One month out from the final tournament of 2021 and preparations are well under way for the move to Kyushu.
For the first time since 2019, the Japan Sumo Association and its 42 constituent stables will decamp to the city of Fukuoka and a meet that could be among the last to be held under current COVID-19 enforced restrictions.
Navigating the pandemic has been a challenge for the JSA, and some prominent names have fallen to suspension or dismissal over the past 18 months.
With almost 70% of Japan’s population fully vaccinated and infection numbers falling to a 12-month low, there finally seems to be light at the end of the tunnel.
Although the country is obviously far from out of the woods, there is growing optimism in sporting circles that a return to normalcy by early next year is on the cards.
For sumo that would mean full arenas and the much-needed financial boost those would bring. Unlike competitions that are driven by TV revenue, Japan’s national sport relies heavily on ticket sales for income.
Post-pandemic, sumo will also be able to focus on some of the major pressing issues that COVID-19 arguably made it harder to deal with properly. Injuries and wrestler welfare are areas still in dire need of improvement.
Hopefully attention will also be given to lesser aspects of the sport, where even small tweaks could significantly improve the experience for both rikishi and fans alike.
One change that many supporters would like to see is a greater generosity in the awarding of special prizes.
The Fighting Spirit, Outstanding Performance and Technique prizes, collectively known as sanshō, are handed out on the final day of each tournament to rikishi that have excelled over the previous fortnight.
Voted for with a show of hands by a committee made up of sumo elders, journalists and special supporters, each sanshō comes with a trophy, plaque and ¥2 million in prize money.
In recent years there has been a notable increase in complaints by journalists and fans about worthy winners being passed over entirely or given the unnecessary condition of needing to win on day 15 in order to receive a sanshō.
It’s not easy to evaluate whether the conferral of special prizes has tightened up as the awards are subjectively decided, but without doubt the September 2018 decision to award no sanshō at all — for the first time since the system began in 1947 — focused attention on each subsequent lack of award.
With 60 special prizes handed out in the 17 tournaments since September 2018, the actual sanshō rate is 3½ per basho — putting the committee’s level of generosity slightly above what it was for most of the awards’ history.
Most of the discrepancy between reality and perception can likely be accounted for in the inconsistent way in which sanshō have been given.
For the first 10 years of their existence, each prize was given once per tournament, and it took until 1985 before all three sanshō had seen both multiple and no winners at an individual event.
While several rikishi over the past couple of years could claim to have been unreasonably denied a sanshō, things have been far leaner in the past. The Technique Prize is normally given to a wrestler who displays a wide variety of moves or excels in just a few. For the first five tournaments of 1988, not a single man was adjudged to have done either — which begs the question as to how the committee at the time thought that maegashira with eleven wins actually got those victories.
Similarly, 10 of 11 tournaments beginning in January 2009 passed with no Outstanding Performance Prize awarded. While that normally goes to a wrestler ranked sekiwake or below who defeats the tournament winner, the committee isn’t bound by any condition and could have given the award for any kind of excellent effort.
Although complaints have been noticeable recently, inconsistency of application and deliberations that are never made public have resulted in dissatisfaction with the awarding (or, more often, the nonawarding) of sanshō for decades.
Fixing the prizes to set standards would take away the human element that, as with the banzuke ranking, is a major part of sumo’s charm. It would also deprive each tournament’s final day of some of its mystery and suspense.
Even so, the fact that sumo is a zero-sum game means that every basho will feature someone who does well relative to the competition. There is no reason that a requirement to award each sanshō at least once couldn’t be implemented. Rikishi have few enough perks and compete in a sport where their lives are at risk every time they step inside the ring. In addition to doing everything possible to reduce the danger to its participants, sumo should also ensure that the rewards available are increased.
Sanshō were initially instituted as a way to raise people’s spirits in the wake of the devastation of World War II. Their very raison d’etre is to make life in sumo better for its wrestlers and more exciting for its fans. Conferring a particular special prize on multiple wrestlers in a single tournament is something that has happened more frequently in recent times and is a commendable step, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of the other sanshō.
With the vast majority of prize money, trophies and awards going to the tournament winner, the JSA should ensure that as many other rikishi as possible have a tangible shot at some kind of reward for their efforts.
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