Wrestling in the floating world - Japanese Sumo prints

Ahead of the forthcoming ASIAN ART auction taking place on 5 September, we take a look at the Japanese sumo prints produced by two ukiyo-e artists Utagawa Kuniyoshi and Utagawa Kunisada during 19th century Edo society.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797 – 1861) and Utagawa Kunisada (1786 – 1865) were both prolific artists in the late Edo period and designed numerous woodblock prints.

They studied at the same atelier of Utagawa Toyokuni (1769 – 1825) but later established their own styles in different field: Kuniyoshi became known as a master of ‘Musha-e’ (warrior prints) and Kunisada in the ‘Yakusha-e’ (kabuki actor’s prints).

Kuniyoshi Japanese sumo prints

This dramatic Japanese woodblock print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi depicts the historic sumo match between Kawazu Saburo Sukeyasu and Matano Goro Kagehisa that took place in 1176. Kuniyoshi was particularly renowned for his depiction of legendary warrior heroes. The  young warrior Kawazu is shown throwing champion Matano to the ground, deploying a technique in which he wrapped his foot around the back of the opponent’s leg, which became named ‘Kawazu’s throw.’

This  triptych is the most successful image Kuniyoshi designed in this field, demonstrating his skill in depicting the intensity of the fighters through the dynamic composition.

Sumo wrestling is an ancient sport in Japan, evolving from the Shinto religion ceremonial dance where humans wrestle with a ‘God’ – an important ritual at the Imperial court. After the 12th century, Sumo wrestling almost disappeared as the Emperor’s power waned and the samurai class emerged. It enjoyed a revival during the Edo period (1615 – 1868), when it was incorporated again into the public sphere in order to raise funds for building temples and shrines. The population of the city of Edo (Tokyo) was reaching one million, and tourists from all over the country were pouring in every day. Groups of professional Sumo wrestlers formed and provided entertainment for a rapidly expanding middle class.

The declining power of the samurai class and growing wealth of the merchant class, combined with economic growth meant a burgeoning entertainment district, with theatres and pleasure houses providing the backdrop for a hedonistic life style - the so called ukiyo, or floating world.

As the popularity of sumo wrestling increased, publishers commissioned the ukiyo-e artists to create the most popular images to sell to sumo fans and as a result, there was an undeniable rivalry between Kuniyoshi and Kunisada. Scenes of sumo bouts were sold as souvenirs, similar to the posters and postcards available in museums today.

Japanese sumo print wood block Kunisada

In contrast to the triptych by Kuniyoshi, this work by Kunisada depicts wrestlers relaxing back stage in ordinary attire. This scene would have appealed to Sumo fans just as much as photographs of celebrities behind the scenes would appeal to fans today.


We are currently consigning for the following upcoming sales:

ASIAN ART, 5 September 2017 (deadline: 27 June 2017)

FINE CHINESE PAINTINGS, 13 November 2017 (deadline: 15 September 2017)

ASIAN ART, 13 November 2017 (deadline: 15 September 2017)


For more details contact the department on asian@chiswickauctions.co.uk