Sumo | INSIDE SUMO

Rikishi pulling their weight in buildup to RWC in Japan, but rugby's gain could be sumo's loss

by John Gunning

The 2019 Rugby World Cup is less than two months away.

The tournament, which is the world’s third-largest sporting event, undoubtedly will have a major impact, not just on rugby in Japan, but on many other sports in the host nation.

What those effects will be remains to be seen, but for sports such as American football, that are in direct competition for the same athletes at the underage level, recruiting could become much harder in the wake of the inevitable surge in rugby’s popularity.

One only need look at the explosion in interest in soccer following Japan’s hosting of that sport’s World Cup to see how much of a boost a major tournament provides.

Although the creation of the J. League in the early ’90s had given the domestic game in Japan a much higher profile, soccer was still very much the poor relation to baseball prior to that 2002 global showcase.

America’s pastime remains Japan’s national game but soccer is now firmly entrenched in the No. 2 slot, with anecdotal evidence suggesting it is more popular than baseball among younger fans.

With rugby set to receive a massive amount of exposure over the next few months, what effect, if any, will that have on sumo?

First and foremost it will pose an additional challenge for children’s clubs and tournaments in terms of finding participants.

The idea of kids choosing rugby over sumo isn’t as incongruous as it might seem.

While I’ve long argued that offensive line play in American football is the most closely related activity to sumo in terms of the technique and size required, front rowers in rugby also deserve to be added to that comparison.

There have already been several rikishi who came from a rugby background and plenty others who were involved in both sports at an early age.

Ryo Yamamura was a promising amateur wrestler and looked set to turn pro before switching to rugby and ending up on the national team.

Given the dramatic increase in size and power of rugby players since the advent of the professional era, the two sports have more in common now than at any time in the past and the RWC could see many others follow Yamamura’s path.

Despite Japan’s success at the previous World Cup, sumo remains a far more popular sport in this country. Unlike previous tournaments which were mostly followed by existing fans of the sport however, the upcoming World Cup will be front and center for the population as a whole, not just on TV screens or in newspapers but at stadia and other venues up and down the country from late September to early November.

It would be naive not to expect that to influence the choice of sport for a whole generation of children.

And in a country where participation in underage sport usually requires total dedication, leading to the dropping of all other activities, it’s inevitable that a number of potential sumo stars will be lost to rugby in the wake of the upcoming tournament.

That hasn’t prevented the Japan Sumo Association and its members from being part of promotional activities for the event.

Chairman Hakkaku was presented with a national team jersey by the organizing committee last September after a meet and greet at the JSA headquarters and several rikishi have been involved in events hyping the World Cup.

Tochinoshin created a special video message for the Japan Rugby Football Union ahead of last summer’s international match against his home country of Georgia.

The burly ozeki was due to show up at Toyota Stadium in person on the day of the game, but fans had to make do with a repeat of the same video on the giant screen. When I called him to ask where he was, he told me that he had been out late with the ambassador the night before and “wasn’t feeling well.”

His countrymen looked like they had partied just as hard, going down 28-0 to a much better Japan side.

Yoshikaze, who hails from Kyushu, has been to several promotional events in western Japan over the past few years. The region will host a relatively large number of games despite its smaller population.

Rugby of course is massively popular among South Pacific nations, so it’s no surprise that former yokozuna Musashimaru (who has a Samoan background) has been actively involved in Rugby World Cup promotional events.

His Musashigawa stable even moved its Kansai base camp to Hanazono Stadium in 2016 ahead of the ground’s redevelopment.

The practice ring was under one of the old stands and the stablemaster was pictured in full uniform hamming it up for the cameras.

The admiration has been mutual with several former rugby internationals turned broadcasters trying their hand in the ring while in Japan.

National teams have also made sure to drop in on practice sessions during tours to this country.

Scotland visited Tamanoi stable in 2016, and Ireland watched training at Shikoroyama and Musashigawa stables in 2017.

A World Cup is usually all business with little down time, but the latter group was so impressed with what they saw two years ago that they have been pressing hard to ensure a repeat visit when the team returns in September, with many players saying it was the highlight of their 2017 tour.

The Rugby World Cup could leave a smaller talent pool for sumo in its wake but the desire to create a good impression for visitors and many wrestlers natural affinity for the sport is ensuring that relations between the two sports in Japan remain positive.