Japan's Grand Sumo is looking for a superstar to revive interest
April 10, 2003
magine Major League Baseball without such stars as Barry Bonds and Ichiro Suzuki, professional golf with no Tiger Woods, and pro basketball minus Dirk Nowitzki.
Now you understand why Japan’s Grand Sumo is plodding through a period of crisis.
In addition, in recent decades the influx of foreigners into this particularly Japanese sport seems to have diminished its appeal among Japanese fans.
The annual spring competition, the Haru Basho, or Spring Grand Sumo Tournament held in Osaka, ended March 23 having done little to revive the sport’s interest.
Sumo aficionados in Japan point to persistent injuries of sumo’s top stars, the influx of foreigners, sagging attendance and accusations of physique enhancing drugs as signs the sport is in a serious slump.
“The ones of the moment haven’t inspired Japanese fans one way or the other,” explained Clyde Newton, a sumo expert, publisher and writer for Sumo World magazine. The foreign rikishi “aren’t really liked, and they aren’t really hated either. None have the ‘star’ value,” Newton said. “And you can extend that as well to the Japanese competitors.”
To explain a little about the organization of sumo, the rikishi are split into two divisions — East and West — with each division having a yokozuna, or grand champion. Their are only 70 salaried professional wrestlers in the two top divisions, with hundreds of others trying to earn their way into those ranks.
There are six annual Grand Sumo basho (tournaments): one in each odd-numbered month. Three are held in Tokyo, and one each in Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka.
Basically, two men meet in a 5-yard-diameter ring. The goal is for one to force the other out of the dohyo (ring) or force any part of the body, except the soles of the feet, to touch the surface. Participants cannot pull hair, gouge eyes or hit with a fist, but tripping, slapping and throws are common.
On Jan. 31, shortly after winning the New Year tournament in Tokyo with a match tally of 14-1, Mongolian sumo wrestler Asashoryu, at a fierce 6’1” and 295 pounds, became the sport’s 68th yokozuna, or grand champion.
He followed in the immensely popular footsteps of Japan’s Takanohana, 30, who at 6’1” 330-pounds, retired in early January. Takanohana was no less than the Michael Jordan of sumo.
No Japanese wrestler has been promoted to yokozuna since 1998, and attendance has dropped in recent years as the sport’s most celebrated stars have quit or been slowed by age and injury.
For the first time in the history of the centuries-old sport, gaijin, or foreigners, hold both yokozuna titles: Mongolian Asashoryu in the Western Division, and the 31-year-old, 6’3” 520-pound Samoan Musashimaru in the Eastern Division. The only other time there was not a Japanese yokozuna was when Hawaiian Akebono was the lone yokozuna for a short time in the 1990s, Newton recalled.
“Akebono was kind of interesting because at the same time Takanohana and Wakanohana were both at their peak and in the midst of an interesting rivalry,” explained Newton, referring to the brothers. “But Akebono was more tangible as a yokozuna to the Japanese.”
At the Osaka tourney in March, the quick and powerful Asashoryu logged a lackluster performance managing only 10 wins in his 15 matches. The other yokozuna, Musashimaru, did not compete because of lingering injuries; he also missed the annual New Year Basho held in Tokyo in January.
Newton said Asashoryu, whose real name is Dolgorsuren Dagvadorj, is not likely to develop the star appeal the sport needs. “He’s just risen through the ranks so quickly that I don’t think he’s developed too much of a following. And he didn’t do very well (in the Osaka Tournament), and he didn’t seem to go all out. He only got 10 wins, which is kind of mediocre, and not what you would have expected.”
The winner of the March tournament was the East’s 350-pound Ozeki Chiyotaikai with a 12-3 record, including victory over Asashoryu. Twelve rikishi in the juryo or higher classifications sat out the tournament, causing many fans to lose interest, so Chiyotaikai’s victory saved the day.
Depending on your point of view, Japanese sumo wrestling is going through a period of crisis, or is perched on the threshold of new and exciting opportunities.
Nonetheless, because sumo is part of Japanese culture, it’s easy to understand the concerns of some Japanese fans. But other supporters, who are pushing to get it into the Olympics, much as Japan successfully won a slot for judo, welcome the internationalization of the sport.
The first non-Japanese sumo wrestler was American Jesse Kuhaulua, who started sumo competitions in 1964. There are now 51 foreign wrestlers – including 31 from Mongolia, four Russians and three each from the United States and Brazil.
Some Japanese sports critics are calling for restrictions on the number of foreign sumo wrestlers. They claim the foreign rikishi are too large and win too many matches, causing a shift in the sport’s focus from skill to power. Sumo wrestlers today average 157 kilograms (345 pounds), whereas in 1975 the average was 125 kilograms (275 pounds).
They want a limit on foreign participation to protect traditional values, saying sumo is not just a sport but part of Japanese culture.
