Japan’s national sport is semiglobalized.
For the first 1,957 years of its history, sumo was practiced exclusively by people born and raised in this country.
From 23 B.C. to 1964, every single rikishi was ethnically Japanese.
It’s been an entirely different situation for the past few decades however.
Twenty-five countries and territories across the world have had their young men come to Japan and join professional sumo.
With the advent of the internet, international interest in the sport has also risen and fans across the globe can now watch tournaments live online.
In that period, English-language ticketing services as well as overseas sumo merchandise retailers have also come into existence.
Fans can even interact directly with their favorite rikishi through social media.
At least, they could.
At a Tuesday meeting in the Kokugikan attended by 900 wrestlers, stablemasters and assorted sumo personnel, Japan Sumo Association Chairman Hakkaku and PR Director Shibatayama informed those present that the social media ban instituted in the wake of a horseplay video uploaded a few months ago would be extended indefinitely.
“One person’s mistake can cause trouble for everyone. Fans have been driven away by scandals in the past” said Hakkaku, while Shibatayama added that “just one finger can cause all kinds of hassle.”
There are several things wrong with both the ban and the mindset behind it.
First and foremost, in a sport that has long been a host to violence and hazing as well as an omerta-like culture that resulted in the death of a 17-year-old recruit, shutting one of the few existing windows into what goes on inside sumo is a major mistake.
The JSA seems oblivious to the fact that a social media ban looks to outsiders like more of a “don’t get caught” move than a “don’t do bad stuff” one.
If the powers that be really want to eliminate violence and bullying in the sport, creating a increasingly secretive environment is the wrong way to go about it.
Hiding what goes on just allows the violence to continue. Rather than try and avoid scandal, the JSA would be better off throwing open the doors completely and allowing those involved in unsavory actions no place to hide.
Better to take the hits in the press in the short term and foster a better environment in the long run than continue to shelter people that have no place in the sport.
To be fair to the JSA, they have had seminars and lectures for wrestlers dealing with codes of conduct and what is no longer acceptable.
Whether or not such talk has been backed up by more concrete measures is debatable.
Either way, the ban sends out the wrong message.
It’s particularly egregious in an era when sport is increasingly intertwined with social media.
The massive popularity enjoyed by the Japan rugby team both during and after the 2019 World Cup owes a lot to the activities of the players on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Soccer teams have long encouraged players to be active on social media, realizing that short-term headaches caused by ill-advised tweets are more than offset by the resultant increase in brand awareness and marketing opportunities.
American athletes are rarely off their phones. While their posts often expose the ugly side of their sports and cause all kinds of problems, there has been a massive explosion in the reach and financial scale of MMA and American football precisely because those sports have athletes who spend a lot of time interacting with supporters and detractors on social media.
All of this means that younger fans these days expect a different kind of access when it comes to their favorite sports stars.
Whether it’s getting a retweet or mention, or just being able to join and watch livestreamed conversations between players, fans belonging to the key 18-30 demographic have grown up with — and demand — a far greater level of connectivity to their idols than that experienced by those in charge of running most sports when they were younger.
Generation gaps have always existed, but social media is hardwired into the lives of younger people in a way that anyone middle aged or older will have trouble identifying with.
It’s a very stark difference, as well.
If you are 45, you probably graduated university without ever using the internet.
If you are 25, you likely can’t remember the web before YouTube.
Adjust those ages to 55 and 18 years old and the life experience gap becomes a gulf.
A social media ban not only damages the integrity of sumo by making it seem as if those in charge are trying to hide unsavory practices, but it also harms the long-term health of the sport by cutting fans off from their favorite rikishi, potentially leading to large numbers of supporters losing interest in sumo.
That’s doubly damaging when the alienated demographic is one that will increasingly be relied on to buy tickets and merchandise in the future.
Several rikishi have ignored the ban since it first came into force, and to date no action has been taken against them.
For sumo’s sake, let’s hope that instead of cracking down, the JSA continues to turn a blind eye and allows the counterproductive edict to fade away, or better still rescind it completely.