Time To Bring Back Kōshō Seido?


Ura-Injured

Please note, the post below is opinion and commentary, rather than factual. I am an American living in America, and a sumo fan. I have no means to change or influence the sumo association in any way.

It was clear before the start of Aki that professional sumo had arrived at a difficult point in its long and glorious history. Many of its brand-name / kanban rikishi in various stages of injury and recovery, and many headliners were not going to appear. Then as if to punctuate the predicament, several other rikishi with strong public followings dropped out of the tournament before the first weekend. At least one of them may not recover enough from his injuries to return.

With our coverage of the Aki basho complete, the time has come to discuss, as a group of outsiders, if it’s time for sumo to bring back Kōshō Seido.

Kōshō Seido was a system that allowed rikishi to be declared injured, and gain a level of demotion protection for a single basho cycle. This granted a rikishi injured during a basho a larger period of time for medical treatment and rehabilitation, it was worried that the system was open for abuse. In the case of someone like Ura or Kisenosato, it is clear they have suffered a significant injury. The diagnosis and recommended treatment describe a multi-month cycle of surgery, physical therapy and gradual re-introduction of athletic competition. In the current sumo world, there is no time in the schedule to allow for such a process to reach its natural conclusion.

A poster boy for the utility of Kōshō would likely be Egyptian sumotori Osunaarashi. Once a fierce competitor of the Makuuchi ranks, a series of injuries that were never allowed to completely heal have rendered him unable to compete effectively as a sekitori. It is undoubtable that a recovery period would have helped him, and prevented his injuries from compounding. It raises the core question – is it in the best interest of the sport of Sumo to maintain the health and viability of its top athletes, or supplant them as they degrade with a crop of fresh faces?

Given the glaring reality of star sumotori in disrepair, Is it time for the the Sumo Association consider a return of Kōshō Seido?

Please chime in with your thoughts in the comment section.

19 thoughts on “Time To Bring Back Kōshō Seido?

  1. I would love to see some form of injury protection but it’s not clear how to make that work with the understandable desire to have your big names competing against each other. I read back through some old arguments about this recently and I have to say, I’m just not sure what to do…except for the one thing they will “never” do:

    drop to four basho per year.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Yes please! They also need to consider that when young people see that a Sumo career is short and ends badly, it will be harder to attract new recruits, especially Japanese ones. Instead of being fun, it is really depressing to watch Sumo and see everyone injured, especially when you see the promising young guys getting injured. Who wouldn’t want them to rest up and heal and come back as strong as ever?

    There could be a backlash similar to the one in the US with football where fans are upset that they are basically being entertained by something that is destroying the health of the people playing it. (Brain scans are showing that American football players are suffering from brain damage that causes violent behavior and even suicide. ).

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  3. Agreeing with Hannah J; the potential for football-style backlash among both fans and potential competitors is real. If the argument is that “fans” can’t maintain their attention if a particular rikishi/matchup is Kōshō Seido for one basho, I would counter that the injury situation at this point is cutting short careers and thus making our dear rikishi seem disposable — and that is *really* not healthy for Sumo. It is time for the Association to step in.

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  4. I would not protect their ranks on the banzuke but it may make sense to protect their “social status” and salary for a time in cases where a doctor can point to a physical injury.

    To me, it makes complete, logical sense that someone coming back from injury would be eased back into the sport at a lower position. However, it pains me to see guys trying to hold onto ozeki rank or makuuchi/Juryo salaried status when they are ineffective on the dohyo.

    We fans plainly cannot make the decisions for the wrestlers. And I can see why/how the system could be abused with complaints about a phantom muscle tweek or ankle sprain. I hate the acting in soccer. It’s an embarrassment to that sport and it crops up in the flopping/dives in the NBA and NFL. Having a kid who tries to use every excuse in the book not to go to school – or having watched the movie “Friday”… – that Ezel level of play acting (“oh, my neck and my back”) is enough to turn me off all of those sports. Little hand check fouls in basketball, questionable pass interference and holding calls in football…ugh. I like how sumo wrestlers power through the little stuff.