Another reason sumo has experienced a decline in popularity among Japanese fans is that not enough matchups inspire excitement. In addition, Takanohana’s long-term absence and recent retirement has had an adverse effect, and numerous withdrawals from the six tournaments contribute significantly to the perceived decline.
Want to go?
The Sumo Kyokai holds six grand tournaments each year. They are held in the same months from year to year, but the actual dates may vary. The next six tournaments scheduled are:
¶ The 2003 May Tournament — Ryogoku Kokugikan in Tokyo, May 11-25.
¶ The 2003 July Tournament — Aichi Prefectural Gymnasium in Nagoya, July 6-20.
¶ The 2003 September Tournament — Ryogoku Kokugikan in Tokyo, Sept. 7-21.
¶ The 2003 November Tournament — Fukuoka Kokusai Center in Fukuoka, Nov. 9-23.
¶ The 2004 January Tournament — Ryogoku Kokugikan in Tokyo, Jan. 11-25, 2004.
¶ The 2004 March Tournament — Osaka Municipal Gymnasium in Osaka, March 14-28, 2004.
For more information about upcoming events, types and costs of tickets and locations from which to purchase tickets, visit the English version of the Nihon Sumo Kyokai Internet site at www.sumo.or.jp/eng/flame/index.php?p=/eng/kyokai/event.html
Grand Sumo glossary
Basho — A sumo tournament. A sanctioned competition consists of seven or 15 bouts held over a two-week period.
Chon-mage — Sumo hairstyle with topknot and hair slicked with oil.
Dohyo — A raised clay platform with a ring formed by sunken straw bales in the center where sumo bouts are carried out.
Gunbai — The “war paddle” carried by the referee inside the ring.
Gyoji — A referee who stands in the ring encouraging wrestlers and officiating the bout. He calls the winner and reties mawashi if they begin to unravel.
Heya — A stable; a building used to house and train rikishi. This includes sleeping accommodations, cooking facilities and training dohyo.
Jonidan — The second lowest level of competitive professional sumo.
Jonokuchi — The lowest level of competitive professional sumo.
Jungyo — The exhibition bashos that are held across the nation in between the regular basho schedule. These help in recruiting new rikishi to the sport and also give other people a chance to see the rikishi up close. The most extensive Jungyo is in July-August, covering the Tohoku and Hokkaido regions. Jungyo performances do not affect rank.
Juryo — The first of the two professional divisions of Sumo. Thirty men vie for entrance into the top Makunouchi division.
Kachi-koshi — In a tournament, attaining the number of wins that assures a better than even percentage. Out of 15 bouts, for example, a rikishi is said to be kachi-koshi at the point where he tallies eight wins.
Komusubi — The rank below Sekiwake but above the Maegashira. There are typically two or three rikishi holding this rank. Most rikishi do poorly when promoted to komusubi for the first time and are demoted.
Kyokai — An official association or administration. For Sumo, the Nihon Sumo Kyokai administers the sport under the Ministry of Education.
Maegashira — The lower ranks of the Makunouchi division, numbered from one (highest) to 15 or 16. There is an east and west position at each numbered level. The number of Maegashira ranks is adjusted so that there are a total of forty Makunouchi rikishi.
Make-koshi — The opposite of kachi-koshi. In a seven-bout tournament, having four losses guarantees make-koshi.
Makunouchi — Also called Makuuchi, this is the top division of Ozumo. It is comprised of the ranks of Yokozuna, Ozeki, Sekiwake, Komusubi and Maegashira.
Nodo-wa — Thrusts to the throat.
Ozeki — The champion rank of Sumo. Whereas other ranks can be attained by consistently winning, this rank must be granted by the Sumo Kyokai.
Rikishi — Literally, “strong man.” This is an all-purpose term for men engaging in Sumo.
Sekitori — A rikishi ranked in one of the top two divisions of Sumo, who is being paid a salary.
Sekiwake — The junior champion rank of Sumo. Usually two to four rikishi hold this rank.
Shiko — Stamping down with each leg; used as a warm-up before bouts and in practice.
Tawara — Straw bales sunk into the dohyo to mark the edges of the ring.
Tenno-shihai — Emperor’s Cup, the trophy given to tournament winners.
Torinaoshi — A rematch after a close bout.
Tsuppari — Slapping attacks.
Yao-cho — “Fixed” bouts where one wrestler allows the other to win.
Yobidashi — Assistants who sweep the dohyo (lower rankers) and call out the names of the rikishi in a sing-song fashion before each bout while holding an open fan.
Yokozuna — The pinnacle of active Sumo, this is the rank of grand champion. Only 65 men have held this rank.
Yusho — The tournament title. A rikishi wins a yusho by winning more matches than any other in his division, or if two or men are tied, by being triumphant in a playoff.
Zensho (yusho) — Winning a tournament title with 15 wins and no losses.