Whether crisis or not, sumo's show must go on

by Mark Schreiber

Of all the crises that the institution of sumo is said to be confronting — and there are many — yokozuna (grand champion) Takanohana’s announcement last Monday of his retirement is being regarded by some as particularly ominous.

This, the doomsters say, is because the sole remaining holder of the sport’s top rank is Hawaiian-born Musashimaru, who is of Tongan extraction.

Moreover, depending on Sunday’s outcome of the New Year Grand Sumo Tournament tournament in Tokyo, he is likely to be joined at the top of the sport’s tree by ozeki (champion) Asashoryu. Since he is Mongolian, it means that the top flight of the national sport will, for the first time, exclusively comprise foreign-born athletes.

The title yokozuna, bestowed on a rikishi (wrestler) only after he has met stringent conditions for promotion, is sumo’s only permanent ranking. (Rather than face demotion, those who fail to perform satisfactorily are effectively obliged to retire.) Each day during a tournament, all active yokozuna perform a stately dohyo-iri ceremony in which, with a massive white ceremonial tsuna (rope) hung from their waist, they form a bridge between the native sport and its Shinto religious rituals — a bridge nowhere more apparent than at Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, where they also perform a special New Year’s dohyo-iri.

To gain the recommendation of the sport’s special promotion council, a yokozuna candidate must do more than merely win several top tournaments. Another criterion is their hinkaku — normally rendered in English as meaning a composite of dignity, good manners and strength of character.

A decade back, this led to controversy and accusations of racism when ozeki Konishiki, who hails from Hawaii, was said to have been denied yokozuna ranking on the grounds that he lacked sufficient hinkaku. The racism issue became moot, however, when fellow Hawaiian Akebono became the first foreigner to gain sumo’s top rank in 1993.

While Akebono was the first foreign-born yokozuna, at least three other rikishi who attained sumo’s top rank in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s — Sadanoyama, Tamanoumi and Mienoumi — were Japanese of Korean ancestry, although their Korean backgrounds were seldom alluded to in the vernacular media. Yokozuna Taiho, too, who was arguably the greatest rikishi in modern times (and certainly in the postwar period), was born in Sakhalin of a Russian father and Japanese mother.

But now, the mavens are saying, the situation is different, since there is no “pure” Japanese yokozuna competing at all, and there are no strong candidates waiting in the wings.

However, is this development just one symptom of sumo’s wider malaise in its home country?

While sumo’s top (makunouchi) division does not lack for talent, growing numbers of fans have deserted the sport, leaving conspicuous blocks of empty seats at even the main Tokyo and regional tournaments. At the past several tournaments, too, injuries have sidelined a dozen or more top-ranked stars or have forced them to drop out midway through the competition — with predictable effects on attendances.

The most common explanation for there being so many casualties is that grapplers have become too heavy, making them more susceptible to injuries when falling from the straw-encircled ring, although some commentators assert that modern training methods and more attentive medical treatment could reduce this toll.

Another factor adversely affecting the sport’s popularity has been a string of scandals. The media has reported with relish on alleged bout-fixing, doping, reports of financial problems, tax evasion and even stablemaster Futagoyama’s lurid divorce. As well, when sumo enjoyed greater popularity, its chaya (caterers) held a chokehold on the best seats, which were only doled out at high prices to selected corporate customers. This image of exclusivity has further served to alienate the public.

However, before considering whether the invasion by “hungry” foreigners is another symptom of sumo’s malaise, let’s be clear about the scale of the invasion. According to a spokesman at the Nihon Sumo Kyokai, the sport’s organizing body, there are currently 674 active wrestlers, of whom 52 — or 8 percent — are foreign-born. Mongolia dominates this list, with 32 — including three in the top division and one in the next-lower juryo division. The other nations represented are Russia (4), the United States (3), Brazil (3), China (2), South Korea (2), Tonga (2), and one each from Argentina, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Georgia.

So, in reality, the foreign rikishi — amounting to one for every 12 Japanese — would not seem to be an overarching threat, particularly as they are widely dispersed because the sumo kyokai permits a maximum of just two foreign wrestlers per stable. This system was instituted to prevent foreigners flocking together in one large stable, which would prevent them mastering the Japanese language and learning the protocol and decorum so essential to sumo.

For more than three decades, since the days of Hawaii’s Takamiyama, foreigners have adapted well to sumo and served as a major drawing card. Takamiyama, now a naturalized Japanese and master of the Azumazeki stable, rose to the rank of sekiwake (junior champion) and, in July 1972, became the first foreign rikishi to win a tournament. He also boasts the all-time record of 97 consecutive tournament appearances in the makunouchi division (from 1968-84). Second place, by the way, is held by fellow Hawaiian Konishiki, who appeared in 81 consecutive tournaments.

From this, it can be seen that sumo is managing the foreign influx quite well. On the home front, it urgently needs to buttress its social infrastructure — particularly at the level of ties to the koenkai, the hometown associations and their wealthy patrons, who are a source of recruitment and provide support and financial backing to aspiring wrestlers.

Beside the fact that today’s young Japanese have less economic incentive to take up sumo, fewer also seem able to muster the konjo (fortitude) to endure sumo’s feudal system of apprenticeship — which demands not only strenuous training but the performance of degrading chores for senior wrestlers, whose mistreatment has driven away many an aspiring candidate.

So, to foster a brighter future within the sport, along with instituting internal reforms and carefully nurturing new apprentices, sumo will need to work at maintaining vigorous community support at grassroots level.

However, and no less worryingly, sumo can no longer take it for granted that it enjoys unquestioned popularity among Japanese.

Indeed, an Internet survey of 525 readers that was conducted this month by the weekly magazine Aera found that more than two-thirds — 68.2 percent — said they either disliked or had no interest in the sport. Among females, the figure was a remarkably high 77.3 percent. Bearing this out, only 33.1 percent of those polled could name the two yokozuna; and 47.6 percent could not identify ozeki Asashoryu as being Mongolian.

Paradoxically, though, while 59 percent of the survey respondents said they seldom watch NHK’s daily sumo broadcasts, 70.9 percent said they felt the broadcasts should continue.

Nonetheless, people’s tastes have diversified, and sumo is now just one of many spectator sports that must compete for attention. Aera’s conclusion — that people still hold out hopes for a sumo revival — is fully endorsed by this writer.