The world of sumo has been through a rough few years, but as the first decade of the 21st century draws to a close, few serious fans would doubt that the future is looking brighter. Surely there is a silver lining in the dark clouds that have hovered above the sport since mid-2007.
The last four years of the decade saw scandals that involved: the hazing death of a 17-year-old wrestler; drugs busts that centered primarily on Russian rikishi. (the first of whom was caught dabbling with marijuana — Wakanoho, is now involved in the world of American football in the U.S.); Asashoryu’s supposedly fake claims of injury; and, of course, the more recent gambling fiasco that saw ozeki Kotomitsuki thrown out of the sport.
The person with top-dog rijicho status in the association has changed three times over the course of these scandals. Similarly, and in part due to his own erratic behavior through this period, Asashoryu opted to retire earlier in the year, thus leaving reigning grand champion Hakuho as the undisputed “best of the best” in modern-day sumo.
It has been claimed — including two or three times in this column — that Hakuho is already on his way to being considered the greatest yokozuna in the modern era — if not of all time. Many will be watching when he enters the upcoming tournament down in Fukuoka, Kyushu, to see whether or not he can string together a first week of wins to move to the top of the “undefeated list,” replacing pre-WWII great Futabayama, a former rijicho himself.
Should he win his 70th undefeated by the midway point in Fukuoka the media spotlight will be on him like never before. Born and bred a proud Mongolian, Hakuho has, throughout his career, not brought undue negative attention to himself or the sports. He’s shown the diplomacy and discretion required of any top-rank rikishi who is considering a move into the stable-master ranks when he retires from active sumo. Add to this the fact that his wife is Japanese, a point most sumo fans demand of future stable masters, and it would be no great surprise to see the yokozuna opt to change his nationality in the coming years to ensure he can indeed become a stable master. (Non-Japanese passport holders are currently unable to continue in the management of the sport following retirement.)
To one day then pencil him in as a potential rijicho, given his career records and probable change of nationality, would not be unthinkable in a society that is continually changing.
In 20 years, perhaps 25, when future shoo-in for the rijicho slot, Takanohana, is facing mandatory retirement upon his 65th birthday, Hakuho could still have a good 10 or 15 years to serve in the Sumo Association. If he does decide to take this course, look for sumo to have done a complete 180-degree turn under Takanohana — a man known for his outspoken views on the modernization of the sport. The sport is hurting now, but this will not last forever, and there is no reason the young guns coming through after Takanohana cannot bring it in line with the modern-day sports management techniques seen in other disciplines. Proper dope testing, effective guidance in the first few years of their career for those entering the sport as children, and a far more transparent management structure are just a few years off.
For now, though, unlike the sweeping changes seen in so many sports around the world following their own scandals, the problems surrounding sumo that have been discussed in print, online and on radio programs, appear to have barely been touched. Nothing substantial has been achieved in terms of actual reform yet.
Whether this typically slow Japanese approach is the best or the most suitable given the problems the sport has seen since 2007 is for each fan to decide for himself. When all is said and done, though, it must be recognized that opportunities to improve the running of the sport have been put in place. Some do appear superficial, such as the numerous committees tasked with behavioral guidance, created more to appease the public than anything else. What we have to look forward to are the rikishi such as Hakuho and Takanohana, and perhaps the likes of Kisenosato, Harumafuji and so many others currently in the sport, who will one day be guiding sumo over the next few decades.
These are the men who have lived through the roughest of times, who will hopefully change the sport for the better in the next decade and beyond — the silver lining sumo so badly needs.