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Sumo’s Yokozuna Deliberation Council plays important role in overseeing sport

by John Gunning

Kisenosato put in a strong performance at the Yokozuna Deliberation Council soken training session on Aug. 31.

The veteran wrestler, who has been absent for 91 of his past 120 bouts, was heading toward what many considered to be his last-chance tournament with serious question marks surrounding his ability to compete.

Kisenosato, however, laid those doubts to rest in a fiery practice session that saw him go all out against top rankers like Tochinoshin and Goeido.

Fellow yokozuna Hakuho and Kakuryu also participated in the soken with the latter looking impressively sharp and in form.

Kisenosato’s stablemate Takayasu was the most notable absentee from the early morning get-together at the Kokugikan. The ozeki is still dealing with injury and it’s uncertain whether he will participate in the upcoming tournament.

One man who was present — in body if not in spirit — was Tamawashi. The Mongolian, who is a foodie as well as a talented baker in his own right, spent 20 minutes standing behind NHK commentator Hiro Murray and myself talking to us about various cookies, cakes and sherbets.

The sumo training school where the event was held has neither ceiling fans nor air conditioning and when Tamawashi, in the sweltering conditions, moved on to describing various gelato and ice creams it was all I could do not to get up and head to the nearest convenience store.

The Kataonami Stable man did train eventually with the other makuuchi division wrestlers after the men from the makushita and juryo divisions had finished.

The soken is a good opportunity for rikishi to get in an intense practice session with opponents they don’t normally see right before a tournament.

The main purpose of the event is to allow the members of the Yokozuna Deliberation Council to observe the sport’s yokozuna in action up close.

The (currently) nine-member council has the power to decide when someone should be promoted to sumo’s top rank or when a man at that rank should retire — at least in theory.

In reality, no recommendation is made in either case unless the situation is already at the point where any other course of action would deviate from the norm.

Among foreign fans — particularly those online — there seems to be a misunderstanding of the role the YDC plays in sumo’s affairs.

It’s common to see posts, threads and articles excoriating the body as nothing more than a panel of grumpy old men whose only purpose is to act as Statler and Waldorf-type figures in the sport.

Fans often complain that members of the panel go too far with their criticism, don’t understand sumo and have unreasonable expectations of wrestlers who are often injured.

The irony of course is that the YDC was established to prevent the Japan Sumo Association from treating yokozuna too harshly and to ensure the sport’s governing body respected its own history and traditions.

The impetus for the YDC’s creation was the public backlash against the JSA’s 1950 statement that it planned to demote yokozuna with two straight losing records or missed tournaments to ozeki.

That was prompted by the absence of Terukuni from day three and the fact Azumafuji and Haguroyama both skipped days on their way to losing records in the January basho.

The JSA’s move, however, was anathema to sumo purists and traditionalists. Even though the idea was shelved, an external committee of sumo experts was set up in order to ensure only the most worthy candidates (namely ones who wouldn’t be continually absent) were promoted.

Nowadays the panel is made up of between seven and 15 people who serve two-year terms up to a maximum of ten years. Generally speaking, it’s composed mostly of prominent figures drawn mostly from the media and academia.

There is no remuneration and few perks beyond the obvious honor of being part of a select group charged with overseeing Japan’s national sport. Members do, however, get to wear a small golden lapel pin in the shape of a yokozuna’s tsuna (the white rope worn during a ring entering ceremony).

Most of the committee comes and goes without the general public being much the wiser. A few, like former member Makiko Uchidate, are extremely outspoken. The writer’s continuous criticism of former yokozuna Asashoryu a decade ago probably saw the YDC at its most prominent in terms of media exposure.

The panel generally only comments on yokozuna following a tournament and after the soken practice.

Those training sessions are held three times a year, before each of the Tokyo tournaments. They are normally only open to select members of the press, but in almost every year since 2000 the one prior to the May meet is held in the Kokugikan’s main arena and entry is free and open to all.

That session has a unique atmosphere.

Many fans in attendance, not used to watching sumo training with its stoic silent atmosphere, applaud and cheer training bouts and butsukari (pushing practice) sessions.

The entire event has a kind of showy feel compared to the regular soken, with both committee members and yokozuna often making late “look at me” entrances.

Seating is on a first-come, first-served basis, with even the front-row boxes available for whoever gets to them earliest. You’ll need to line up overnight if you want to get one of those however, but in reality the best place to watch the soken is from the second floor as wrestlers standing around the ring often block the view of people in the lower seats.

The real best view of course is at the white-cloth-covered table beside the ring reserved for the JSA Chairman and YDC members. If you want a seat there though you’ll probably need to be the head of a major network or newspaper in Japan and have deep and long-standing sumo connections and influence.

I’ll let you know what it’s like once I get there.