    But there maybe should be salary protection for a tournament or two if your muscle is clearly torn/broken limb…and take the decision away from the rikishi by making a standard protocol: torn muscle/ligament = x weeks rest, full stop, regardless of basho/jungyo schedule. Otherwise, I say leave it as is. If the rikishi are making the decision to fight when injured, it’s on them.

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    • There’s the rub, though: Banzuke rank, salary and status are all intertwined to such a degree (both conceptually and business-wise) that it’s going to require major changes to how the Kyokai operates if you want to handle them separately for injury reasons. My own preference would actually be for the opposite solution – ranking protection but reduced or no salary – but I’m not even sure the Kyokai could legally do that.

      Anyway, AFAIK many rikishi aren’t really worried about missing out on money, they’re worried that they could find themselves stuck in the lower divisions afterwards because it really is quite a grind to get through upper makushita again (unless you’re miles better like Tochinoshin was). The vagaries of the 7-bout schedule mean that a couple of bad or unlucky days can mean 2-5 instead of 4-3, a big demotion and yet another six+ months in makushita. And then rinse and repeat, potentially. (Jokoryu and Toyonoshima seem to be headed that way right now.)

      Compare that to, say, Sokokurai’s return to action at M15 – he wasn’t quite in fighting shape yet after his layoff, but the high re-entry position meant he had enough time to regain it. If he’d had to start from something like mid-sandanme he might have never made it back up.

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      • In Sokokurai’s case, though, he could physically train while appealing his case. Someone with a blown tendon needs time to heal and should be on a couch – not a dohyo or in a gym. If an ozeki with a yusho, or even a solid maegashira, cannot blow past Makushita/Sandanme opponents after allowing the injury to heal, his sumo is not good and he sure as heck shouldn’t be making it worse in makuuchi. If Jokoryu were inserted at M15 last November, do you think he would be in makuuchi today, or slide back to Satoyama-level and lower? I think he is where his abilities allow and more rigorous opponents would shorten his career.

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          • He could physically train, just like how Colin Kaepernick and Tebow still train when not with a team. He could go to a gym, join the amateur circuit, take up MMA or luche libre, do his own backyard training like Homarenishiki pre-sumo. Sokokurai wasn’t nursing his injury, he was nursing his reputation. And he won. But if he was out of sumo because of injury rather than yaocho allegations, he wouldn’t be able to farm chickens, either.

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          • It seems so obvious as to not be worth arguing about that a wrestler who has to resort to working a day job to keep the rain off isn’t going to be able to train hard enough to keep pace with pros whose only job is to do sumo and train for doing sumo. Sekitori do all right compensation-wise but they’re not getting anything like what NFL quarterbacks get and therefore don’t have the same opportunity to accumulate savings. (That an injured rikishi can’t farm chickens is neither here nor there.)

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        • I’m honestly not so sure. I think if you could take the current 14 rikishi in the lower half of juryo, put them all at Makushita 30 and then see who makes it back up, at least half of them wouldn’t succeed at any point in the future, even though in the real world many of them will be competing at juryo level for quite a while to come. (Perpetually ailing guys like Tsurugisho and Seiro are the most obvious examples.) The cliché that it’s much easier to stay sekitori than to become one doesn’t exist for nothing.

          So, to turn it around – I doubt Jokoryu would be in makuuchi right now, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he had comfortably stayed in juryo if he had restarted from M15 last year. If you’re at all competitive, then getting 15 bouts is a major advantage over getting 7, even if they’re against better opposition. And IMHO the difference between mid-juryo and high makushita isn’t all that large anyway. (High makushita might even be better at times when juryo happens to be largely populated by guys on the decline.)

