In reaction to the yaocho (bout fixing) fracas enveloping sumo at present, many journalists in Japan and overseas have recently jumped on the sumo coverage bandwagon. Many have criticized the sumo association, the participants and their lifestyle and called for punishments, suspended basho and the like, without really giving a thought to repercussions.
What about the fans? Don’t they deserve a voice? And what about the legions of former and current amateur foreign rikishi resident both in Japan and overseas, individuals who have actually gotten sand between their toes and faced off at the tachiai?
To this end Sumo Scribblings has rounded up comments from a range of well-known foreign nationals with experience atop an actual dohyo, including national and regional champions in the world of amateur sumo, as well as professional commentators and diehard fans. Each individual was asked where they see the world of (professional) sumo headed now, in both the long- and short-term, as well as what measures were needed for the sport bounce back from this latest scandal.
Will JSA take note of these voices? It’s doubtful, but regardless of what comes out of the present-day hullabaloo, the need for change is there. Here are some ideas worth listening to:
“We’ve had our share of sports scandals here in the United States. With the fans’ support, a sport will always recover from any scandal. I think cancelling the March (Haru) Basho will end up punishing the sumo fans more than it will the (participants). While (pro) sumo recovers from this scandal, sumo fans around the world will still be able to watch international amateur sumo tournaments in their own country.”
Dan Kalbfleisch, six-time U.S. sumo champion and current U.S. heavyweight sumo champion
“Sumo originated as a show for the emperor — something between kabuki and current professional wrestling — and still now it is not a sport in the Western sense of the word.
“What is surprising to me about the current “yaocho scandal” is not that yaocho happens, but that it has suddenly become a scandal. I find the prevalent hazing within the organization to be a bigger problem, and perhaps this hunt (for corrupt) rikishi and pressure on ozumo at (present) is part of a larger current move aimed at eliminating sources of income for organized crime. It is happening simultaneously with an increase in the numbers of reporters opting not to go by the traditional tatemae reporting standards; (as these are) reporters writing what they really see.
“When ozumo is evaluated by sporting standards it will always fail. I don’t think the solution is to try to turn ozumo into a ‘sport’ as people can still enjoy it the way they can enjoy kabuki. Nevertheless, whether a sport or not, organizational changes are inevitable. This requires replacing the current old boys who are running the show. They quit school at fifteen to enter the harsh life of ozumo, and they do not know any other world. Even if they wanted to, these people do not know how to run an organization according to the 21st century standards.”
Petr Matous, assistant professor at The University of Tokyo and former amateur rikishi in the university team.
“Sumo can only bounce back if the sumo world somehow turns off the constant drip, drip, drip of scandals that are devastating the sport. They have to modernize from top to bottom, which means not getting rid of the topknots, but changing the ways they train, reward and generally manage their operation.
“The system they have now rewards or winks at bad behavior, from grown men beating a teenager to death in the name of “discipline” to throwing bouts for cash. Calls for moral reform, with no real changes to systems and rules, are meaningless.
“When American pro baseball was nearly ruined by the 1919 ‘Black Sox’ World Series betting scandal, they gave an outside commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, total independence to clean up the sport — and he proceeded to do so, relentlessly. Will the sumo powers-that-be consider something so bold? I hope, but I doubt.”
Mark Schilling, author of “Sumo: A Fan’s Guide” and NHK guest commentator
“Sumo can best bounce back by changing its attitude towards marketing and public relations: by talking to people rather than clamming up. As for the future, with a concerted effort the NSK could probably stop wins being exchanged for money.
“What is regrettably more difficult to stop is ‘mukiryoku-zumo‘ in which a rikishi simply turns up to help his mate (and makes no effort to win). Mukiryoku-zumo is so difficult to prove — especially in a sport where injuries are rife.”
Chris Gould, editor of Sumo Fan Magazine.
“In the long term I believe that the damage to the sport will be permanent and the repercussions of what is happening will be far deeper than most realize.
“In the past the JSA has overreacted to each scandal, and whilst no one else knows the intricacies of sumo better than the elders who have grown up in the sport, they are certainly not equipped with the business skills to run the sumo world with the same transparency of a public company bound by the rules of corporate governance.
“The biggest threats to the existence of sumo would be the loss of television coverage along with the income it generates.
