A New Era for Sumo

In the modern world of sumo, there have been significant events along the way that have defined new eras for the sport, and the media will often reference these points when talking about new records. For example, "sengo" is a common term used to refer to sumo post-world war II, and then the move to six hon-basho a year in the late 50's was another defining moment. It is my opinion that the 2010 Aki basho is the official starting point of a new era in sumo, an era that won't necessarily receive its own name but an era in which two significant changes will affect the sport for the worse.

First is the realization that sumo is no longer capable of governing itself and that an outside body appointed by the Ministry of Education is required to make administrative decisions. Second is the eradication of ties to organized crime groups, which on the surface gives the Sumo Association a positive PR spin moving forward but in the background is really going to cripple the ability of smaller stables to survive financially.

Regarding that first topic, sumo was caught in the trap of a typical institution that has been around seemingly forever and grew so arrogant that it felt it didn't need to adapt to the times. A specific example of this in Japanese business is Japan Airlines. JAL was a prestigious organization that looked down upon everyone else namely because they could. It was a company originally funded by the Japanese government (as were other pioneers to their respective industries like NTT) and a place where you literally had to have connections to get in. The service was deemed the best, the stewardesses were the hottest, and everyone wanted the JAL experience when flying.

The problem was that JAL could never break away from that initial government mentality where money grows on trees and fiscal accountability doesn't exist. They expanded beyond the airline industry into things like hotels pumping money into unprofitable enterprises coupled with a pay scale and pension plan following the government model, which assumes an endless stream of income. So all it took was a significant downturn in the global economy to bring the house of cards down. A year ago, JAL stock became worthless, and I believe the company has been delisted altogether. The company is losing millions of dollars a day and is currently buoyed by the Japanese taxpayers. Talk about returning to your guvment roots.

Newspapers around the world are finding themselves in the same boat. Yes, we still want the daily news, but an actual paper on our doorstep is only good for starting campfires or fish wrap anymore since we can simply go online and get the latest breaking news, sometimes faster than the newspaper's editor gets it himself. Just because an institution has been around for hundreds of years and the product is still in high demand whether air travel or news, it doesn't mean that companies don't have to change with the times in order to deliver it successfully to the masses. With this latest change in the administration of sumo, unfortunately, these outside groups have only been established to prevent the Sumo Association from further shooting itself in the foot, not to actually increase the popularity of the sport again domestically. So while this new governance policy has been put into effect, it's not going to help improve the sport.  Just ask yourself, when was the last time the government ran anything efficiently let alone improved on something?

The second item I mentioned was the elimination of ties to organized crime groups, an unfortunate change that sumo has absolutely no control over at this point, but a change that will have a negative financial impact on the smaller stables. The first time I visited a sumo stable for morning keiko was the 1994 Kyushu basho. A gal that worked in my office had the hots for a Sandanme rikishi who happened to be from Hawaii, so she took me to morning keiko knowing that I'd enjoy the experience (who knew that years later the online sumo community would never been the same?). Naturally, she introduced me to this guy afterwards, and we became friends to the extent possible since we were both guys who dug gals and he only came to town once a year.

Anyway, I don't remember if it was that first year or a subsequent year, but we were talking about whether or not he made any money, and even though he was bouncing between the Sandanme and Makushita divisions and only received a small stipend from the stable, he was like, "oh yeah...we have plenty of money. Guys will walk up to us and just hand us money all the time." These guys that he was referring to could have been members of the stable's fan club or members of the yakuza...sometimes one and the same. The typical quote you see from an oyakata or a rikishi who is ultimately busted for association with the yakuza is simply, "I didn't know they were part of an organized crime group." And it's a valid excuse in my opinion. In a struggling athlete's mind, who cares who is giving you the money as long as they give it to you?

It's no coincidence that the stables reported with ties to organized crime groups were the smaller, more recently-established stables like Kise, Onomatsu, Otake, Matsugane, Sakaigawa, and even Isegahama (former Ajigawa). The names you don't hear associated to the yakuza are Dewanoumi, Sadogatake, Nishonoseki, or Takasago, stables that have been around for a half century or more. Now, I believe that in some form or other all stables had some sort of ties to the mob even if they were mere friendships where wining and dining took place instead of cold hard cash in exchange for prime seating or other favors, but there is no doubt that the newer stables relied on ties to the yakuza to help sustain their mere existence.

