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2016 Haru Pre-basho Report

This break in between basho has easily been the hardest time off for me to stomach...ever. While I haven't had the time to update news stories on the site in a year or more, it doesn't mean that I still don't scan the wires daily to see what's going on and to get a feel for which direction the spin in the media points, and in between these two basho I've been forced to read about this entirely alternate universe where Kotoshogiku's yusho was actually legit.

So you can imagine my surprise when I came across the headline for an editorial article in the Sponichi Annex newspaper by a dude named Satoru Suzuki published on February 12th that read: "Attention sumo's popularity: please don't forget 'Dohyo Fulfillment' in order to increase repeat customers."

The "Dohyo Fulfillment" comes from a term that Kitanoumi often quoted, and the actual Japanese phrase used is "Dohyo-no-jūjitsu," but jūjitsu is one of those terms that is really difficult to translate into English because there's not an exact equivalent. If you look up the translation, you'll see words like fulfilling, satisfying, substantiating, etc. but there isn't that perfect word, and so nuance to nuance, I would translate "dohyo-no-jūjitsu" simply as "solid sumo."

Since I've been pointing out the lack of solid sumo--particularly among the jo'i ranks--for a few years now, you can imagine how my eyes immediately went to that headline amongst all the other drivel available about Kotoshogiku. The editorial was not long, so rather than my summarizing it, I'm just going to post a translation of the article (click here to read the Japanese version) for your reference:

Much was made of Ozeki Kotoshogiku's first career yusho that was sealed on senshuraku of the Hatsu basho. It was the first championship for a Japanese rikishi in 10 years, and a color image of Kotoshogiku filled the entire front page of our newspaper. The few days before that, talk of the breakup of SMAP occupied our front page, but the day after senshuraku, Kotoshogiku took over the first three pages. Fan attendance also reached man-in on-rei status (venue 80% full or more) the full 15 days making it the fourth Tokyo basho in a row to do so, and NHK's average viewer rating stood at 24%, the first time the broadcast has hit that number in about seven years going back to the 2009 Natsu basho.

With the increased number of female fans, it would appear that sumo's popularity is safe for the time being, but there are also signs of concern. In regards to full sell-outs (fuda-dome), last year's Aki basho completely sold out the full 15 days, something that hadn't occurred in 19 years. The Hatsu basho, however, only sold out 11 days. Through the efforts of the association's members, there is no doubt that sumo is putting up numbers unimaginable a few years ago when the sport was mired in scandal, but even this small decrease in fan attendance caused me to mutter to myself, "The numbers are starting to decrease?"

So what is most important in order to maintain this current level of popularity? In my opinion, sumo has to increase the number of repeat customers. The first time one visits a sumo arena, they usually come away in awe after having experienced sumo's unique atmosphere, but it's only possible to experience sumo for the first time once. I think what's at stake now is that fans have to continually come away with the feeling of, "That was a heated contest," and "I want to see a bout like that again!"

Two days after senshuraku, our editing bureau received a post card from a fan that said, "Last basho was yet another example of Hakuho letting up the second half of the tournament. And I'm not the only one who thinks that things look unnatural right now." Sumo is indeed popular now, but the active rikishi and the oyakata have to bear in mind the fact that the eyes of sumo fans have become more scrutinizing. That means that even if a rikishi is plagued by injuries, he must still give it his all atop the dohyo to the satisfaction of the fans who have become more discerning.

Ozumo are those great bouts that give us sweaty palms...that are burned into the backs of our minds...bouts that we will never forget for the rest of ours lives, not merely what is recorded in the books. In my view, the words "Dohyo Fulfillment" that the late Kitanoumi frequently uttered is of paramount importance, or this current popularity will simply become a flash in the pan.

-- Satoru Suzuki

Frankly, I'm surprised that they even allowed this editorial to get published, but kudos to Sponichi Annex for revealing a different side of the Kotoshogiku story. This article only mentions that "a postcard" was received two days after the tournament where the sender revealed that they know that Hakuho has been letting up in basho, but I guarantee you that hundreds if not thousands of postcards were sent collectively to this media outlet, to other media outlets, and then to the Sumo Association itself expressing disappointment in the quality of the sumo. People are simply not that stupid.

If you look at the date this story was published, it was February 12th...the Friday that falls exactly in between the two basho. If you have a news story that sheds unfavorable light on the establishment, what day of the week do you publish it? Friday of course since the impact is lessened by the weekend, and by the time people come in on Monday, they've forgotten all about it.

