The Nihon Sumo Kyokai — the Japanese Sumo Association — recently announced it is once again considering an overseas jaunt. Destination this time? Sin City — Las Vegas, Nevada. Again!
Exactly why the sumo association has again opted for an American city to host one of their all too rare overseas tours is a mystery.
Coming just prior to trips to Hawaii (2007) and Los Angeles (2008), the previous 2005 visit to Las Vegas was, admittedly, a great success, but in the eyes of many, it was only about bringing in the dollars. For most attending the event at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino Center, sumo’s appearance on the same Strip as the likes of Tom Jones and Joan Rivers was little more than a gimmick. The results were predictable to say the least, generating little of the focus and intensity that attracts so many to the sport in Japan was seen, and for many it turned into more of an autograph hunt coupled with a photo-op than anything else.
No American has been seen anywhere near the sport’s professional rankings for years, so surely a recruitment drive didn’t inspire the latest glance across the Pacific. And, although a pair of half-American twins have now entered the sport (under their Japanese mother’s nationality to avoid restrictions imposed on foreign rikishi numbers), they have a long way to go before ever being considered worthy of a place on one of the official trips that the higher ranked men make.
Meanwhile, the European fans who have really formed the backbone of the international support base for the past decade have once again been ignored.
London was initially scheduled to be the destination for an overseas trip this October, but for reasons never made clear, nothing materialized and the financial hub of the EU failed to add to its 1991 hosting of a similar event.
Not all overseas fans have been similarly snubbed. Asian neighbor Mongolia did get to host a similar tournament in mid-2008 — in large part due to the fact that the sport has been dominated by Mongolians for the past few years. Taiwan also saw the rikishi visit for a few days in 2006. Trips to China and South Korea have helped boost ratings and support for the Japanese version of wrestling in those nations, and both, unlike the U.S., can lay claim to having a number of active rikishi in the sport at present. However, as any regular at the Ryogoku Kokugikan will be able to tell you, the vast majority of fans from afar making the trip to watch sumo are the Europeans — and they come from all over Europe. Some stay just a few days in Tokyo and take time out of their sightseeing and shopping to spend a day at the sumo, while other, more dedicated types head on over for a fortnight — visiting the stadium on a daily basis and on occasion morning practice as well.
In many ways, the financial and personal dedication shown by the European fans for the sport now mirrors that seen in the 1990s by the Americans. The one obvious difference that the sumo association seemingly fails to comprehend is the fact that times have changed.
A handful of nations in Central and Eastern Europe have added flair to the top division for much of the past decade, as their rikishi serve as something of a counterweight to the Mongolian dominance. Added to the Russians, the opposite side of the Eurasian landmass to Japan has seen far more of its rikishi reach the upper ranks of sanyaku in the past decade than Americans have in double that time.
And still, no official visit by the sumo association to Europe. The closest the Europeans have come to seeing the professional sumotori grace their sporting stadiums has been individual trips by individual heya from time to time to locations such as Israel (geographically Asia it must be said but part of the European Union for at least some of its sporting activities) and Holland — a beautiful land with beautiful people but little more than a sumo backwater.
Regrettably, for now, this does not look like it is going to change — which makes the online postings of some of the sport’s most dedicated Euro-based fans all the more painful to read. Obviously, the Sumo Kyokai values greenbacks more than their European fans.