Yokozuna Takanohana has finally bowed out of the dohyo. Looking back over his active career, he certainly made spectacular achievements. There can be no objections to his being described as one of the all-time great grand champions of sumo.
Takanohana set new records one after another, including being the youngest sekiwake, the youngest sumo wrestler to make the first grade and the youngest wrestler to win a tournament. He and his elder brother Wakanohana, also a sumo wrestler, created a sensation. Brought up in a sumo family, their skills and personalities attracted enormous — and some might even say excessive — attention. In what became known as the “Waka-Taka age,” the popularity of sumo soared.
Devoted to pursuing the way of sumo, Takanohana eventually stopped listening to outside opinions. In the current tournament, he took the extraordinary step, for a yokozuna, of trying to make a comeback after already once dropping out of the tournament with an injury. The conventional wisdom in sumo is that a wrestler who has reached the top echelon has only one choice in a situation where he cannot compete to the best of his abilities — to pull out. Unlike other yokozuna, however, Takanohana took a very different course.
Takanohana became a yokozuna after his seventh tournament win at the Kyushu basho in 1994. He had also won the previous autumn basho, but did not receive a promotion on that occasion. The reason given was that he failed to meet the promotion criteria. Amid heated arguments for and against his promotion, Takanohana settled the matter by going on to win the next tournament.
As a yokozuna, Takanohana chalked up a splendid record. However, his 22nd tournament win at the summer basho of 2001 was to be his last. The knee injury that he sustained during that tournament was, unfortunately, to plague him for the rest of his wrestling career.
From his debut at the age of 15, Takanohana contributed immensely to the sumo world for 15 years. Now that this popular wrestler has retired, attention will shift to Mongolian wrestler Asashoryu and his likely promotion to the rank of yokozuna. This is wonderful in itself, but it also highlights the fact that there are no other gripping topics in the world of sumo at present. How can the slumping popularity of sumo be rejuvenated? One year after his appointment, Japan Sumo Association chairman Kitanoumi is going to have to show his true mettle. Now is the time for him to formulate a vision for the future of sumo wrestling.
Wrestlers Musashimaru, Kaio and Chiyotaikai are sitting out the current tournament because of injuries, and the popular Tochiazuma was forced to drop out after it started. Injuries to wrestlers — most of whom are larger than wrestlers in the past due to better nutrition and new training methods — are a constant problem. This must be addressed.
In addition, foreign wrestlers from such countries as Mongolia and South Korea are attracting attention. There can be no objection to the ranks of sumo being open to the world. At the same time, however, efforts to recruit wrestlers from among the ranks of young Japanese practitioners must be stepped up. The fans are clamoring for a rising star.
We have heard Kitanoumi say repeatedly that sumo will recover its popularity by “rejuvenating the ring.” To achieve this, it is essential to expand the number of amateur wrestlers, which will, in turn, increase the number of young hopefuls and star wrestlers. This will be a difficult task, however, because the number of youngsters wanting to become sumo wrestlers is declining. While the falling birth rate is partially responsible for this, a growing number of Japanese youths are choosing university over life in a sumo stable, where junior wrestlers must wait on their seniors, training is grueling and the chances of success slim. The sumo world is a vertically structured society. Surely there is room for reviewing this aspect of the stable system.
JSA chairman Kitanoumi is expected to put forth his visions of a post-Takanohana sumo world at an anniversary press conference that will take place after the current tournament concludes. The JSA will have to tackle the present system head-on. For example, the present schedule of six tournaments a year might be too many as it does not give wrestlers a chance to recover from injuries.
Sumo, of course, is not the only business that places too much emphasis on immediate profits. Yet soccer’s J. League has worked out a “100-year vision,” and professional baseball, which also is worried by falling attendance, is now formulating 10-year and 20-year visions. The sumo world must not dodge its pressing issues.
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