|

Is sumo’s lost decade finally coming to an end?

by Mark Buckton

Many long-time sumo fans trace the origins of the decline of sumo in the modern era back to a decision made in January 2003 by Takanohana to call it quits and hang up his mawashi.

In the years since no Japanese rikishi has realistically come close to being promoted to yokozuna. In fact, in the intervening years, just five of 62 tournaments have been won by a Japanese rikishi.

The fact that the sport was then dominated for the next four years by one of the most polarizing of yokozuna in the history of the sport, and a Mongolian to boot in the shape of Asashoryu, turned the Japanese away from following sumo in droves.

Scandals such as the 2007 hazing death during training of Tokitaizan, formerly of Tokitsukaze Beya, as well as Asashoryu, playing hooky soon after and being suspended for two tourneys, sent sumo on a downward spiral from which it is only just starting to recover. Or so it seems.

2008 saw a nationwide hullabaloo that made headlines around the world when a trio of Russians were banned for life for using marijuana. As low as the sport had sunk in 2007 with a hazing death and yokozuna feigning injury, a year later it had managed to sink even lower.

So low was the public image of the sport by the time of the next scandal to rear its head in 2010 — that surrounding illegal gambling on baseball — that there was even talk of disbanding the sport altogether.

Somehow it survived.

A year later, in 2011, and a fresh scandal arose. This time it was wrestlers throwing matches, and admitting to doing so.

Sumo’s coffin, with more than enough nails to keep the lid down for eternity, was being readied.

All those linked to such claims were rightly thrown out, and despite a great deal of bluster on the part of several of the rikishi to depart, to date only Sokokurai of Arashio Beya has been reinstated; and then only on the back of a court ruling much to the displeasure of the sumo association.

The numbers of new recruits bottomed out not long afterward, as did morale in and around the sport.

But of late, since 2011, nothing. No scandals, no rikishi misbehaving, no sign of drugs. Baseball gambling, as well thrown matches, are now a fading memory.

Yet while most will claim that a couple of years staying out of the headlines for all the wrong reasons is nothing to be too impressed with in the greater scheme of a sport around in organized form since 1757, it does at least appear as if the sun is once more emerging from behind the black clouds that have long hovered over the Ryogoku Kokugikan.

Ticket sales have noticeably improved over the past year. Days in which every single ticket is reportedly sold out are increasing in number, and slowly but surely Japanese youngsters are once more considering sumo a possible career option with the numbers of those looking to get into the sport on the rise.

And then there is the emergence of a Japanese rikishi in recent basho more than capable of giving the two Mongolian yokozuna a run for their money.

Kisenosato is that fellow, of course, and while he has yet to win a yusho himself, in the past two years he has failed to hit double figures just once over the course of the 15 days of bouts. Only Hakuho has bettered this consistency in the top division.

It is, however, a lack of consistency, coupled with a tendency to lose concentration in the final stretch of a basho, that has repeatedly proved costly for the Naruto Beya man, time and again. Once he learns to maintain that focus all the way through to the Day 15 senshuraku bouts, little will stand in the way of a first yusho for the best ozeki sumo has seen for a good seven or eight years.

As important a role as Kisenosato is currently playing in the resurgence of the game, however, several other factors are also playing a part in sumo’s recent resurgence.

These include the senior ranked wrestlers proving far more approachable on recent tours around Japan and the first — and much publicized — overseas trip in several years last month, to Jakarta in Indonesia.

A number of the stables have also been on the road during the summer, with some of the more popular top-flight sekitori pressing the flesh and greeting crowds in hometowns up and down the country.

Senior rikishi have also featured on numerous TV shows over the past several months, with barely a day going by without one or more of the biggest names in the sport guesting on one of the ubiquitous variety shows on domestic TV.

And then there is the international media. August saw sumo featured on popular talk show radio in the U.K., and on the pages of Der Spiegel. September has already seen French newspaper l’Equipe looking to cover the sport in the lead up to the Aki Basho, and Friday 13th will see Australia’s national broadcaster record a lengthy discussion on the state of sumo today.

From where the spotlight sumo suddenly finds itself in, and for all the right reasons this time, is shining is still something of a mystery.

But, a decade on from Takanohana’s retirement and the rot setting in, are things finally looking up for the sport? Or have we spoken too soon?