Sumo | INSIDE SUMO

Amateur sumo lacks flair, but worthy of fans' attention

by John Gunning

As detailed in last week’s column, sumo fans are divided when it comes to the kind of English language coverage they want and expect.

Some would like greater explanation of basic terms and techniques, while others think there is already too much handholding of the audience and would prefer more in-depth analysis.

The same goes for the type of commentary, with fans either wanting more western-style uptempo banter or else pared-back minimalist talk.

One other minor point of contention among fans is their view of amateur sumo.

Thanks to recent programs on NHK World and articles in this paper, the much less well-known version of Japan’s national sport has, over the past couple of years, appeared on the radar of many people abroad for the first time.

Reaction has been mixed, to say the least.

While some see it as an interesting complement to ōzumō (professional sumo), others regard it as an abomination that strips sumo of all its most interesting rituals and cultural components and reduces it to the base level of mere sport.

They aren’t wrong.

Amateur sumo has no pretensions of becoming a lifestyle in the way that professional sumo is. The former is simply a sport and nothing more.

That doesn’t mean, however, fans of ōzumō should ignore or look down on it.

First of all, in terms of the in-ring action, amateur sumo is often as exciting as the professional version, and often more so — particularly in the lightweight divisions where skill and speed are paramount.

While the abilities of the athletes don’t match up to the professionals at the very highest levels, a quick glance at the names of those who have gotten their start in amateur sumo quickly dispels any doubts about the overall quality.

More than half of the current top division competed in high-level amateur sumo tournaments, with 40 percent finishing university before turning pro.

Tochinoshin, Takakeisho and Goeido were standouts in amateur sumo, and all made ozeki and won championships after joining ōzumō.

They aren’t the only ozeki with similar backgrounds.

Baruto, Kotomitsuki, Kotomitsuki were all title-winning ozeki who came from amateur sumo, while Musashigawa stable at one time had three former collegiate ozeki in Musoyama, Miyabiyama and Dejima.

There has even been a yokozuna, Wajima, who came from amateur sumo.

Undoubtedly, all those men developed and honed their skills once they were in the pro ranks, but of course they didn’t all suddenly made huge improvements and become completely different rikishi after making the switch.

In recent weeks, some newly converted fans of the sport have made claims online that the top amateurs wouldn’t even survive in the third-lowest (sandanme) division in the pros.

The reality is that the medal rounds of top collegiate and international tournaments are contested almost exclusively by wrestlers whose power and skill already puts them on par with high makushita or low juryo-level wrestlers. Some could even go straight into the top division and hold their own.

It should also be remembered that without the amateur game, ōzumō fans would have been denied the chance to see many of the sport’s most exciting rikishi in action.

Had the choice been to either quit formal education at 15 and turn pro, or give up sumo altogether in order to continue studying and earn a third-level degree, many wrestlers who joined ōzumō after college would have been lost to the sport.

Amateur sumo, especially at the college level in Japan, allows athletes to complete their education before having to make the jump into the professional ranks. That gives them a solid backup option and allows them to develop social skills they otherwise wouldn’t learn inside ōzumō’s harsh environment.

Given that over 97 percent of all rikishi who join professional sumo never make it to the salaried ranks, being confronted with a choice between sumo or the completion of formal education would result in most taking the latter path.

So for fans of the professional game, it’s well worth watching amateur sumo not only because it’s a high-level, exciting sport in its own right, but also because it’s a way to see the stars of the future as they take their first steps into the limelight.

This year’s All Japan Championships — arguably the tournament with the greatest concentration of top-level talent in amateur sumo — took place last weekend at Tokyo’s Ryogoku Kokugikan.

Overall winner Koshiro Tanioka, a student at Kinki University, won’t be joining predecessors Mitakeumi, Endo, Daishomaru, Mitoryu and Yago in the professional ranks, however.

The 22-year-old intends to become a teacher, despite his amateur yokozuna status allowing him to skip the bottom three divisions and enter ōzumō at the rank of makushita No. 15.

The man he defeated in the final, Bartagul Yelshin from Kazakhstan, does intend to join the professional ranks once he graduates.

If the quality of talent in the 2019 tournament is anything like previous years, there will probably be two or three solid future sekitori (wrestlers in the top two divisions) joining with him.

One good point about amateur sumo for foreign fans is that its lower profile makes it far easier to get tickets, with most events allowing you to pay on the door. With tournaments taking place year-round all over the country it’s worth checking out for anyone with even a passing interest in Japan’s national sport.