Two significant changes in status took place after the Osaka Grand Sumo Tournament.
First up was the promotion of Asanoyama to the sport’s second-highest rank.
At 26, the Toyama native is still younger than 70 percent of the top division, and looks a good bet to become the first ozeki with a second Emperor’s Cup to his name since Tochiazuma managed the feat 17 years ago.
Don’t expect the Kindai University grad to stick around at his new rank for long, either. Outside of a pair of yokozuna (who both turn 35 in 2020) there isn’t another rikishi in the sport that would go into a bout against Asanoyama as the favorite.
Mitakeumi and Endo still cause some stylistic matchup problems, but, as evidenced in his head-to-head record against rikishi such as Ryuden, one of Asanoyama’s greatest weapons is a Borg-like ability to diagnose, adapt to and neutralize his opponents’ strengths. Still only coming into his own, the Takasago stable man is the most likely candidate to become sumo’s next yokozuna.
Just as Asanoyama’s active career began to reach its peak, that of Sokokurai came to an end.
The native of Inner Mongolia has become the first-ever former Chinese stablemaster — JSA rules only allow Japanese citizens to become elders.
Sokokurai may never have come close to the heights Asanoyama has already reached inside the ring, but he did achieve a far more impressive victory. Accused of match-fixing and kicked out of the sport in 2011, the Arashio Beya veteran forced sumo’s governing body to reinstate him after a two-year court battle, and this week took over the running of that stable.
Those two moves may be the only sumo news we get for a while.
With the social media ban still in place and restrictions on movement continuing to increase, don’t expect much in the way of training reports or interviews over the next month.
In fact, watching sumo at all may not become possible until July at the very earliest. As things stand, it’s difficult to see a repeat of the March tournament, which took place with no fans in the arena, in May’s scheduled Summer Grand Sumo Tournament. Over the past week the number of COVID-19 cases in the capital has increased rapidly, and if the metropolitan or national governments follow the path taken in Europe, a complete lockdown may be on the cards.
While there is still a worryingly casual attitude towards the pandemic among many in Japan, things have become more serious, and the death of comedian Ken Shimura has had a sobering effect. What was acceptable in March is unlikely to be so in April or May, meaning any attempt to go ahead with the Summer Basho is likely to meet significant opposition.
The coronavirus situation remains a rapidly changing one, so the JSA may wait to see how things pan out in Japan over the next few weeks before officially announcing a decision.
With the normal flow of sumo information slowing to a trickle it’s a good chance to take stock of the sport and ponder what changes could or should be made in order to help it survive and thrive in the future.
The pandemic is hitting sport hard across the globe, and has already led to USA Rugby filing for bankruptcy.
Sumo’s structure and importance in Japan society make the risk of financial collapse unlikely, but there is no guarantee it can continue to find recruits for a sport in which over 90 percent of the participants don’t get paid — especially in a post-coronavirus economy, when families will want every member who can earn a salary to do so.
Raising the retention rate is one area that the JSA could look at. Right now, pretty much any Japanese male between the ages of 15 and 22 who wants to become a rikishi can do so.
That’s not a bad thing at all and such an open-door policy is to be applauded. The downside, however, is that a lot of recruits go into the sport having no real conception of its harshness. A lack of information also leads to poor choices when it comes to picking a stable, with very few rikishi doing any kind of research before choosing where they will spend the next 10-15 years of their life — if everything goes smoothly.
How many potential stars have been lost to the sport because they joined a stable rife with hazing and bullying? Off the top of my head I can think of at least ten surefire makuuchi division candidates that washed out of sumo early because they didn’t receive proper care or training, or had an oyakata and stablemates that made their life in the sport unbearable.
In a system where stables are more like families than teams, implementing the free movement of rikishi seems almost impossible, but changing stables does happen on occasion. Kakuryu, Baruto, Terunofuji, Takakeisho and Aoiyama have all been members of more than one heya.
Those moves resulted from extenuating circumstances, however, and the rikishi involved had little-to-no say in where they went.
Free agency for sekitori, in whom the stable has invested years of training, and whose presence is a financial and prestige boon, will never happen. But perhaps, in the period when they are sumo school, all new recruits should be rotated around several stables.
Giving them a week or two in up to five or six different stables should result in them picking one better suited to their individual personality and needs.
It would also incentivize stables to treat young wrestlers better and give them a shot at bringing in and recruiting top talent — or just more bodies in general.
Will it happen? Almost certainly not, but it’s worth kicking ideas out there that could improve sumo as, like all sports, it heads into an uncertain future.
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