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Shiranui Koemon: The grand champion Sumo wrestler

18 July 2017 by Frank Milner

Print of Shiranui Koemon ,the 11th Yokosuna

I’m very fond of certain Sumo wrestling prints -I especially like this one which shows Shiranui Koemon ,the 11th Yokosuna or Grand Champion (in the middle). He’s crossing the Sumida River in the city of Edo (now Tokyo) on his way to the Eko-in Temple where he going to fight.

As a major wrestler Shiranui has a servant to carry his gear and he is accompanied by another senior wrestler, perhaps the one he is to fight, and a referee. Because Sumo wrestlers were honorary samurai they could carry two swords in public.

Shiranui was very popular – best remembered nowadays for inventing a particularly emphatic and expressive way of coming into the ring -the so called dohyo-iri style using distinctive arm movements. Some wrestlers still use this style today and I believe it is much appreciated by sumo connoisseurs.

Shiranui was born in 1822 in Ozu in Kumamoto Prefecture. He reached his peak in the 1850s and 60s. This print was made in 1859.

This print is triptych – which means that it is printed on three separate sheets of paper. I love the flat patterns of the fabrics in this print and the intense graduated blue of the sky. I’ve tried to count the number of separate woodblocks that would have been used to make this print There are at least 5 or 6 individual blues -perhaps 14 blocks altogether in total-printed on handmade paper with inks mixed with rice paste.

Usually prints like this are the only portrait record that we have of great fighters but Shiranui was unusual in that we have photos of him too. He’s the one on the left hand side. He’s a lot slighter than you might expect -smaller than he appears in the print and not the build one expects nowadays of a Sumo star?

Photograph of Shiranui Koemon ,the 11th Yokosuna

You can see another triptych print of Shiranui fighting in the Edo Pop exhibition and a print that shows another wrestler copying Shiranui’s famous dohyo-iri ring entry.

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