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          • Now I am wondering what would happen if Makushita were given 15-bout schedules and a salary? That would be interesting. I still think it’s better for a rikishi to start lower than his capabilities and fight up than the opposite. If more injured rikishi were taken out of service to heal, there would be more promotion opportunities. You are describing the slow, painful slide of Oosunaarashi and it’s harder to know whether his path or Tochinoshin’s path would work for more injured guys.

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          • That depends on one’s definition of “work”. Many rikishi seem to prefer to squeeze a few more sekitori appearances out of their ailing bodies, presumably because they believe they wouldn’t be able to make it back up after dropping, even if it gives them time to heal. After all, they could do exactly that even now, but very few decide to do it. (In the lower divisions it’s much more common for rikishi to sit out multiple tournaments, so it’s not like there’s a blanket refusal to allow it by oyakata.)

            Years ago, I actually outlined a pie-in-the-sky idea for a 20-rank makushita (or a new division between juryo and makushita), which would bridge the divide between the haves in juryo and the havenots in the lower ranks. Basically: A limited salary (much more than the makushita allowance but still significantly below the juryo salaries), 15 day tournaments, and very limited status…no special dohyo-iri, no silk mawashi, etc. Basically a proper transitional division, rather than the existing heaven/hell boundary between J14 and Ms1. Can’t imagine I’ll see anything like that in my lifetime. 🙂

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  5. How about a system where the returning rikishi is tested for his abilities and his rank is determined accordingly?

    For example, he needs to do a few bouts, say three against rikishi of that same level (e.g. if he was maegashira #2, pit him against three maegashira #1-#3, and two komusubi/sekiwake, and if he can beat three out of five, he gets his old rank back. Or maybe one slightly lower, like #4-#5. Give the rikishi who do the bouts some sort of compensation for this, obviously.

    If he can’t fight at that level, demote him accordingly. This will make the chance higher that when he competes in the actual official basho, he will not be a pushover and disappoint paying spectators. And it will motivate him to ensure that he is fully healed and trained before he returns.

    Alternatively, put a cap on the demotion. For example, nobody can drop below the lower edge of the division he was in. So if the injured rikishi is anywhere in the Makuuchi, he will be guaranteed to return as Maegashira #16 and no less. If he was Juryo, he’ll be bottom level Juryo. There should be a time limit, set by the type of injury.

    About the question whether it’s better to keep your old stars healthy or allow young blood, I prefer a Darwinian system where selection is by quality of sumo, not by random injuries. It’s true that some injuries are a result of lack of merit. If you win 10 out of 15 bouts, it usually means you have been thrown or pushed off the dohyo no more than 33% of the time. So if you are Hakuho, you’ll be less injured than a run-of-the-mill joi member with the same number of years in the profession. On the other hand, joi are probably more likely to be injured than midlevel maegashira, because they face much tougher rivals who can throw them around.

    Be that as it may, I still think bad injuries are a matter of luck, and we end up losing great talent just because he happened to land on an obasan instead of a shimpan. Perhaps losing a 30-something “big name” can be seen as a good thing that opens doors to young talent, but losing relatively young people like Terunofuji and Ura is just a huge waste.

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  6. It seems to me that the cost-benefit analysis of Kōshō Seido runs as follows. Benefit: rikishi have time to treat and heal injuries more fully; as a result, more of them compete longer and at closer to full strength. Cost: occasionally, a rikishi takes advantage of the system and sits out a tournament while (relatively) able-bodied, despite whatever medical evaluation safeguards are put in place to prevent this. I would argue that the benefit clearly outweighs the cost. I mean, we just had a tournament with something like 20% of Makuuchi not participating for much or any of it, and several others who might as well not have, given how limited they were by injury. Could taking advantage of the system really result in tournaments with worse participation than this? I’m happy to be corrected by those who know the history of why Kōshō Seido was eliminated better.

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    • Kosho was eliminated right on the heels of another perceived injury/absence crisis, ironically.

      http://web.archive.org/web/20071031080444/http://www.banzuke.com/03-2/msg00005.html

      That got the ball rolling, although it took the subsequent alleged abuse by various ozeki to put the kosho system directly in the crosshairs.

