The Japan Sumo Association loves committees.
Barely a scandal or incident goes by without the creation of some kind of panel or investigative group.
Last month saw the establishment of yet another.
The “Expert Committee to Contemplate the Future Succession of Sumo” is an advisory body whose remit is to provide guidelines for JSA governance, especially in regard to managing foreign rikishi and the internationalization of the sport.
Despite that assignment however, there isn’t a single foreign voice on the panel. One of the members, baseball legend Sadaharu Oh, does have Taiwanese citizenship, but he was born in Japan and has spent his whole life here.
Two members of the committee are actors, another is a writer, and the rest are drawn from the legal, business and academic worlds.
Speaking to the press after the group’s first sitting, Oh alluded to the problems of violence and excessive “discipline” in stables saying, “Things that were OK in the past aren’t nowadays. It’s tough for those involved but I want them to understand these are the times we are living in and not to think that (beatings and violence) are an internal matter.”
While that’s a laudable sentiment, the connection of the problem of violence in sumo to the need to guide foreign rikishi is as depressing as it is predictable. Given the historical ineffectualness of sumo committees, it’s hard to be optimistic about the chances of anything worthwhile or concrete emerging from the panel.
Their report isn’t due for a year and a half, so we’ll have to wait and see what recommendations the committee comes up with.
Another sumo group that has wielded little influence since its formation, but has regularly put forward interesting proposals, also met this week.
The rikishi-kai (wrestlers association) held its normal post-banzuke (rankings) get-together in Nagoya on June 25.
Akin to a union, the group works toward improving conditions for wrestlers, and lobbies sumo’s powers that be for changes that it believes will benefit the sport.
In May, Kakuryu, the current head of the association, called for the reintroduction of sumo with children on regional tours, and in the past the rikishi-kai has demanded things like better medical care for wrestlers and the repeal of the driving ban to make life more manageable for rikishi with several children.
Most proposals are rejected out of hand by the JSA board, but they are a good indicator of the mood among active wrestlers and highlight the issues of most concern to those in the top two divisions.
The rikishi-kai also tends to come up with more practical and concrete suggestion than the frequently vague intentions and hopes that comprise the summations of various committees.
Given that the group formed in the wake of the 1932 “Shunjuen Incident” that resulted in a mass exodus of rikishi from the JSA and the formation of several rival associations, it’s surprising that the rikishi-kai hasn’t exerted more influence.
Were the top 60 or so wrestlers to threaten industrial action or refuse to participate in a tournament, it’s all but certain they would win any game of chicken with the JSA top brass.
In addition to the historical precedent in sumo, events just 15 years ago in Nippon Professional Baseball illustrate just how much power athletes wield in the modern world when they are united.
A strike that year by Japan’s top players — the first in Japanese baseball history — prevented a second merger between NPB teams and forced the creation of a new franchise to replace the one lost when Kintetsu Buffaloes and Orix Blue Wave became a single club.
The lack of a single issue that is of pressing concern to all the top rikishi makes such action unlikely, but the idea of a strike at some stage in the future shouldn’t be ruled out.
If there is one idea that should be taken up, it was Hakuho’s 2015 suggestion that the rikishi undōkai (wrestlers’ sports day) be reintroduced.
The event, which was last held in 1999, is tailor-made for the modern world. In addition to competing in traditional sporting events like sprints and relay races, wrestlers engaged in cosplay and played silly games.
Fearsome yokozuna Kitanoumi wore pigtails, a dress and painted his cheeks red. Ozeki Chiyotaikai wore a Sailor Moon outfit and other rikishi reenacted the famous flying scene from the movie Titanic in full costume.
Year after year, wrestlers tried to outdo one another with outlandish and ridiculous outfits.
Imagine how sumo would blow up on social media if Hakuho competed in a game of basketball dressed as Levi from “Attack on Titan” or a tug of war with Tochinoshin, Takakeisho and others in high school girl costumes.
The event would also give wrestlers like Tomisake a chance to display their outstanding athletic ability in a different setting. Videos of him casually doing backflips across a field on a regional tour went viral. Something more organized would likely give sumo a huge amount of exposure worldwide.
Unfortunately, it seems we’ll have to wait until a board of directors with a greater sense of fun takes over for that particular tradition to be revived.