Saturday, September 11, 2010

It's Sumo Time

Today is the first day of the September Sumo Basho (tournament). Sumo has been around for over 900 years and it is said that the existence of Japan from back in that time was decided on a sumo match. Two armies interested in owning the islands that are now Japan decided that instead of having a war they would have a sumo match to determine who would get the islands.

I’ve read that this history is disputed by some historians but it is an interesting story.

Today sumo is at a low point in its popularity with the Japanese people. Those who are most interested in sumo are relatively old and the Japan Sumo Association (JSA) is trying to cultivate a younger audience. This effort has received a number of severe setbacks over the past year or two.

First, there were allegations of match fixing by a weekly magazine. The JSA sued the magazine for defamation and won yet the magazine stands by its accusations. You don’t here much about this any more.

Second, the sport is being dominated by foreign wrestlers and has been for the past seven years. The wrestlers from Mongolia are very prominent in the sumo world. Since the last Japanese Grand Champion (Yokozuna rank), Takanohana, retired in 2001 there have been only foreign Yokozuna. It is felt that if a Japanese wrestler were to make a serious charge at becoming a yokozuna that the sports popularity would increase exponentially.

Each basho the wrestlers are ranked by the JSA according to how strong they are based on recent performances. This ranking is called the Banzuke. In the top four ranks of sumo (Yokozuna, Ozeki, Sekiwake,Komusubi) only three of the nine wrestlers are Japanese and almost half of the remaining wrestlers in the top division are foreign born.

The third setback was bad behavior by one of the Mongolian Yokozuna in January of 2010. Asashoryu had a reputation of being the bad boy of sumo. He’d been in trouble with the association a number of times but at the beginning of 2010 during the January tournament, which he won, he went out drinking and got into an argument with the manager of a night club he was at and ended up beating the manager up. The JSA had had enough and it looked like they were going to dismiss him so, Asashoryu retired.

The sad part of this is that there were two Yokozuna at the time. The other one is the current Yokozuna, Hakuho. Hakuho had the reputation of being the good boy Yokokzuna so there was a natural good guy versus bad guy rivalry that had been increasing the popularity of sumo since Hakuho was promoted. Asashoryu was a huge draw for sumo fans. During one of his suspensions the seats at the bashos were practically empty and when he returned after two bashos they sold out on most days. Because he filled the seats the JSA tolerated his behavior for a long time but the drunken fight in January was conduct unbecoming of a Yokozuna so he had to go.

But the biggest setback to date is the current gambling scandal. The story broke during the March basho in Osaka. Ozeki Kotomitsuki was said to be heavily in debt to the Yakuza (Japan’s Mafia) because of wagers on Japanese Baseball games. He had actually won a large sum on one wager and when he went to collect his winnings a former sumo wrestler who was part of the yakuza blackmailed Kotomitsuki for about $30,000. A week later he demanded $1,000,000 and at that time Kotomitsuki went to the police.

Kotomitsuki was suspended for the May basho in Tokyo and an investigation was held. It was discovered that a large number of wrestlers were betting on baseball and the betting racket is a huge source of funds for the yakuza. Most if not all of the wrestlers who were wagering were Japanese. Ten wrestlers and a number of the Oyakata (Stable Masters) were suspended for the July basho and demoted for this current one. Kotomitsuki was banned for life with no pension.

The public was outraged and the National Television Station in Japan, NHK, asked the public if they should punish the JSA by not broadcasting the July Tournament. The public said no, do not broadcast the tournament. Half hour recaps were shown each day and the JSA did not receive its broadcasting fee. This fee is the JSA’s major source of funding. Also, the Emperor’s cup was not awarded to the winner, Yokozuna Hakuho, at the July tournament.

So this basho that starts today has mixed levels of interest. The reinstated wrestlers are wrestling in the lower division. It will be interesting to see how they begin to rebuild their reputations. But the biggest story line is that Yokozuna Hakuho has won the last three bashos with perfect 15-0 records. Every basho since Asashoryu retired. That has never been done before. At the start of the basho he had won 47 straight matches which is the third longest streak in history. Second is 53 and the longest is in the 69.

Yokozuna Hakuho does not seem to have any serious challengers at this point. The second rank Ozekis seem to be content to have a winning record each basho but not put in the extra effort to go for Yokozuna status. To do so they must win two consecutive bashos and have won around 40 matches over three bashos. For this batch of four Ozekis to prevent Hakuho from winning at least every other basho is a difficult task to accomplish.

One of the Ozekis, Kaio, is one of the oldest men in the top division and has fought in over 1,000 matches. He is never a contender for the title and only wants to maintain his Ozeki ranking. This tournament he is classified as, kodoban. That means he had a losing record in the last tournament. If he doesn’t achieve a winning record this tournament he will automatically be demoted to the rank of Sekiwake. He has been manipulating the system for a number of years now. Once he achieves his eighth win of a tournament he quite often takes it easy in his remaining matches. Sometimes he mysteriously gets injured the next day and drops out. Many have called for his resignation because his sumo is not worthy of the rank yet many want him to stay so they can see his longevity records being set.

The bashos (tournaments) last for 15 days. Each of the wrestlers (rikishi or sumotori) in the top two divisions (Juryo and Makuuchi) has a single match each day of the basho. The lower division have matches every second day, half the wrestlers on one day and the other half the next. Whoever has the best record at the end wins their division. If the records are tied then there are playoff matches. In a lower division last year there was a seven way tie.

The matches begin each day at 8:00 AM with the lower division marching in for their matches in an almost continuous stream. At around 3:00 PM the second division Juryo wrestlers make an entrance with a ring entering ceremony. Juryo and Makuuchi division wrestlers are the only professional wrestlers in sumo and there are just over 60 wrestlers in those divisions.

The wrestler’s rankings appear as if there are two teams of wrestlers; one from the East and one from the West. This is a tradition that goes back a long time when the matches were between a group of wrestlers from Tokyo, the East, and wrestlers invited from the rest of Japan, the West (mostly Osaka). There is no team aspect to the rankings today but it is considered slightly more prestigious to be on the East side.

The Juryo wrestlers have more ceremony to their matches. They perform the salt throwing and the leg stamping activities and are allowed about three minutes to get their match underway. After the Juryo matches at around 4:00 the Makuuchi division performs their ring entering ceremony and after that the Yokozuna does his own special ceremony. Then the matches occur. The Makuuchi division rikishi get four minutes to prepare for their match.

This goes on for 15 days and the interest level increases each day based on the standings after each day. I will keep you posted over my next few blog entries as to what is going on. My favorite rikishi is Homasho. He is ranked Maegashira #2 from the East and he is up against the old Ozeki, Kaio, today. I will be reporting on Homasho every time.

I have a picture of Homasho and I together that you can see on the right of the page if you are reading this blog on that site. My friend that used to work at the DVD company and I were at the matches one day and as we left we spotted Homasho heading for a taxi. My friend took my camera and jumped into the open door of the taxi blocking Homasho from entering and asked if he could take a picture of me and Homasho together. My friend is not a big guy and he acted very bravely to get me that picture.

You can see the link to the Japan Sumo Association in my author page on my publisher’s website, Watch this blog for more information on the September basho in Tokyo.

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