Rikishi in Japan are coming up big — literally and figuratively — doing little things to promote the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games and, though not part of the Olympic program, the ancient national sport of sumo.
On Wednesday, 70 wrestlers of sumo’s top two divisions, including all four yokozuna, took part in the Ozumo Beyond 2020 Basho, a government-funded project aimed at both first-time spectators and hardcore fans. It was the second straight year for the event at Ryogoku Kokugikan
Wrestlers clad in colorful kimono stood outside the Tokyo venue and delighted the 4,000 fans by greeting them with handshakes, hugs, autograph signings and selfies.
The invitation-only event featured various services such as English public address announcements and subtitled live video streaming as well as wheelchair and guide dog accessibility. The unique experience took guests away from the present moment, allowing them to temporarily forget the injury concerns surrounding sumo’s top makuuchi division that have been giving the Japan Sumo Association a headache.
The dohyo ring was a stage where children in mawashi belts tackled wrestlers and lower-ranked wrestlers took turns singing lively sumo songs.
Last year, when the JSA organized the event for the first time, the sandan-gamae ceremony was performed by two yokozuna for the first time in 21 years. This year, Hakuho and Kisenosato were given the rare privilege of demonstrating the three-posture ritual.
After taking part in his first sandan-gamae, held only on special occasions, Mongolian yokozuna Hakuho said he enjoyed the kind of adrenaline rush he had never felt before.
“It was my first time (to perform the sandan-gamae) and I was nervous but it was a good experience,” said Hakuho, who was a last-minute entry. “The Olympics coming to Tokyo again is already a big deal, and it couldn’t have happened at a better time. I’m glad I was born the year I was. I hope to remain active until 2020,” said Hakuho, whose father won Mongolia’s first-ever Olympic medal as a freestyle wrestler in 1968 and also competed in the 1964 Tokyo Games.
Meanwhile, his counterpart Kisenosato said he remembers seeing the ritual in photographs years ago and was happy to officially become a part of that tradition.
“What an honor,” said Kisenosato.
“There were fans from all generations and it’s nice to share sumo tradition with them. Of course there’s the basho, but getting a chance to watch things like the sandan-gamae is different. I hope this gets more people interested in sumo.”
The one-day event was being held as a trial project by the government as the country makes every effort to attract more foreign visitors and make an economic success of the 2020 Games.
In addition to ringside seating for wheelchair users, live English play-by-play commentary and sign language interpretation were available to demonstrate how sports can break down barriers.
JSA public relations chief Kiyotaka Kasugano, who spoke on the raised ring before the national anthem was performed by a singer with autism, expressed his joy at seeing so many local foreign residents unite through sumo, and for the opportunity to share Japan’s culture and traditions with the world.
“Through sumo we believe we can promote this country’s other fine cultures and continue that trend onto the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics,” he said.