The real point that Suzuki-san is trying to make in this editorial was realized two days after the Hatsu basho...in other words, as soon as the mail started arriving on Tuesday, so why wait for two weeks in order to let the story cool down? Furthermore, you would never write an editorial such as this from a single postcard sent in by the Unabomber, so you know that this had to have been a significant post-basho storyline from the beginning that the majority of the media has simply chosen to overlook.

I've published in Japan for three years with Japanese editors, and while my work certainly wasn't anything major, I know how the system works, and I can tell you that this story was remolded (probably a dozen or so times) by Suzuki's editors in order to soften the blow. The entire piece is mostly beating around the bush finally preparing the reader for the impetus of the story in the first place, which finally comes in the second to last paragraph in the form of the fan's declaration that "Last basho was yet another example of Hakuho letting up the second half of the tournament. And I'm not the only one who thinks that things look unnatural right now."

I've really tried to emphasize the point in my Hatsu post-basho report that boosting the Japanese rikishi to these unnatural levels and then hyping it incessantly in the media will only lead to more scrutiny, and so it was nice to see that point acknowledged in the Japanese media...at least from one outlet. I also thought it was interesting how Suzuki-san revealed at the start of the second paragraph that the increase in sumo's popularity was due to the female fans. The female population in Japan as whole is an interesting bunch, and if you can find something to market to them that catches on, you can ride the wave for a year or two. Remember the bihaku (skin whitening) cosmetics craze? Or how about the trend where Japanese girls starting acquiring mini dogs as pets instead of finding boyfriends or husbands? These trends are still lingering today, but is the slight decrease in actual sell-outs the result of the female fans coming to sumo for Endoh and the other Japanese rikishi to a lesser degree only to realize that they're all frauds? I guess time will tell, but it was nice to see an editorial more in line with the truth than this facade that's been forced down our throats since January.

On that note, let's turn our attention to the rikishi of note and the storylines heading into the Haru basho. First up has to be Ozeki Kotoshogiku fresh off of that...um...performance in January that earned him his first career yusho. Getting back to the headlines, I read with interest a press conference that the Geeku held with reporters where one of them asked him, "Why haven't Japanese rikishi been able to win up until now?" This one was published in the Daily Sports on February 21st, and when I saw the headline, I thought, "Oh, this should be good."

To quote the Ozeki's response directly from the article: "In regards to the martial art aspect of sumo, I think that collectively we haven't changed our styles at all in these strength-to-strength contests, and I think there might also be too much stereotyping going on. Of course, there's no reason to compete in the world of sports if you don't win, so it may be a lack of desire in that aspect. The Yokouna don't necessarily henka, but they change up their attack at the tachi-ai, and so I think we need to learn from them more."


Trust me, as a professional translator, there's nothing worse than trying to make sense out of someone who is rambling on and on and not making sense in the process, especially if they're Japanese! And what does he mean about too much stereotyping going on?  There's no stereotyping going on at all.  White men can't jump and Mongolians dominate sumo.  When asked about the largest factor that led to his yusho, he revealed that he used the winning tactics learned from Hakuho and the other Mongolians explaining, "This basho I took what I learned from them and used tactics like hari-zashi, knocking my opponents off balance, and using slight pulls to get their momentum forward allowing me to slip inside. Using those tactics produced the results, and now I think I have a better sense as to why Hakuho and the other Mongolians are so strong."

The Ozeki described the Mongolians' sumo to a T, but he didn't use these tactics himself to succeed in January. Regarding the hari-zashi tachi-ai, he brought the left arm forward in the hari position for three or four bouts, but he never connected on a single face slap nor made an opponent even flinch with the move until day 14. As for knocking his opponents off balance, he didn't do that a single time the whole fifteen days. Kisenosato knocked Kotoshogiku off balance with a nice right tsuki in their bout that sent the Ozeki sideways, but Kisenosato just stood there after that and let the Geeku recover and win. As for the final tactic, slight pulls to set up positioning on the inside, he went for exactly zero pulls the entire two weeks. The Ozeki did henka to his left against Aoiyama, but there was no pull involved. He got to the inside because Aoiyama just stood there and let him do it. Ironically, the sumo that Kotoshogiku described is exactly how Toyonoshima beat him on day 13, not the type of sumo that Kotoshogiku used the 15 days. But...they've gotta come up with some explanation, and so credit the Geeku for talking his way out of it.

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