Sumo | INSIDE SUMO

JSA loathe to reissue banzuke, even in wake of scandals

Canceled Summer Basho's rankings will likely carry over to July

by John Gunning

Contributing Writer

As expected, the Summer Grand Sumo Tournament has been cancelled following the government’s extension of the state of emergency.

The move, coming after the publication of the banzuke (rankings) and accompanied by a decision to host the July meet in Tokyo (rather than in Nagoya as usual), raises some interesting questions.

One that has generated debate online is whether or not the Japan Sumo Association will create a new banzuke ahead of the next tournament, or just use the already released rankings whenever that event takes place.

Although there have been no bouts to affect the wrestler’s positions since the release of the banzuke in April, some retirements came after those rankings were decided.

High-profile rikishi like Toyonoshima and Sokokurai remain ranked despite no longer being active, and although it isn’t the first time already retired rikishi have appeared on the banzuke, the fact that the tournament dates on the printed sheets are now also incorrect has sparked speculation that the JSA may have a new banzuke created.

The chances of that happening seem remote.

For one, sumo’s governing body has never shown itself to be all that fastidious when it comes to the look or harmony of the banzuke. In 2007 and 2008 it was even content to have blank spaces where the names of Tokitsuumi and Wakanoho respectively should have been following their sudden retirements (for very different reasons). It’s hard to imagine that something as trivial as incorrect dates would trigger an entire banzuke reissue.

Such a reprinting would also create some serious logistical issues. First of all, the rankings need to be decided by the 23-member judging department. With such a large group of people giving input, and roughly 700 rikishi having to be assigned slots, it’s an intense and time-consuming process. A massive roll of paper that stretches from one end of the room to the other is used to keep track of all the names, and other officials in the room record all of the wrestlers’ positions. Deciding the banzuke rankings isn’t something that can be done over Zoom, in other words.

Then you have the fact that that several gyoji (referees) from different stables would need to meet to write out the original sheet. Add in printing and delivery and that’s a lot of people moving around unnecessarily in a time when “stay at home” is the mantra being repeated daily.

The creation of another set of rankings would also make the May 2020 banzuke just the second ever not to have a tournament associated with it.

In 1932, the “Shunjuen Incident” saw 48 rikishi, including an ozeki and 11 other top-division wrestlers split or be fired from the sumo association in a dispute over pay and conditions. Two rival sumo bodies were immediately set up, sending the sport into crisis and causing a schism that would take years to heal.

With a massive chunk of the top two divisions missing, the 1932 January banzuke lost all value and a second set of rankings were produced for a shortened tournament in February.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone in the JSA wants to have the ghost at the feast (the banzuke, not Shakespeare’s Banquo) reappear in 2020 and remind everyone of those dark days.

The most likely course of action to be taken by the JSA is one that involves the current banzuke being used without change for July.

Another idea which seems to be making the rounds is the notion that having no tournament in May will give injured rikishi time to heal, relax and come back healthier next time out.

While it’s true that tournaments bring their own challenges and pressures, an average rikishi fights more often in a single morning practice than he does over the entire two weeks of a competition. Sumo doesn’t employ much in the way of restricted sparring, and practice bouts generally carry the same physical impact as that those in official tournaments.

Rather than the layoff being a time of healing, rikishi are more likely to find themselves in worse physical condition, trapped in the stable with all their normal stress release outlets no longer available.

For rikishi in stables lacking an extensive collection of weights — the vast majority of them — not being able to go and work out in the evenings at a gym is also bound to have a detrimental effect.

The cancellation of the autumn tour, however, is a plus when it comes to the health of the wrestlers. In recent years, the increased length and duration of the intertournament jaunts around the country have arguably been major factors in what seems like a rising number of injuries, so being spared long cramped bus rides and poor food options is certainly something that will be welcomed by many in the sport.

If the July tournament does take place in Tokyo, one would hope that some consideration is given to the idea of moving the September meet to Nagoya.

Of course, there are all kinds of reasons why such a move would be difficult even under normal circumstances, and if the pandemic continues unabated it may be out of the question entirely. But if movement restrictions are no longer in place, it would seem fair and proper to hold the autumn meet there, ensuring fans in the central Japanese city aren’t deprived of their once a year opportunity to see sumo.

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