Japan wrestles with sumo crisis

With just days to go before the highlight of Japan’s sumo calendar, the official of the sport’s governing body pauses before making his admission: “Yes, there are tickets still available.”

Sumo is failing to attract new Japanese trainees
Sumo is failing to attract new Japanese trainees

On all days? “On all days,” he confirms.

Just a year ago, it would have been unthinkable that the Tokyo Grand Summer Sumo Tournament, which opens at the Ryogoku stadium on 9 May, would not have been sold out months in advance.

Tickets would have been for sale on the internet at several times the face value and, on the mornings of the two-week tournament, touts loitering outside the imposing, low building beside the Sumida river would have been doing a roaring trade.

But sumo has fallen a long way in a short time and, some believe, a sport that can trace its roots back 2000 years is in crisis.

Difficult times

The purists dismiss that suggestion, pointing out that it has weathered difficult periods in the past, and survived allegations that bouts were being systematically fixed, that there was illegal betting, sex scandals, tax evasion and even suspicious deaths.

But the latest threat to the sport may be bigger than all those problems put together: The Japanese do not have a champion of their own to cheer on the sacred “dohyo” – the wrestling ring. And there is no sign of one emerging.

“It’s a problem right now,” said Musashimaru, the Samoan-born wrestler who retired last year after winning 12 Emperor’s Cups and held the highest rank in the sport, “yokozuna”.

“But I don’t think there’s anyone on the horizon, not right now,” he told reporters shortly after hanging up his “mawashi”, the loincloth that wrestlers wear in the ring.

Confidence problem

“I don’t think any of them have got it, not even Kaio or anybody else. The biggest thing is that they lack confidence.”

That is not a complaint that could have been levelled at the three foreign wrestlers who were household names here until their retirement.

Sumo wrestlers can enjoy a highstandard of living in Tokyo

Sumo wrestlers can enjoy a high
standard of living in Tokyo

As well as Musashimaru and Akebono, a Hawaiian who also made yokozuna, the best loved was – and still is – Konishiki. Now 40, the Hawaiian has turned a career in the ring into a celebrity life in Tokyo.

He still weighs 274kg – down a mere 12kg from his fighting weight – but he is a regular on the TV advert and chat show circuits. He has also released four albums of Hawaiian music.

As the present crop of Japanese wrestlers fails to perform, however, fewer boys are applying to the Japan Sumo Association to become trainees.

In 1998, 2000 teenagers were willing to endure the years of tough training with the ultimate aim of appearing on the dohyo. In 2002, there was just one applicant.

Instead, their places are being snapped up by foreign wrestlers.

The two latest additions to sumo’s foreign legion are Estonians; Kaido Hoovelson and Ott Juurikas are both 19-years old and have been competing in European sumo tournaments for some years.

Stable mates

They joined two stables here earlier this month and will undergo height and weight tests before making their debuts in Tokyo. 

“The problem is that Japan has had economic problems for some years now and people don’t have enough money”

Ayako Suzuki,
JSA spokeswoman

“Yes, fewer people are going to tournaments, but that doesn’t mean the sport is any less popular today,” said Ayako Suzuki, a spokeswoman for the JSA. “The problem is that Japan has had economic problems for some years now and people don’t have enough money.”

Thirteen youngsters are scheduled to join stables this year, including the two Estonians, she said, joining around 700 wrestlers, of whom about 50 are from countries including China, Tonga, Argentina, Bulgaria and Russia.

The most famous of the foreigners, however, is 23-year-old Asashoryu. The Mongolian wrestler won his sixth Emperor’s Cup in the spring Basho with a perfect 15-0 record.


He had won the previous tournament with a similar steamroller record, although his “attitude” has been pilloried by the sport’s authorities and the media.

Asashoryu – which translates as Blue Dragon of the Mountain – is more commonly known as Genghis Khan, not least for an unorthodox fighting style that has been likened to that of a street brawler, but has been repeatedly in hot water.

“His actions were lacking in the decent attitude of a grand champion,” said Tsuneo Watanabe, the former head of the JSA’s Yokozuna Council after Asashoryu allegedly glared at fellow Mongolian Kyokushuzan and contested a referee’s call last year.

Bad manners

“If he continues to do such things in the ring, I will have to advise the council chief. He must be warned.”

Japanese sumo player Tosano Umi (L) plays with some children

Japanese sumo player Tosano
Umi (L) plays with some children

His own stable-master, Takasago, publicly chastised Asashoryu for skipping the funeral of the former head of the stable in December, saying: “Weddings and funeral services must be carried out to the letter.

“I thought that he had common sense about such matters but he still has a lot to learn. He lacks awareness. The things he does outside sumo are unacceptable.”

“The Japanese resent having a Mongolian at the top of the tree, of course, but paradoxically it’s good for the sport because people love to hate him,” said Fred Varcoe, a British journalist who has covered sumo in Japan for 17 years.


“The real reason behind the sport’s declining popularity was the end of the ‘Taka-Waka’ boom,” says Varcoe.

Takanohana and Wakanohana, his older brother, were the darlings of Japan’s sumo-going public from the mid-1990s, with the media buzzing over their private lives and the JSA hoping that a “new generation” of wrestlers would reinvigorate a tradition that was losing its appeal to football, baseball and other imported sports.

Sumo wrestlers demonstrate their super-strong physiques

Sumo wrestlers demonstrate
their super-strong physiques

The brothers both reached “yokozuna” before retiring, with Takanohana calling it a day in January 2003 due to injury, but there were no Japanese wrestlers to take their places.

“When they retired, there were only foreign yokozuna and, like any sport, it needs a home-grown superstar, and they still don’t have that,” said Varcoe.

But he does not agree that a sport that has aspirations to become an Olympic event is nearing extinction in the nation that created it.

“Ticket sales are obviously down, but 17 years ago you could get tickets on the day to see Chiyonofuji – arguably one of the greatest wrestlers of all time – so it’s a cyclical thing,” he believes. “Since the Taka-Waka boom it has been difficult, but the crowds will come back.”

All they need is a hero.

Source: Al Jazeera

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