One of the most well-known prerequisites for obtaining sumo elder stock is Japanese nationality.
In order to remain a member of the Japan Sumo Association after retiring from the ring, a rikishi must be a citizen of this country.
If that’s not the case, then as soon as his retirement paperwork is handed in, a wrestler is out of professional sumo.
It’s a requirement that made the recent end of Kakuryu’s career far more fraught than it should have been. Processing delays over the renunciation of his Mongolian nationality meant the yokozuna faced the very real possibility of being forced into retirement before he had obtained Japanese citizenship. That would have prevented him from becoming an elder and shut the door on any hopes of running his own stable someday.
Luckily for the veteran, the process was completed in time and he was able to stay in the sport.
While citizenship is needed to become an elder or stablemaster, there is no such requirement for active wrestlers.
Most fans know that rikishi with foreign nationality need a visa in order to live and work in the country, but how many are aware of the exact classification?
For those that don’t know, wrestlers, like almost all professional athletes, are legally resident in Japan under an “entertainer” visa.
That same status is used for choreographers, athletic trainers and TV production crews. It also covers bar staff and people engaged in nightclub work.
Recent scandals aside, it may appear to some that rikishi and hostesses — classified as one category by immigration — have little in common.
While the respective settings may be different, both occupations are, at their core, about providing entertainment and distraction.
О̄zumo of course is a mix of many other things. Religion, theater and lifestyle all combine with sport to make something utterly unique.
At the end of the day, the JSA still sells tickets to its performances, and you won’t find many people spending money to attend a tournament for reasons other than enjoyment.
Sport is entertainment and sumo is one of the best at ensuring its fans are entertained.
For sure, Japan’s national sport has many problems and there are inherent elements that require immediate change, but one accusation sumo’s detractors can’t level at the sport is that of it being boring.
Whether it’s 15 days of tightly packed action inside the ring or political shenanigans and Shakespearean drama outside it, sumo has very little fat (figuratively speaking) and is the perfect sport for modern fandom.
Entire bouts last mere seconds and can be consumed “on the go” on mobile devices in much the same way that touchdowns, home runs or goal highlights are viewed by fans of more mainstream sports.
The strikingly visual aspect of sumo — with black-clad ringside judges and elaborately outfitted referees in wildly colorful traditional kimonos officiating over almost-naked combatants — is something that countless fans have said first grabbed their attention.
Once hooked, it’s hard to resist being drawn deeper into sumo. Wrestlers of various sizes and shapes with wildly contrasting styles all facing off in a weight-class-free division is something that you just don’t see in other sports. The sight of Enho (169 centimeters, 92 kilograms) squaring off against Kaisei (195 cm, 192 kg) is akin to witnessing a real-life version of fighting games like Street Fighter or Tekken.
As entertaining as such matchups are, it’s in the overarching stories of tournaments where the real meat is to be found.
The just-completed Summer Basho didn’t disappoint on that score.
Newly re-promoted ozeki Terunofuji, whose comeback story was already one of the greatest of all time, went into the meet with the prospect of setting up promotion to sumo’s ultimate rank. The giant Mongolian seemed to have won the latest round in his ongoing battle against knee injury and was cruising to the title until a pair of overturned wins and a resurgent Takakeisho created high drama on the final day.
Regardless of the accuracy of those judging decisions (for the record, the first one was likely wrong while the second was a wash that could have gone any of three ways) it’s hard to complain about a tournament that goes down to a playoff for the title.
Apart from the intoxicating excitement of the championship race, there was no shortage of bouts with significant consequences over the final weekend, including Mitakeumi and Takayasu struggling to reach double digits in order to set up a promotion and return to ozeki in the next few months, as well as Ishiura desperately trying to reach the seven wins that should keep him in the top division for July.
With scandal enveloping a top-ranker, a nail-biting race for the Emperor’s Cup, a journeyman making a run at glory out of the blue and a complete lack of generosity in doling out special prizes, the Summer Grand Sumo Tournament was a microcosm of the sport over the past few years.
As with all great tournaments, the conclusion of the May meet also set up a perfect “tune in next time” cliffhanger.
Will Hakuho, the greatest rikishi in the history of the sport, return and retake the crown, or will a Mongolian kid he helped join the sport send him into retirement and take his place at the top of the sumo world?
Will Takakeisho and Terunofuji take the title race down to the wire again and become the first pair of rikishi promoted to yokozuna together since Kitanofuji and Tamanoumi in 1970?
The JSA doesn’t have a motto, but if the sport’s governing body ever goes down that road then “Are you not entertained?” should be considered a top candidate.
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