Poverty breeds sumo? Think again


The sport of sumo has been going through some rough times recently. Big case in point: the recent arrests of former Tokitsukaze Oyakata, (Junichi Yamamoto) and three of his rikishi. The four are currently being held by police in relation to the mid-2007 hazing death of former Tokitsukaze Beya rikishi, Tokitaizan. Anything but a guilty verdict at this juncture looks highly unlikely.

In the bigger picture, claims of bout-fixing have hit the headlines more than once in recent years, and a case currently going through Japan’s legal system should eventually determine, once and for all, if bribes have ever played any part in the successes of yokozuna Asashoryu and others accused of buying their way to the top.

Some people, however, believe that real sign of sumo’s demise can be seen in the supposed disinterest among potential wrestlers. Poverty, specifically in northern and coastal prefectures, is often cited as the only reason that a Japanese teen would even consider sumo as a career.

While this may have been the case back in the immediate post-WWII era, in modern Japan, nothing could be further from the truth.

Of a total of 712 registered rikishi at the start of the year, which is an overall increase of almost 30 in the four years since Asashoryu came into his prime, only 81 rikishi come from the Tohoku region and Hokkaido. That’s an average of only 10 or so per prefecture but 26 of these come from the one-time sumo hotbed of Aomori alone.

On the contrary, the four major cities that host sumo tournaments — Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka — all fare much better. With the impressive tally of 173 men in the sport today from these four cities combined, with 47 rikishi hailing from Tokyo — each relatively wealthy locale with its multiple education and career options is individually well above Aomori, the “poor” Tohoku region leader, in terms of men active in the sport.

There’s further ammo against the “rural poverty sustains sumo” fallacy in the fact that the two prefectures with no representation whatsoever on the dohyo at the start of the year are Toyama and Tottori, areas with much lower comparable incomes and career options than those found in Tokyo and Osaka.

Admittedly, recruitment does have its peaks and troughs, and during the now routine mid-summer slump seen at July’s Nagoya Basho, it is indeed rare to see more than a handful enter the sport.

There is, however, a good reason for this: the Japanese school year ends in March, thus permitting those interested in a sumo career to follow their dreams in spring (Osaka’s Haru Basho). In summer, the only people who join tend to be university or high school students forgoing the final year(s) of study. Thus it could be said that the 2007 low following the death of the Tokitsukaze Beya teen, was more a case of unfortunate timing.

This year, the upcoming March tournament in Osaka’s Prefectural Gymnasium will see a very healthy intake of around 20 or so young wrestlers all aiming for the top. It appears that Hakkaku, Sadogatake, Sakaigawa and Takadagawa beya will all have promising youngsters represented in the presentation ceremony of new rikishi in Osaka. Another half-dozen stables will also be adding faces to their rosters come early March. Hopefully this new show of force will help put to bed one of the many stereotypes surrounding sumo.

Don’t forget to join me for a chat from 10 p.m. JST on March 4, 11 and 18 and 25. For more info see the Japan Times Sports Chat page.