Sumo is not a team sport, but neither is it an individual one.
While wrestlers face opponents alone in the ring, their everyday existence is intertwined with others to a far greater degree than any other athlete.
The closest relationship is with the oyakata (stablemaster).
Unlike athletes such as golfers or boxers, who can change coaches or managers at will, a sumo wrestler is tied to his oyakata for the duration of his sumo life.
The stablemaster has the ultimate say over his charge’s career, to the point where if the senior man decides to hand in retirement papers for his apprentice, there is nothing the wrestler can do to stop it. His active days are over.
That remains an extremely rare occurrence, however, and normally all major decisions are taken only after discussions between the two sides.
The best analogy for an oyakata-wrestler relationship is that of a father and son.
Rikishi in the lower divisions are like young children, and for them the stablemaster’s decisions are final and binding.
Once a wrestler reaches the upper ranks, especially if he becomes a makuuchi division mainstay, the relationship becomes more like that of a parent and teenager.
Oyakata may tell them what to do, but there is no guarantee they will listen.
The closeness of that relationship varies as well.
Some wrestlers are very tight with their oyakata, while for others he is just a “boss” to be tolerated.
The previous Tomozuna oyakata (former sekiwake Kaiki), who in 2017 reached the JSA’s mandatory retirement age of 65, told me a couple of weeks ago that he was glad that age limit existed.
For him, being an oyakata in his 60’s was tough as new recruits were like his grandkids, and he found it increasingly difficult to be as strict as he should be with them.
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