Like virtually every other sport in the world, sumo has been deeply impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tournaments, regional tours and other events have been repeatedly postponed or even canceled outright, while meets that did go ahead saw attendances significantly reduced in order to comply with various state-of-emergency guidelines.

Several high-profile wrestlers and coaches have also been suspended or fired for breaches of curfews and lockdowns imposed by the Japan Sumo Association in the wake of the coronavirus-related death of 28-year-old rikishi Shobushi.

It’s been a challenging 18 months for Japan’s national sport, but with the number of active COVID-19 cases plummeting to just 1% of what it was two months ago and over 70% of the population vaccinated, there is genuine hope that a return to normality is within sight.

Part of that process is the holding of tournaments as scheduled outside of the capital. For the first time in two years sumo will return to Fukuoka, with the Kyushu Basho due to get under way on Nov. 14.

Normalization also means moving forward with the numerous retirement ceremonies that have been on hold since the pandemic began.

Just as the topknot is one of sumo’s most recognizable sights, its removal after a wrestler’s active career has drawn to a close is arguably the most definitive and symbolic ending in all of sport.

With many danpatsu-shiki (hair-cutting ceremonies) scheduled over the next year and a half, it is also a rare opportunity for fans — especially those from abroad — to play an active part in an ōzumo event.

Lower-division wrestler Sato cuts the hair of retiring wrestler Wakatenro during a danpatsu-shiki on July 31, 2011. | JOHN GUNNING
Lower-division wrestler Sato cuts the hair of retiring wrestler Wakatenro during a danpatsu-shiki on July 31, 2011. | JOHN GUNNING

The global profile of sumo has risen considerably over the past five to 10 years, and the number of fans coming from abroad to watch the sport in person has likewise seen a huge jump. Anecdotal evidence would suggest that in recent times a greater percentage of the foreign faces in attendance at sumo tournaments are knowledgeable fans there to support particular wrestlers, rather than visitors to Japan who just happened to have sumo on their itinerary out of curiosity.

Despite the growth of its foreign fan base and a notable increase in the number of people abroad with deep knowledge of the sport, accessibility still remains an issue for those outside Japan. Attending tournaments and keeping up to date with the sport requires work, and opportunities to interact with rikishi are difficult to come by.

Unlike official tournaments however, danpatsu-shiki are privately run ceremonies that — for a price — allow pretty much anyone to have a role in the day’s activities.

With Japan eyeing an easing of travel restrictions and the gradual opening up of its borders, retirement ceremonies will be an attractive option for sumo-starved foreign fans who may not be able to travel to this country during official meets — particularly as the danpatsu-shiki of the sport’s more well-known rikishi are normally held at the easily accessible Ryogoku Kokugikan in Tokyo.

Another incentive for fans is the fact that danpatsu-shiki also serve as a kind of retirement fundraiser for the wrestler of honor, with the day’s profits going to him directly. Knowing that you are helping one of your favorite wrestlers get set up for the second part of his life makes the often-steep sums charged for the honor of cutting a strand of his hair easier to swallow.

Apart from the parade of family members, supporters and fans that mount the ring one after another to snip away at the retiring wrestler’s topknot, danpatsu-shiki often have mini-tournaments, taiko drumming, kids-versus-rikishi bouts, comedy sumo and various other activities seen on regional tours and one-day events, making them an attractive proposition for anyone simply looking to enjoy a day out.

Some of the more popular rikishi among foreign fans will be having their retirement ceremonies in the near future. Aminishiki and Yoshikaze are scheduled for the first half of 2022, while Japan should be fully open by the time big names such as Kakuryu and Kotoshogiku hold their respective danpatsu-shiki.

Ozeki Baruto (center) and stablemate Tenkaiho take on kids during Baruto's retirement ceremony on Feb. 8, 2014. | JOHN GUNNING
Ozeki Baruto (center) and stablemate Tenkaiho take on kids during Baruto’s retirement ceremony on Feb. 8, 2014. | JOHN GUNNING

Many, of course, are waiting for the announcement of the date for Hakuho’s retirement ceremony. With limited spaces available in the sumo calendar and a backlog of wrestlers waiting to hold their danpatsu-shiki, the greatest rikishi in the history of sumo may be wearing a topknot for awhile to come. Once a decision on the date of his hair-cutting ceremony is made, however, tickets are likely to sell out almost immediately, drawing a crowd that could conceivably fill the Kokugikan.

Standing on the ring and cutting a strand of Hakuho’s hair isn’t the kind of opportunity that is available in any other sport.

Being part of such an occasion is akin to throwing out a ceremonial pitch to Babe Ruth in his final game, shooting hoops with Michael Jordan post-retirement or kicking a ball around with Pele before he wears the Brazil shirt for the last time. No other sport offers regular fans the chance to be part of history in such an intimate way involving its greatest champions.

Retirement ceremonies for well-known rikishi are normally attended by many current and past legends, which adds to the attractiveness of the occasion for fans.

For those who can’t make it to the bigger stand-alone danpatsu-shiki, another option is attending one of the senshuraku parties held by stables on the last day of a sumo tournament. Those are usually two-hour events that allow you to mix and mingle with the rikishi, but also contain hair cutting ceremonies for lower ranked wrestlers.

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