or ration coupons into a white envelope marked with the names of two players. The winner of the bout would then get the envelope. "I was earning $50 to $75 every Sunday in Santa Anita Camp," Ogawa later told the author. Since laboring for the government only paid $12 to $14 a month, the extra money was important to the Ogawa family, which had three children born in the wartime camps.

A wartime newspaper advertisement for a sumo tournament at Wyoming’s Heart Mountain Relocation Center. Many Japanese Americans from Eastern Washington and Oregon ended up at Heart Mountain.

While sumo tournaments did not resume in Washington or Oregon following the war, Fife’s Masato Tamura, by then a well-known judo teacher, won a sumo championship in Chicago in 1954. Since 1977, sumo matches also have been featured in Vancouver, British Columbia’s annual Powell Street Festival, and in June 1998, current Japanese champions held a formal basho (tournament) in Canada.

Dates of Pacific Northwest Sumo Tournaments, 1905-1942

Although a reader of Japanese-language community newspapers could probably double the following listing, the following are the dates of the Pacific Northwest sumo tournaments I’ve found.

Tournament scheduling was not random. Instead, most prewar sumo tournaments took place near the Lunar New Year’s (e.g., the second new moon after the winter solstice). The reason was that many Japanese believe that a sacrifice of prodigious human energy is a good way of ensuring good fortune, and that a sacrifice near the New Year’s offers the greatest return for the investment. The apparent anomalies only prove the rule -- the tournament in Wapato in November 1933 was held to celebrate a good harvest while the Puyallup tournament of August 1935 was done to celebrate the sponsor’s remission from disease. As for the July 4, 1939, that was a very auspicious time for everyone to be wishing for good fortune.
Year Lunar New Year Tournament Date Location
1905 February 4  January 3 Vancouver, BC
1910 February 10 March 3-6 Seattle
1911 January 30 January 14-16 Seattle
1911 January 30 March 1 Victoria, BC
February 6
October 1  Lulu Island, BC
1926 February 13 February 13-14 Portland
1929 February 9  January 25-26 Seattle
1930 January 30 February 8-9 Tacoma
1931 February 17  Jan. 31 – Feb. 1 Portland
1932 February 7 None found  
1933 January 26 February 25-26 Tacoma
1933 January 26 November 12 Wapato
1934 February 14 Unknown Portland
1935 February 3 August 25 Puyallup
1936 January 24 None found  
1937 February 11 March 6-7 Seattle
1938 January 31 None found  
1939 February 19  July 4 Seattle
1940 February 8 March 2-3 Seattle
1941 January 28 February 8-9 Portland
1941 January 28 March 30 Seattle
1942 February 16 July-August Camp Harmony (Puyallup)



EN1. William Inglis, "In the Name of Dai-Jingu," Harper’s Weekly, 51:2629 (May 11, 1907), 678-679.

EN2. See Joseph R. Svinth, "Benjamin Franklin Roller -- A Pioneer of Angles and Feuds," InYo: The Journal of Alternative Perspectives on the Martial Arts and Sciences, 2000,

EN3. Illustrated Memoirs & History of the Livesley-Roberts Community 1840s to 1940s, compiled by Doug Chambers (Salem, OR: Self-published, 1997), 46-47. I am indebted to Kyle Jansson of the Marion County Historical Society for this citation.

EN4. White River Valley Chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, A Pictorial Album of the History of the Japanese of the White River Valley (Auburn, WA: White River Japanese American Citizens League, 1986), 10.

EN5. Joseph R. Svinth, "Sizing ‘Em Up: Statistical Relationships between Various Combative Sports in the Japanese American Communities of the Pacific Northwest, circa 1910 to circa 1942," InYo: The Journal of Alternative Perspectives on the Martial Arts and Sciences, 2000,

EN6. Selleck is located in eastern King County, about ten miles east of Maple Valley. Built during the early 1900s, during the early 1920s its mill, owned by the Pacific States Lumber Company, employed 600 men and cut 150,000 board feet a day. The mill’s approximately 150 Japanese employees lived in long, shed-like barracks having a central bath house and cook house. Meanwhile, National is in southeastern Pierce County, about six miles east of Elbe. The National mill specialized in cutting the very long spars used to make beams for factory ceilings, and at its peak, it employed about 300 men. The Selleck mill closed in 1937 and the National mill closed in 1944, and today both communities are ghost towns. For additional details, see Kenneth A. Erickson, Lumber Ghosts: A Travel Guide to the Historic Lumber Towns of the Pacific Northwest (Boulder, CO: Pruett Publishing Co., 1994), 17-18, 76-77; Morda C. Slauson, One Hundred Years on the Cedar (Renton, WA: King County Library System, 1967), 48-50; and Ed Suguru, Northwest Nikkei, May 1994, 7, 15.

EN7. Kazuo Ito, Issei: A History of Japanese Immigrants in North America, translated by Shinichiro Nakamura and Jean S. Gerard (Seattle: Japanese Community Service, 1973), 835.

EN8. For an introduction to pre-WWII California sumo, see Eiichiro Azuma, "Social History of Kendo and Sumo in Japanese America," in More Than a Game: Sport in the Japanese American Community, edited by Brian Niiya (Los Angeles: Japanese American National Museum, 2000), 78-91.

EN9. For a Jewish anthropologist’s description of a sumo tournament held on Sunday, June 10, 1944, see Marvin K. Opler, "A ‘Sumo’ Tournament at Tule Lake Center," American Anthropologist, 47 (January 1945), 134-139. Photographs of this tournament appear on the National Archives website; for your search, try the keywords "Wrestling" and "Sumo."

JCS Feb 2002