It goes like this. You're an oyakata who wants to form a new stable. The Sumo Association provides you with a stipend for each rikishi you carry in your stable, but that amount only grows with the rank of the rikishi, so until you have a number of sekitori, you have a bunch of scrub rikishi and little support from the Association. The oyakata have to pony up tons of their own cash just to keep the stable alive because not only do you have room, board, and travel expenses, but you have to maintain practice facilities in Japan's four largest (and expensive) cities.

In 1994, Kaio was a relative newcomer to the Makuuchi division but a solid jo'i mainstay fluctuating between the sanyaku and the M3 rank. Being partial to Fukuoka--Kaio's hometown--I became a huge fan and wanted to watch him at morning keiko, so I drummed up the address of the Tomozuna-beya registered in Kyushu and set out to visit the stable. Turned out the address led to a little old lady's house because she was providing room and board for the entire stable while in Kyushu as they couldn't afford anything else. I'd knock on her door and ask her where the rikishi were for de-geiko that day because they had no stable of their own at which to practice. I usually found the Tomozuna guys practicing at the nearby Miyagino-beya in Higashi Park, which coincidentally led to my favorable encounters with then Miyagino-oyakata and current Kumagatani-oyakata, Hakuho's mentor. Anyway, by 1997 the Tomozuna-beya did have their own facilities in Kyushu since Kaio had become a sanyaku mainstay and had been in the division for the last five years or so bringing more revenue into the stable.

And whose to say yakuza groups based in Fukuoka didn't become big Kaio fans themselves thereby offering their support to the stable? If someone comes up to these oyakata and offers favors like property to be used for stable facilities or use of a company's taxi cabs to shuttle the stable around during basho free of charge, hell yeah the oyakata are going to say yes...without running background checks on the new supporters because no one's going to hand the oyakata a business card stating they are part of the mob. Remember, the yakuza in Japan largely thrives because they have legitimate business set up in industries like trucking and construction as a front to their shady, back-end dealings. And that little old lady in Fukuoka? Her last name was Kin...a Korean name (read as Kim in Korea), so for all I know she had North Korean ties. Who knows and who cares?

Oyakata like Kise and Sakaigawa were able to thrive under this model while other oyakata like Matsugane continued to struggle in terms of producing sekitori. But the bottom line is these guys aren't going to say no when given the option to either draw from their own savings or accept help from a local business with a "don't ask don't tell" policy in place.

The announcement that NHK would once again broadcast the live bouts beginning with the Aki basho made a lot of people feel good, but that's not an improvement in sumo...it's merely a restoration of a broadcast that had been in place for over 65 years. The improvements will come when the sport starts appealing to the younger generation, and they do that by making the sport available to them at a time when they're out of school.

Sumo does understand that they must appeal to this young crowd, but who can forget their latest ploy of attracting that niche by introducing a cartoonish character named sekitori-kun that resembles a playful, yellow bird wearing a mawashi ("tori" also means bird in Japan giving the name a double meaning...get it?). A dude dresses up in a big sekitori-kun costume sometimes at the basho passing out fans and other nosegays, and they have even created stuffed dolls of the character. Just great; stuffed dolls. A stuffed doll is something you won by playing games at a carnival or the state fair...events that piqued the interest of people, oh, say 30-40 years ago. And that's exactly the point. Sumo has been around forever, and the hacks running the sport apparently think that rules that applied 20 years ago still apply today. As I wrote once in a year-end report I think it was, the popularity of sumo dwindled with the inception of the internet, not the influx of foreign rikishi. These days, kids are into things like Nintendo DS's, iPods, and cell phones, so what's the point of trying to hook kids with things only their parents or grandparents can relate to?

It really does bother me that I always appear so cynical about sumo these days, but the recent administrative measures put in place to govern sumo and the forced move to sever all ties with the yakuza is only going to further bruise a sport that is already reeling. It creates a hole that much deeper from which sumo must dig itself out, but unfortunately, the minds now in charge haven't got a clue where to start.

Now, I'm off to write up my Aki basho pre-basho report...right after I place an order for a new typewriter from the Sears catalog.





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