Sumo | INSIDE SUMO

Innovative club nurtures sumo's young talent

by John Gunning

Komatsuryu Dojo, one of the oldest and most prestigious sumo clubs in Japan emerged triumphant at the 16th National Youngster Sumo Tournament, held at the Kokugikan in Tokyo on October 6th.

It was the first title for the club located on the banks of the Sumida River, and one that held particular significance.

Formed in 1948, Komatsuryu Dojo has trained hundreds of children over the decades, many of whom have gone to careers in professional sumo.

Daishodai, Shunketsu and Dewataira are some of the more recent graduates to have reached sekitori, Japan’s top two divisions.

One young boy with a promising career ahead of him, however never got a chance to see how he would fare in the paid ranks.

Tsubasa Yanagisawa fell ill in 2017 and passed away last October at the age of 16. He had been a member of the club since he was a small child and was someone that I had helped train there when still active.

On the one-year anniversary of Tsubasa’s death, his teammates achieved something that their club had never done before — winning the national title.

Several past and present members of the club mentioned the significance of the timing in social media posts after the kids put in an outstanding effort to commemorate their former friend.

Numerous members of the team medaled at the national meet, with the first, third and sixth year elementary school age division championships going to Komatsuryu Dojo.

Probably the only surprise is that it has taken so long for the team to achieve that level of success.

I spent most weekends over the course of ten years training in Komatsuryu Dojo and although it is primarily a kid’s club, the intensity of the practice sessions often rivaled those seen in professional sumo.

That’s large part thanks to the coaches there, many of whom are former top-division rikishi.

Current sumo elder Kabutoyama, a member of Isenoumi stable whose sons belong to Komatsuryu, teaches at the dojo on weekends.

Dewataira is a former juryo-division wrestler who wrestled in the club as a kid and now runs the fierce training sessions that Komatsuryu is known for.

When nearby Chiganoura stable opened in late 2004, there were only a few rikishi in the stable and the stablemaster got in the habit of sending new recruits and lower rankers to Komatsuryu Dojo for extra sessions.

Former club members, including currently active rikishi, were also a common sight at training.

Thus it was that I was able to train with rikishi of all levels on a regular basis.

So ferocious were those weekend practices that I always had a knot in my stomach walking to the gym located in Asakusa.

Taira-sensei, as everyone calls him, isn’t a dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist. While the bouts and main parts of the training follow professional style routines, the warmups were innovative and constantly changing.

New movements and ways of lifting or moving were introduced almost every weekend. Muscle groups never got a chance to fall into easy patterns with kid and adult members engaging in proto-CrossFit-style activities on Saturdays and Sundays.

Komatsuryu Dojo became well known in the international sumo community over the years and wrestlers visiting Japan from abroad often made it a point to stop in for training.

As an amateur sumo club there are no restriction on women, and training and tournaments at Komatsuryu are open to all.

In addition to professionals and international wrestlers, Komatsuryu Dojo often hosted Japan women’s national team stalwarts such as Ayano Matsuura and Satomi Ishigaya.

The speed and technical ability of athletes like Matsuura meant that despite a weight and power advantage, I always had to give my best to avoid ending up on my back in the sand.

With Taira-sensei also being a graduate of — and having strong links to — sumo powerhouses Saitama Sakae High School and Nihon University, there is a pathway for kids from Komatsuryu to continue their training after they graduate junior high.

Allowing them an opportunity to further their education while continuing to practice at a high level is key in insuring that promising future rikishi aren’t lost to the sport.

If you doubt the level of athlete at high school and university level, just take a look at Japan’s team from the 2014 World Sumo Championships.

Mitakeumi, Takakeisho, Enho, Hokutofuji and Yutakayama were all part of that year’s team.

Endo, Ichinojo and Tochinoshin likewise went through the youth/amateur system and fought at the World Championships.

With this year’s event taking place in Osaka on Oct. 12-13 it’s a perfect opportunity to go see the stars of the future in action.

It’s not unknown for some converts to sumo fandom to have a snobbish attitude towards the amateur version of the sport, especially if all they’ve seen is a tournament or training outside Japan.

Amateur sumo is the lifeblood of the sport, however, and clubs like Komatsuryu Dojo are particularly important as they give young children an opportunity to train with some of the top athletes in sumo as well as wrestlers from all over the world.