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Sumo: Is Japan's national sport on the ropes?

Julian Ryall Tokyo
October 10, 2022

Japan's ancient sport might lose its fans if Sumo wrestlers continue to show disappointing performances in the ring.

Bulgarian Sumo Wrestler Kotooshu, real name Mahlyanov Kaloyan Stefanov (R) fights against Chiyotaikai during the Summer Grand Sumo Tournament at Ryogoku Kokugikan on May 25, 2008 in Tokyo
Many say sumo's reluctance to modernize may be its undoingImage: Getty Images

Critics slammed poor technique, weak physical strength and the large number of top-ranked wrestlers who pulled out of the recent Autumn Grand Sumo Tournament in Tokyo with injuries.

One editorial even predicted that spectators would soon turn their back on Japan's national sport,  reducing it to irrelevance, unless improvements are forthcoming.  

To underline their argument, critics pointed out that the overall victor after 15 days of bouts at Tokyo's Ryogoku Kokugikan Stadium was Tamawashi, who at the start of the tournament was ranked "hiramaku" — the fifth-highest classification for wrestlers.

Born in Mongolia, Tamawashi had been a largely unspectacular fighter battling in the middle ranks of the sport, but whose September 25 victory made him the oldest winner of a "basho" tournament since 1958. 

Three days after the 37-year-old accepted the Emperor's Cup, an editorial in the Sankei Shimbun insisted that the "slump in quality in sumo matches cannot go on."

US President Donald Trump bows to the the Sumo Grand Champion Asanoyama after presenting him with the Presidents Cup at Ryogoku Kokugikan Stadium May 26, 2019
US President Donald Trump presents the Presidents Cup to Asanoyama at Ryogoku Kokugikan Stadium in 2019Image: Shealah Craighead/Planet Pix/ZUMA Wire/picture alliance

'Poor performance'

The newspaper pointed out that virtually every wrestler in the top two ranks — "yokozuna" and "ozeki" — lost early bouts that effectively ruled them out of the running for the cup, with the "poor performance of the ozeki-ranked wrestlers being nothing but serious." 

The situation was compounded by the highest-ranked wrestler in the tournament, Terunofuji, withdrawing on the 10th day due to injuries to both knees. The wrestler is understood to have required surgery and will likely miss at least two more tournaments — dealing another blow to the sport. The commentary also took issue with training regimens. 

The Sankei warned, "Hollowing out of the upper ranks will be inevitable. If this situation continues, the national sport cannot escape the slander of merely being a signboard" of what the sport used to be, adding that unless the Japan Sumo Association (JSA) takes urgent action, fans of the sport will show their displeasure by no longer attending tournaments.  

Sports journalist Yoichi Igawa, who covers the sport that dates back more than 1,300 years, echoed that sentiment and cautioned that sumo's reluctance to modernize may be its undoing.  

"I fear it is becoming an obsolete sport in Japan," he told DW. "We say sumo is our national sport, but crowds are thinner than in the past and the vast majority of people who do go are old."

"This is not a sport that appeals to young people, so what happens when the older fans are all gone?" 

Resisting change 

Yet too many people in the sumo world resist change, he continued.

"It's a very small, conservative world where all the decisions are made by veterans of the ring according to a strict hierarchy," he said. "They do not like to see changes, they don't like outside critics and they don't much like to see foreign wrestlers being the best at a 'Japanese sport.'"

Elementary school sumo wrestlers warm up and stretch out
Sumo is tough and physical demanding, especially for young and lower-ranked wrestlersImage: Reuters/K. Kyung-Hoon

Fred Varcoe, a British journalist who has written about sumo for publications around the world, agreed that sumo "is stuck in its sense of traditionalism, to the point that the people who oversee sumo are simply unable to adapt, update or refine the sport."

Many successful wrestlers who had retired and joined the JSA made efforts to introduce changes to make the sport more accessible and appealing, Varcoe pointed out. But these relatively young "elders" of the sport are outnumbered and politically outmaneuvered in the association by its deeply conservative members.  

One such wrestler with a reformist agenda was Takanohana, who won 22 tournaments in the space of 19 years (the sixth-best record in history). He joined the JSA board in 2010 but resigned in 2018. 

Adding to sumo's issues are a number of scandals that have dogged its recent history — including assault allegations and illegal gambling on bouts — as well as drug-taking among wrestlers and links to organized crime groups.

Most sumo wrestlers must live in communal "stables," where their lives are  strictly dictated by tradition. In 2007, stable-master Junichi Yamamoto was arrested over the death of a novice wrestler, 17-year-old Takashi Saito, and it later emerged that Yamamoto hit him on the head with a beer bottle after he tried to run away due to bullying.

'May not survive'

"The quality of wrestlers will fluctuate up and down, just as it does in any sport," Varcoe described. "The bigger problem that sumo faces right now is that Japan has a rapidly aging population and there are not enough children coming through to take up the sport," he said.

"Young Japanese want to play on their mobile phones; they don't want to get up early and train for a physically demanding sport like sumo."

In the past, one effective solution has been in the past is to bring in more wrestlers from overseas, he continued. "There have been Hawaiians and Mongolians who have risen to the top of the sport," Varcoe said. But he cited continued reluctance among many "as they want to keep it Japanese."

"It's a tradition as much as a sport. But if things don't start changing, then it's not going to grow," he said. "And it may not even survive."

Edited by: Keith Walker