“The real victims though will be all the businesses that rely on sumo, the young recruits that will not join, the honest rikishi in all divisions who train hard, and of course the fans who thrive on the competition of each basho even if there are a few “spiritless” bouts. To go on a retrospective witch hunt will be very damaging especially as there is no point in the JSA trying to cut out the dead wood if they are standing on the branch they are cutting.
“To unweave the very fabric of sumo would leave more than just those involved out in the cold with less than a mawashi to wear.”
John Traill, vice-president of the Australian Sumo Federation and former Australian and Oceania champion
“The sumo world is going though one of its most critical (periods) since the end of World War II. Scandal after scandal (are treated with a band-aid), and the deep reforms that the sport needs to survive in the 21st century (have not thus far been addressed).
“If the kyokai wants to regain the support of fans, they must respond (to this latest problem) by expelling all wrestlers and seniors involved in yaocho.
“They must then go further, and take this opportunity to change an institution that has refused to adapt to modern times, always citing the need to preserve old traditions. But is it traditional to physically punish weaker wrestlers? Is it traditional to make low ranked wrestlers work from dawn till dusk without receiving a decent wage in return? Is it traditional to close the doors to the (potential of the) foreign market — wrestlers, television coverage, fan interest?
“It is time for the JSA to WAKE UP! This is 2011, and the Tokugawa clan no longer (reigns) over Edo!”
Eduardo de Paz, Spanish sumo writer and author of “Sumo: La lucha de los Dioses”
“The long-term prospects are actually easier to (gauge). Ozumo will go on as it has gone on for 250 years. It will remain the emblem of all things Japanese: honne and tatemae, bushido, the strict hierarchies, seeing everything as ‘art’ and trying to master it. So yes, I think they will bounce back — but I have no idea when (yet). I wouldn’t be too shocked if there are no Tokyo basho for the remainder of 2011.”
Alexander Herrmann, Germany-based translator at Sumo Fan Magazine
“Short-term, there’s no doubt that the basho will resume. I’d say July at the earliest, and January next year at the very latest. But will anyone buy tickets?
“So long-term, I’m not optimistic. Not only will the JSA take a big hit in ticket sales, there’s no guarantee that NHK will choose to air the tournaments live from now on. Ratings were already terrible . . . if this was an ordinary TV show, it would have been cancelled long ago.
“The oyakata have shown that they’re incapable of running a business. As we know, their attitude is “this is the way it has always been done, and that’s the way it will continue to be done.” The only way they bounce back is by finding outside specialists who are willing to take on the Herculean task of turning sumo into a modern day professional sports organization.
“I’m not a fan of K-1 and other MMA sports, but they do an excellent job of marketing to the prime age group (men between 20-50 in age). Compare that to the Kokugikan, where I doubt most of the fans will still be alive 10 years from now. So they have to find people who know how to sell tickets. The first step is an easy one . . . move the matches to later in the day where the makuuchi bouts start around 7pm so that people can go after work.
“Yaocho will not be eliminated but I’m not so concerned about that because I’m pretty sure it involves mainly the marginal sekitori who are at the bottom of makuuchi or juryo, and are fighting simply to stay in the division and / or continue receiving a paycheck. I think that the yusho race is legitimate. In any case, everyone in the JSA should be ordered to look up the Japanese word for ‘integrity’ right away.”
Ross Mihara, NHK sumo announcer
“I am very pessimistic about the future. If sumo recovers, it’s going to take a long time (several years) and it will probably never regain the level of popularity it enjoyed in the past. There can be no more cosmetic changes and apologies to bring things back to normal.
“None of the ‘names’ have been implicated — yet — and I’m dreading that moment, if and when it comes. If it’s a big enough name, say a former Japanese yokozuna, or present or past ozeki, that may sound the death knell of sumo except as a peripheral cultural artifact.
Jack Lg, sumo fan for half a century, 22 years of which have been in Japan
“Short term — more outside influence and losing of beneficiary status. Long term — as long as we are dealing with humans, there will always be the more fallible ones causing disgrace to the silent majority. hopefully, with outside help, maximal containment will be possible. Punish whoever needs to be punished, bring in capable outsiders. And most important — don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater — moderately sharp steps.”
Moti Dichne, Israel-based sumo fan