As 2010 draws to a close, the world of sumo is changing, little by little. Step by step.

Besides implementing a range of well-documented self-governing-cum-reform minded rules over the past year or so, the Japan Sumo Association (Nihon Sumo Kyokai; NSK) has more recently started reaching out to fans to entice back the lifeblood of any sport.

Late December saw the most recent manifestation of this user-friendly side of the association when, on the 23rd, the doors of the Ryogoku Kokugikan were thrown open at 7 a.m. to allow fans free access to the once closed Yokozuna Souken training session.

A national holiday in Japan to celebrate the Emperor’s birthday, several thousand took advantage of no-school or work and turned up to view almost all the current sekitori top ranked wrestlers and a handful of men from the makushita division put through their paces over a four-hour period. Many of those sat in seats normally purchased for around 40 — 45,000 yen on a tournament day were obvious first-timers warming to the association’s attempts to draw back fans lost over recent bullying, drugs and gambling scandals.

One such individual, a first-time visitor to the Kokugikan and a first-time viewer of live sumo, was English Rose Factory fashion brand owner Shiomi Harakawa, who arrived early at the Kokugikan to secure a prime, first-row seat then to go for a wander around the 11,098 all-seater stadium as more and more fans poured in. Taking in the small Sumo Museum with its photos or artist’s impressions of the 69 yokozuna grand champions to date, including the first-ever such individual photographed coming from her own home area of Kagoshima — the 16th yokozuna Nishinoumi Kajiro (1855-1908) — Harakawa was at times awed by her surroundings, the centerpiece of Japan’s quasi-national sport. “This is a first for me, and it feels so special to be here,” Harakawa said. “I first saw sumo at my grandmother’s house in Kagoshima as a child, but this is different. The rikishi are a lot bigger than I had imagined they would be, and it really is interesting.”

As the rikishi got on with the practice session under the watchful eye of the majority of the fans present, sumo’s elders, the oyakata, took their own place alongside the raised clay surface enabling those longer in the tooth the opportunity to pick out famous names and faces of years gone by.

The last Japanese-born yokozuna to retire, Takanohana drew much of the attention as he sat bolt upright in his chair watching proceedings. Mid-way through the practice, as the black belts of the unsalaried makushita rikishi gave way to the white belts of juryo, then makunouchi men, the man considered by many to be the greatest yokozuna to have ever graced the ring, Taiho Koki, arrived in his wheelchair. And for a brief period, people old enough — or interested enough in sumo — shifted their attention to the ringside, and more than a few pointed their cameras in the direction of the 32-time yusho winner.

Watching over proceedings from the rafters above the second floor, as has been the case for around five years, one of the 32 images of previous Emperor’s Cup winners went largely ignored by most. That image of former ozeki Tochiazuma will soon be removed, the Tokyo-born riishi having won his title back in January of 2006, replaced by more recent winners, and leaving no image of a Japanese Emperor’s Cup winner — a first in sumo history likely to be reported on only after it happens early in 2011.

Down on the same dohyo Tochiazuma last claimed victory for Japan, things were still not faring well for his fellow Japanese with most taking a beating at the hands of the foreign imports, most notably Mongolian yokozuna Hakuho, and the ozeki pair of Kotooshu and Baruto from Bulgaria and Estonia respectively.

Wrapping the day with another PR first for the association, all of the top-ranked rikishi were then presented to the fans in various areas of the stadium. This enabled new and old fans alike the opportunity to shake hands and exchange a few words. Most likely this contributed to the long lines of those looking for tickets to the Jan. 9-23 tournament lining up outside the ticket office as the event wound down; an event first timer Shiomi Harakawa herself is now looking forward to attending and in that an indication the association is finally moving in the right direction as far as treatment of the fans and PR opportunities go.

Happy New Year to all. Feel free to join me Jan. 4, 10-11 p.m. JST for a Chatango chat on the upcoming basho.

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