Springtime sumo: giving it back to the people

by Mark Buckton

Sumo in late March and throughout April each year is about pressing the flesh — literally.

From almost the minute the Haru Basho ended in Osaka, the majority of sekitori set off on a multi-stop trip back up the Tokaido to Tokyo. This year, as in most, they paused in Mie Prefecture (Ise Shrine), Kanagawa Prefecture (Odawara, Fujisawa and Yokosuka) and Tokyo (Yasukuni Shrine in Chiyoda-ku) to meet fans, hold babies, pose for photos, hold more babies and partake in a little half-hearted sumo along the way, nothing too strenuous. Various top rankers were heard to gripe about an injury here, a knock there, but it was mostly fun and games for the fans who turned out to see them along the way — and a great many did.

Coming on the back of rough couple of months involving a Japanese tabloid’s unsubstantiated claim of bout fixing, spectator numbers were likely a pleasant morale booster for the national sport. The Yasukuni Shrine event on April 13, in particular, which was bathed in sunshine and pretty much packed to capacity, offered many sekitori a real chance to relax and hang loose.

Asashoryu was all smiles and went through his by now usual “reverse salt toss”: “seasoning” of a yobidashi sitting behind him rather than purifying the dohyo in front of him. No one was pushing too hard, there were lots of half comical lift-outs and plenty of pressing the flesh with fans on the way in and out of the ring. The fans left happy, they knew it was a show put on for their benefit and everyone went home a winner.

There will be one final sumo celebration, on April 22, in Funabashi City, Chiba Prefecture, where the sekitori will take part in an event marking the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the city. The festivities are scheduled to take place in the main gymnasium at the city arena as part of what will be a far-from-cheap affair. Details (in Japanese) at: http://npo-kizunanokai.jp/oozumo.htm

Having paid their debt to their fans, many of the heya are not scheduled to get back into the swing of things until later this week, at the earliest. Those not on tour recently, predominantly lower rankers in the makushita division and below, have been doing more chilling out than keeping in shape, and the Natsu Basho is only a month away. Odd reports have come out of asageiko morning practice, but nothing likely to blow away the cobwebs just yet.

Of minor note (at this point in their careers) are the 70 or so new rikishi announced to the fans in Osaka. Many have spent the past few weeks learning the ropes and being put through their paces, but the real lessons will start once their elders and betters arrive back ready to go. Exactly how many will make it to the top division is a subject very few will broach, but we’ll keep an eye on them here to see exactly how they pan out over the months and years ahead.

Away from the professional circuit for a moment, the world of amateur sumo is chugging along in Japan now with a few events scheduled in the near future so if you hear of something going on in your neck of the Japanese woods get along and see the sport at the grass-roots level.

Overseas a few minor events are taking place, mainly in Europe and around the Pacific Rim. The U.S. event that I mentioned in my last column took place just over a week ago, and was a roaring success by all accounts. It continues to lead the world in its ability to pull in the “big” names — both from the amateur level and, in the past, the professional side of things.

Whether or not the governing body of the amateur sumo world, the Tokyo-based International Sumo Federation, will be able to build upon this success and increased global interest as they prepare their bid to have sumo fully accepted as an Olympic sport in the years ahead remains to be seen. They have their problems but hopefully these will be ironed out well before they make their sales pitch to the International Olympic Committee in Central America — more on that after the Natsu Basho.

For now, with the cherry blossom long one, it’s time to pack away the smiles and high fives and let the practice begin.