Sunday Sep. 11 will see the Sumo Association resume the closest thing to normal service they can hope for in the present era of post-scandal reflection. It will be he first tourney back in the Ryogoku Kokugikan after a summer of much discontent and thus “coming home” to the capital will offer the powers that be the chance to win back a disaffected public.
One first-timer set to be making her debut at the sumo come Sunday, Eriko Matsuda, a Ginza area shop staffer said, “I want to feel the atmosphere at the Kokugikan. I have seen sumo on TV many times, but want to see it in person, to see the kensho (advertising banners), hopefully to see the zabuton flying and see how excited the fans are. And, as I have been invited by a friend who really likes sumo I thought I would also take this opportunity to see it first hand for myself.”
The association will at least be hoping to pull in more like Matsuda but at time of going to print are far from selling out the first day of action according to the editor of Sumo Fan Magazine, Chris Gould, who went to purchase tickets for a private visit on Sept. 11 just days before it all kicks off.
On the dohyo and away from the ticket booth, many fans are, pre-basho, waiting to see just how the 27-year-old winner of the Nagoya Basho, Harumafuji, fares and if he will make it two in a row to secure automatic promotion to the rank of yokozuna. But this in itself could signal the beginning of the end according to one long-term sumo watcher and member of the Australian amateur set-up, John Traill. “(While) I would love to see Harumafuji’s promotion to yokozuna, I fear that he may be cutting his career short (in a) similar (way) to Wakanohana’s premature evacuation* if he fails to stay consistent and injury free. As a lighter rikishi he really knows how to maximize his power by using his body as one efficient unit against any of the top behemoths. As a yokozuna the responsibility to dominate each basho may prove overwhelming but not unattainable if the ozeki pack continue to post mediocre results.”
On a more positive note regarding the possibility of a fourth consecutive foreign-born rikishi making it to the top rank, former University of Tokyo sumo team captain Petr Matous, now an assistant professor in the Dept of Civil Engineering at the same university, has long been a fan of the relative lightweight. Harumafuji weighs just 126kg in a division with men more often in the 140-160 kg range.
“(Harumafuji) has been my favorite wrestler since his makushita days,” Matous said. “But as scientists say, it’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future. I mean, it would be great for sumo, and a message to the world that it’s not just about being fat.”
Come Sunday Sept. 25 we will all know whether or not Harumafuji will become the third Mongolian yokozuna to date, going one-up on the American duo of Akebono and Musashimaru in the ’90s and early 2000s — a close call, but one this writer thinks will end in an oh-so-close basho taken in the end by current top-dog and perennial favorite in almost every match he enters — Hakuho.
And so now to the “almost” in the headline. One story many missed over the summer, which may rear its head in the papers over the next few weeks, centers on the ban on languages other than Japanese being used in the shitaku-beya changing rooms.
Bizarre to some, given that the majority of those connected to the match-fixing scandal were native Japanese speakers, this has been bandied around during bar-room conversations as of late as one way to avoid fixed matches. Staff in the dressing rooms can not be expected to be fully conversant in some of the languages spoken by overseas born rikishi such as Mongolian, and Georgian, as well as other common languages shared by Eastern Europeans.
I asked one former non-Japanese rikishi, a Portuguese speaker from Brazil with the better part of a decade in the game, who wished to remain anonymous, if he though this was unfair: “It is hard to tell with all the problems (recently). I understand the association’s decision, and I also understand if the youngsters are mad too, but if you really think about it when you are in the shitaku-beya it means you are at work, and that means you should follow the rules.
“In any kind of work or company you have a lot of rules, and sometimes we don’t like them, but we need them. I think we all need to cooperate to get sumo thru this dark time, so no ‘secret’ in the shitaku-beya sounds one way to achieve this. I wouldn’t like it if I were still in, but I think it is good for all the wrestlers now.”
* In just 11 basho as a yokozuna, Wakanohana managed just three double figure final scores and never won a title.