Sumo | INSIDE SUMO

Sumo shows offer new life for retired rikishi

by John Gunning

Sumo is an all-enveloping lifestyle.

Unlike in other professional sports, there are no days when wrestlers are just regular people.

The topknot is a constant reminder of the total commitment needed in Japan’s national sport.

Once you join sumo you are a rikishi 24/7 until your retirement papers are handed in.

Those at the top are well compensated for such dedication. Large salaries, endless perks, fame and glory await anyone who makes it to yokozuna or ozeki.

Even the lowest men in the second tier juryo division earn enough money to ensure a more than comfortable living.

That still leaves roughly 90 percent of all wrestlers (and an estimated 97 percent of everyone who joins sumo) in the unsalaried ranks, however.

A huge number of those join sumo soon after graduating junior high school, and spend the next 15 years toiling away in anonymity without reward.

The violent nature of sumo and the sheer physical effort it takes, makes continuing past the age of 30 difficult. Only a fraction of all who join remain active 20 years after doing so.

Another difference from soccer, football, boxing or any other sport is that there are virtually no opportunities to remain in sumo post-retirement for the vast majority of rikishi.

While you can become a famous soccer coach without top-flight experience (Jose Mourinho got his chance after initially being an interpreter for another coach) there are only 105 name shares (and accompanying sumo elder positions) in the Japan Sumo Association, and to even be eligible to possess one requires 30 tournaments in either of the top two divisions, or else 20 in the top one alone.

Anyone reaching ozeki or yokozuna or completing a tournament at komusubi or sekiwake is eligible as well.

Although there are a few other minor positions available, continuing in the JSA after your topknot is cut is essentially an option open only to a very small number of rikishi.

The upshot of all the above means leaving sumo can be quite a wrench for many.

Finding yourself unemployed in your early 30s without a high school education or transferable skills, and having spent most of your life in a cloistered environment where virtually ever decision was made for you can be a shock.

When sumo was your life for 15 to 20 years, hanging up your mawashi for good can be extremely difficult.

Unpaid work coaching at kids clubs can fill the gap but most already have staff and many are located far from other job opportunities.

Up until recently there had been no obvious way for former rikishi to monetize their skills and experience.

A global explosion in interest in sumo, as well as a huge increase in the number of foreign visitors to Japan has changed that by creating a new industry, however: sumo shows.

One of the major complaints among fans coming to Japan over the past few years has been how difficult it is to get tickets for regular tournaments. It’s a problem not just confined to foreign guests, with even long time supporters in Japan having trouble acquiring seats.

Regional tours provide easier access but those are mostly in far-flung locations and don’t align with most people’s itineraries.

To fill the gap in the market and take advantage of a large and growing customer base, several former professionals have set up sumo entertainment companies.

One such company is O-Sumo San Promotions.

With a growing roster of former professionals, “Sumo-Pro” as it is known, is part talent agency and part event producer.

Its most recent show on Aug. 18, pitted one of the heads of the company, former juryo man Wakatenro against the newly retired Shunba, a makushita level veteran who had been his stablemate in the (now-defunct) Magaki stable.

Taking place at a sumo themed restaurant in Ryogoku that contains a regulation ring surrounded by tables, the roughly hourlong event combined sumo bouts mixed with pro wrestling style showmanship and a healthy dose of audience participation.

The latter reached its peak when after the final scheduled bout the crowd chanted for a rematch (despite Shunba clearly having lost) and one of the audience members was invited up into the ring to give a ringside judge style explanation and rematch call.

Wakatenro, despite having retired eight years ago, easily beat the much smaller Shunba in all fights on the night.

Neither man held anything back however and fought with full intensity.

In between bouts, the two men joined revelers, eating, drinking and posing with fans.

The venue crackled with energy as those in attendance cheered and shouted for their favorite man. Shunba unsurprisingly got the lion’s share of the support with one small boy almost in tears after the diminutive wrestler lost for a fourth straight time.

The excitement (and perhaps the alcohol) got the better of some fans with envelopes of kensho (prize money) being given to Wakatenro each time. Those were handed back to the original owners at the end of the night however, sparing the presenter any regrets the next morning.

Although this particular show was aimed at a domestic audience and consequently was all in Japanese, the proceedings were easy enough to follow for some tourists that were in attendance.

Raita Suzuki, who plays the role of the referee in Sumo-Pro productions, said that when the company runs events for a mainly foreign audience everything is in English.

Sumo entertainment is still a new industry and everyone involved in the Aug. 18 event still works a regular day job.

Increasing demand for their services however makes it likely that former wrestlers will now be able to have a second full-time sumo career, one that for some will see them get paid for their efforts for the very first time.

While sumo purists may balk at some elements of sumo entertainment, the fact that those behind the productions are rikishi with decades of experience means most of what is on show is the real deal.

Indeed judging from the reaction of the audience in Ryogoku, the showmanship elements of the production enhance rather than diminish the experience.

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