Enthusiastic young female fans provided a breath of fresh air for the sumo world in 2017, which once again finds itself reeling in the wake of a scandal.
The women, nicknamed sujo, short for sumo joshi (sumo girls), exchange information through Instagram and other social media, showing their fervent support for wrestlers in Japan’s ancient national sport, whether they be big names or lower in the ranks.
SuJo, who use their smartphones to take photos of the wrestlers, or rikishi, while waiting outside sumo arenas, even show interest in the gyōji (referees), the yobidashi, ushers who announce the names of wrestlers, and those called on to sweep the raised ring.
They are part of a growing audience and the driving force behind the six sellout crowds at sumo tournaments in 2017 — something not seen in 21 years. This was despite the fact that an allegation of assault by now-retired yokozuna Harumafuji emerged during the final tournament of the year.
“Back in those days, there were mainly middle-aged men and women in the crowd. I wonder if there were even any young people,” said Fukiko Kamisawa, 59, the wife of a stable master, referring to grand sumo tournaments from the early 1980s.
Kamisawa would frequent Kuramae Kokugikan, sumo’s former home arena, after joining a sumo study club while attending Japan Women’s University.
Referring to today’s young female fans, Kamisawa said, “They are interested in the cultural aspects such as the national sport’s beauty of form, which is something I had in common with them while in my 20s.”
Yet she worries about the current popularity only being a passing fad.
Sumo’s popularity had appeared to recover from a spate of scandals, including match fixing in 2011, with more spectators coming out until the incident involving Harumafuji once again rocked the sport during the Kyushu Basho last year.
Kamisawa suggests wrestlers should “cultivate their mind and be thoughtful of others,” paying particular attention to cultural elements to raise the sport’s popularity.
“Cherishing the ‘spirit’ is the heart and essence of this world,” she said.
Some insiders, however, argue it is precisely this higher standard for sumo wrestlers to lead regimented lives based on strict tradition — though their livelihoods depend on the law of the jungle — that is at odds with reality.
Nevertheless, a new generation of young wrestlers seem to be enjoying the added pressure from their growing female fandom as they aim to bolster the popularity of the sport.
Mitakeumi, 25, a leading candidate for sumo’s second-highest rank of ozeki, welcomes the new female fan support.
“I’m the type who wants fans to watch more and have more expectations of me. This only makes me try harder,” Mitakeumi said in a conversation with Chika Yamane, a 22-year-old TV personality who also considers herself a SuJo.
Looking back on 2017 the sekiwake said, “I could attain my goal of staying in the sanyaku, the three highest ranks below yokozuna.”
“It was fulfilling to get a majority of wins at all six annual tournaments,” he said, but added that not achieving double-digit wins at any probably did not please his fans.
Professional sumo has six divisions — the top-level makuuchi followed by juryo, makushita, sandanme, jonidan and jonokuchi, the last four often collectively referred to as junior divisions.
Yokozuna is the highest rank a wrestler can achieve in the makuuchi division.
Asked by Yamane about his eagerness to advance to ozeki, Mitakeumi said, “I want to aim for the next rank, but now may not be the time to be too ambitious. I’ll strive to become an ozeki who can win even when it comes to a showdown.”
Yamane has always rooted for sumo, even at times when its popularity waned.
“The sumo arena was too quiet to even cheer then,” she said.
She attributes the growing female fan base to Japanese-born Kisenosato’s promotion to yokozuna last March. “It feels like attending a concert now,” she said.
Unlike baseball or soccer, Yamane likes the fact that “sumo wrestlers only use their bodies as weapons and fans find wrestlers approachable. I hope this popularity will continue forever.”
As for Mitakeumi, he hopes to make 2018 count.
“This year will be important for me to remain active in my career and continue to rise in rank.”
Among other promising young wrestlers is a pair of 21-year-olds — Onosho and Takakeisho.
After making his makuuchi debut in May 2017, Onosho notched double-digit wins in three successive tournaments, a feat that had not been accomplished since 15-day tournaments became the norm at the 1949 summer tournament.
In November, as a newly promoted komusubi, Onosho finished with a majority of wins at sumo’s fourth-highest rank. “It’s all about going all out and trusting yourself,” Onosho said.
The stout Takakeisho won the junior world sumo championship in 2014 before making his pro debut in September the same year and joining the makuuchi division in January 2017.
“If you think, your brain slows down. I am totally absorbed in what I have practiced for,” said Takakeisho, who wrestled as a No. 1 maegashira in November.
Hokutofuji, 25, won the technique prize, the first special prize of his career, in November, with 11 wins thanks to his tenacious attacking style.
Other rank-and-file maegashira wrestlers such as Asanoyama and Kagayaki, both 23, are also SuJo favorites. Takagenji, a 20-year-old who stands at 191 centimeters in the lower juryo class, is seen as a future star candidate.
The Japan Sumo Association (JSA) for its part has focused on goods and services targeting female fans, with women handling design and marketing.
Face towels made from specialty fabrics from Imabari, Ehime Prefecture, with illustrations of the wrestlers, have proven a big hit, according to the JSA. Tote bags and blankets with a motif of the white ropes that are knotted around the waist of a yokozuna are also popular.
The JSA also promotes days during tournaments where female spectators are asked to wear kimono or yukata, the lightweight kimono worn in the summer.
At the upcoming Opening Basho, the first 300 clad in kimono, on two separate days, will be given coin purses. Rental kimono and kimono-fitting services will also be available.