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Grueling summer tours offer mixed blessing for sumo

by John Gunning

Sumo’s summer regional tour is already under way, snaking around Lake Biwa and across central Japan towards the Kanto region.

After a brief stop in Tokyo, the jungyo, as it is known, heads up north as far as Hokkaido before returning to the capital where it will finish Aug. 26 at the KITTE building beside Tokyo Station.

While the regional tours are a side of sumo not nearly as well known as the six annual tournaments, they have long been a vital component in the promotion and continuation of the sport.

Over the past year, however, the tours have also been the site of sumo’s biggest scandals. The continuing controversy surrounding those, as well as recent changes in both the popularity of sumo and the way its wrestlers interact with the public, raises questions about the long-term viability of the jungyo — at least in their current format.

The tours, of course, are a throwback to a different era, equivalent to those that used to take place in American sports a century ago.

Indeed, the behemoth that is the NFL likely owes its entire existence to one such tour.

In 1925, college star Red Grange joined the Chicago Bears and set out on a 66-day, 19-game tour across the United States. Professional football at the time was struggling to get more than a few dozen fans at games and over 20 teams had folded in the previous four years.

The Bears, however, with the star power of “The Galloping Ghost” (Grange), legitimized the sport in the minds of the American public and subsequent large attendances at games helped save teams like the New York Giants from bankruptcy.

Baseball star Babe Ruth was one of 70,000 people that attended the Bears-Giants game at the Polo Grounds in New York on that 1925-26 tour.

Ruth himself would in turn lead his own barnstorming tour of Japan nine years later — an event that helped baseball solidify its position as the preeminent sport in this country.

Sumo has traditionally relied on regional tours not only as a way of popularizing the sport, but also as a recruiting ground. In the old days, trips into the farming heartlands of Kyushu and Hokkaido unearthed strapping local youths who would become the stars of the future. In an era before televised sumo, the long winding treks through the Japanese countryside brought the sport to many who might otherwise never have had an opportunity to see a bout or meet a rikishi.

Such encounters weren’t just limited to Japan either. In a sport that has been dominated by foreign wrestlers for the past decade and a half, it was on a jungyo tour of Hawaii that “first contact” was made.

Jesse Kuhaulua, an offensive tackle at a Maui high school, was trying to develop his lower body by training in a local amateur sumo club when he was spotted by touring sumo wrestlers in the early 1960s.

Less than a decade later, under the ring name of Takamiyama, Kuhaulua became the first-ever non-Japanese wrestler to lift the Emperor’s Cup, and his presence in the sport eventually paved the way for foreign stars like Akebono, Asashoryu and Hakuho to reach sumo’s highest rank.

In the modern world, though, where the vast majority of active and future wrestlers have grown up with social media, it’s debatable whether there are any people left encountering sumo for the first time at a regional tour event.

The jungyo themselves, with their increasingly packed schedules and reduced downtime, have created a tense atmosphere not dissimilar to that of a rock group on a large-scale world tour.

Bleary-eyed wrestlers arrive at nondescript hotels late at night after eight- or nine-hour bus journeys, only to have get up early and shake hands with an endless stream of fans before training in sweltering gyms with only the same cold bento as sustenance every day.

While no one has bitten the head off a bat in the ring or driven a Rolls Royce into a swimming pool (yet), the relative lack of supervision on jungyo combined with participants pushed to the point of exhaustion has meant that incidents like Harumafuji’s beating of Takanoiwa and chief referee Shikimori Inosuke’s sexual harassment of a junior are far more likely to happen on tour than elsewhere.

The Sumo Association has taken the first steps towards rectifying the situation by allowing only wrestlers and referees aged 20 or older (adulthood in Japan) to travel on the jungyo, starting with the current tour.

What’s really needed, however, are longer gaps between event days as well as better transport and food options. While wrestlers may not be getting injured on jungyo, the hectic schedule isn’t helping the recovery of those who are hurt.

With the money on offer from regional municipalities and companies likely contingent on a guarantee that the yokozuna and top stars will at least be present in the arena even if not fighting, don’t expect much to change in that respect in the short run.

It should be mentioned, though, that while jungyo are extremely taxing on the people involved and of questionable value when it comes to recruiting wrestlers or promoting the sport, as a spectacle they are one of the best introductions to sumo you can get.

Nowhere else can fans get to see the pageantry of a tournament combined with morning training as well as demonstrations of top-knot making, drumming and comedy sumo. Not only that, but throughout the day there are opportunities to mix and mingle with your favorite wrestlers, pose for photos together and get autographs.

The relative availability of good seats close to the action when compared to regular tournaments also makes the jungyo must see for sumo fans whether veterans or first timers.