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Overseas tours an unfortunate victim of sumo’s recent popularity

by John Gunning

The world of sumo has seen many changes over the past decade.

Changes that have irrevocably altered the way fans — foreign-based ones in particular — view and interact with the sport.

Before the current boom in popularity, sumo was finding it difficult to attract viewers. Gambling and drug scandals alongside the beating to death of a 17-year-old recruit left many longtime followers disillusioned, and led to falling attendances at tournaments.

Just a few short years ago, it was still possible to show up at the Kokugikan and buy decent tickets for that day’s action.

In places like Kyushu and Nagoya, even the best box seats were available most weekdays and half-empty stands were the norm.

In those days, foreign fans made up a significant percentage of the audience as sumo remained a draw for visitors to the country checking it off a to-do list while here.

Veteran foreign supporters, many of whom had been making regular trips to Japan for years to attend tournaments, also kept coming.

The Japan Sumo Association, recognizing that better catering to those fans’ needs was becoming more imperative, started increasing the amount of English used on their website and in tournament programs, as well as hiring guides able to communicate with visitors to the various arenas.

Changes were also made to the concession stands, with a greater variety of western foods being made available.

Following the promotion of Kisenosato to yokozuna, though, sumo’s popularity exploded and nowadays it’s difficult for anyone to get seats, never mind those without access to domestic ticketing services.

Fans coming from abroad now generally have to rely on third-party sites and resellers to get their tickets, which can be a lot more hit-and-miss.

The upside to the increase in popularity, though, is that while getting to see your favorite wrestlers in the flesh has become a lot more difficult, there have never been more options when it comes to viewing sumo on television or the Internet.

NHK, of course, has for the past 25-plus years broadcast the live bouts with English commentary, but since 2016, NHK World has also provided a 30-minute preview show in English with interviews and discussion about the previous and upcoming tournaments. Highlights of each day’s action are available on the site and app, and a few tournament days have also been broadcast live.

(Full disclosure: I’m involved with both programs.)

The hope, of course, is that in the not-too distant future, all tournaments will be viewable live with English commentary on your smartphone.

Full live English coverage of sumo online as well as a restarting of the overseas tours are probably the two things foreign fans request most.

Those trips out of Japan by the JSA are another victim of the sport’s popularity.

When virtually every municipality in the country is clamoring to get added to the regional tours, and wrestlers are in high demand for TV shows and promotional activities, it’s extremely difficult to find space in the calendar for an overseas event.

This month marks five years since the Jakarta tour and 10 since Mongolia. With no overseas trip in the works, the longest-ever gap without a foreign sumo tour will be reached next May.

Those trips abroad have served various purposes.

When called “jungyo,” the tours, just like those in Japan, are organized by local promoters in that country to help popularize the sport and bring it to people who might otherwise have no chance to see it.

When called “koen,” the JSA does most of the arrangements after receiving an invitation to mark some occasion or help foster goodwill between Japan and the country in question.

In 1973, wrestlers went to China to commemorate the normalization of Sino-Japanese relations.

No effort was spared on that sold-out fortnight-long tour to creative a positive impression.

JSA president Musashigawa famously declared, “Now at last we have come to the original home of sumo,” upon arrival in Beijing, and yokozuna Kotozakura wore a “Mao suit” rather than a kimono during the opening ceremony.

Wrestlers posed for photos at the Forbidden City and the Great Wall but the biggest hit with the hometown crowd was a ceremonial apron with a panda design worn by Chiyozakura.

In 2004, I attended the Seoul tour, which came just a month after South Korea eased sanctions on Japanese culture, allowing movies and music from this country to be shown in any theater or sold in any store.

Incheon native Kasugao had been promoted to sumo’s highest division one year previously and, despite having fallen to the second tier, was the undoubted star of the show for the Korean fans.

Pictures of giants shopping in Myeongdong and getting cucumber beauty facial treatments helped create a different image of Japan than the one most people in its closest neighbor would have been used to seeing.

China, Mexico, France, Austria, the United States, England, Brazil, Spain and Germany have also hosted sumo tours. All were wildly popular and sold out.

These days, sumo is more popular than ever around the world but foreign fans, despite an explosion in coverage, find it increasingly difficult to see their heroes in person.

Definitely time for another trip abroad.