      The core issue is that kosho no longer actually did what it was intended to, namely offer a small reprieve in case of serious injury. What it mostly came to be used as instead was as break time to rehab lesser injuries. At the end it had become a punch line even in the English-language fandom that anything worse than a sprained ankle would always get certified as a two-month injury, the minimum required for a successful kosho application, so I can only imagine how Japanese fans were thinking about it.

      Anyway, one can definitely argue that that (ab)use of the kosho system was actually worthwhile, but it clearly wasn’t what the NSK wanted from it, so they killed it off. With relatively little pushback from the rikishi actually, so I suspect they knew they’d been caught red-handed.

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  7. The likelihood of pro sumo wrestlers ever getting a contract system more akin to other more global pro sports is pretty slim, but I feel like it could help in these injury situations. For example, the typical US football injury rules:

    “An injured player gets paid for as long as he’s unable to play, no matter what his contract says. A team can’t release an injured player until he’s cleared. For most rookie contracts, players selected in the third round or later, there’s something called an “up-down,” which is two minimum salaries negotiated in the collective bargaining agreement. The “up” is the minimum active salary, which in 2014 was $420,000, and the “down” ($303,000) is the minimum inactive salary. If a player is injured after eight games, he’s paid eight weeks “up” and nine weeks “down” (eight weeks, plus the bye). For most veterans, there is no “down.” It’s whatever he’s scheduled to earn.”

    Having a continued salary while injured, without the threat of being immediately dropped by the team, as well as having a medical oversight system into being “cleared” to return, helps these players come back from injuries that are very similar to the ones we see in Sumo (since it’s also mostly big, heavy guys smacking into each other, over and over). Players associations aren’t perfect by any means, but by being separate from management, it allows them to look after their interests and safety as a collective group.

    I don’t think bringing back the old kosho system would work, but there’s a lot of good ideas both in all the comments here, and from other pro sports around the world.

    Sumo could probably be just as popular as other 1v1 combat sports worldwide, but it’s a balance between keeping the Japanese tradition and character, while still modernizing the business surrounding it. But they really need to treat their stars better, because having it be a constant churn is never good for marketing.

    Also they could do a lot more to promote and standardize their social media and PR for all players, and take some of that work off a physical jungyo tour. People aren’t going to forget about their injured favorites if there’s an official twitter or instagram for each rikishi. If they don’t have the time and effort to keep it updated, then get them more interns! It would be good for either the stables or association to give them a leg up on having fan support and merchandise from early on. Self-promotion is not a skill that all young male athletes have by default, even in this connected age.

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    • BTW, there’s a rikishi association as well, which is separate from the management. It’s current chairman is Harumafuji. But the problem is that like every workers’ union in Japan, it’s nearly worthless, has no clout and doesn’t even consider using a clout if it had one.

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    • Sumo’s not a team sport though, so comparing the employment/contracting situation to something like football doesn’t really work. The Kyokai doesn’t compete with any other sumo organisation, the way a sports team does. (Nor do the stables compete with each other in that sense, as there’s no official competition between them. And of course the stables don’t pay rikishi to begin with, and the rikishi can’t transfer.)

      What’s worse is, sumo is difficult to compare to other individual sports, too, because those generally don’t pay salaries at all. The best way to think of it is like a very expansive bonus program (similar to, say, the ATP and WTA paying out to their top 10 year-end rankers) – whoever happens to be ranked in the top 70 rikishi for a given two-month period gets paid money just for having attained that ranking position, while everybody else just receives an allowance to be able to keep training, which partly goes to the rikishi and partly to his stable.

      But where sumo very much is like other individual sports is that career handling, including injury handling, is supposed to be down to each individual competitor. Golfers, tennis players, boxers etc. don’t earn a cent from their sport if they’re out injured. At most they’ll get status protection to be able to resume their career at an appropriate level.

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