Sumo’s Coming Changes


What’s below is Bruce’s post-Kyushu commentary on the state of sumo. Readers, please feel free to chime in with your own views on how our beloved sport will overcome the challenges before it.

With Kyushu now behind us, sumo inches closer to a reckoning. The basho ended in a somewhat predictable style, with a few compelling story arcs that kept fans satisfied – for now. But in this blogger’s opinion, long overdue changes are continuing to unfold, and will possibly pick up speed into 2018.

The first signal of change will be the resolution (or not) of the Araujo incident.  As we suspected when news broke on day 4 of the basho, there was a complexity to the story that did not fit the template initially forwarded by the media. In fact, we suspect there is a multi-party agenda at work, and Harumafuji’s drunken actions at the bar in Tottori were simply the spark that may burn through the Sumo Association.

Let’s look at what kind of changes might be loaded and ready:

Takanohana – The oyakata of the eponymous heya seems to be using the Harumafuji incident as a vector to change or influence the Kyokai.  He has said in the past that it is his goal to reform sumo, and make it a 21st century sport. Of course, this was not a welcome opinion from the sumo traditionalists, and since then there has been a back-channel low grade struggle on whose vision of the future will eventually prevail. There have been reports that his position as head of the Jungyo PR tour will be forfeit because of his role in airing a normally private matter of rikishi discipline in public, but many think his position in the Kyokai is unassailable.

Jungyo – As discussed in the past on the pages of Tachiai, the Jungyo has grown to proportions where it is negatively impacting rikishi training, discipline and overall athlete longevity. This rests squarely on Takanohana’s shoulders, and John Gunning’s timely article for the Japan Times served to bring to light the toll it was taking on the rikishi. I continue to predict that Jungyo will undergo changes, probably slowly at first, to reduce schedule and intensity, and perhaps total rikishi roster. Rather than “Everyone all the time” there may be a rotating roster of who has “Jungyo Duty” for each period.

Kadoban Rikishi – The name brands of sumo are changing, but the ranks are yet to reflect that.  Since the start of 2017, with Kisenosato’s elevation to Yokozuna, the winds of change have been blowing in the face of the great and the famous. With each basho, the participation of sumo’s top men has been in decline. We have lost 2 Ozeki due to promotion, and as of today, the majority of the Yokozuna are absent in most tournaments. By the numbers:

  • Hatsu 2017 – Harumafuji & Kakuryu kyujo
  • Osaka 2017 – Hakuho kyujo
  • Natsu 2017 – Kisenosato & Kakuryu kyujo
  • Nagoya 2017 – Kisenosato & Kakuryu kyujo
  • Aki 2017 – Hakuho, Kisenosato & Kakuryu kyujo
  • Kyushu 2017 – Harumafuji, Kisenosato & Kakuryu kyujo

Much as everyone loves these guys, the Kyokai has a slate of grand champions that are perpetually too banged up to compete. Personally, I would love to see them all healthy and bashing the daylights out of the tadpoles, but that’s not going to happen, is it?

Kisenosato – Tore his pectoral muscle, and lord knows what else since. Had he gone for surgery right away, and stayed kyujo until now, we might be getting ready to see him back for Hatsu. Instead that damaged muscle is possibly little more than scar tissue now. Furthermore, by limping along he has de-conditioned the rest of his body to the extent that he struggles to win against mid-Maegashira opponents.

Kakuryu – Chronic back problems that cannot be corrected to the extent to ever make him competitive again.  When the guy can manage his pain and injuries, he’s a fantastic sumotori. As frequently stated on these pages, his approach to sumo is somewhat unique and can dismantle any rikishi, including Hakuho.

Harumafuji – We have frequently mused that they would have to drag him out of sumo, in a body bag.  But sadly, there is now a threat that he may not be able to overcome. I expect the Kyokai to move to resolve their involvement in the matter within a few weeks, as they want to put this in the past. Even if he can survive this incident, he is a walking bundle of pain and injury, and we believe he completed Aki by sheer force of will alone.

Hakuho – Sumo fans around the globe revel in “The Boss”, and the reality that he seems strong, fit and committed to a few more years of sumo.  But he is one big injury away from pain and suffering. Everyone hopes we never see the day when the greatest Yokozuna of our age is wheeled away from the dohyo in agony, but we worry that with inter-basho time almost completely consumed by Jungyo, it’s just a matter of time before de-conditioning sets in, and the risk is realized.

I am sure the Sumo Kyokai realize all of this to be true, and they also know that over the next several months they will need to clean up their roster. Sadly, this will likely include Yokozuna intai sooner rather than later. Sumo needs a quorum of the top men each tournament, and if those men can’t fulfill that schedule, we will likely see new top men.

Sumo fans stay sharp, changes are coming soon. While it may be sad to say goodbye to long serving favorites, we have seen first hand that the next generation is strong, ready and already taking their place in the top ranks.

30 thoughts on “Sumo’s Coming Changes

  1. Here’s a question: is it possible to have no Yokozunas at some point due to injuries or retirements? If no lower ranking rikishi are ready to move up, what would happen?

    • Yes, it’s not just possible, it has already happened. When there is no yokozuna, there is no yokozuna. No Yokozuna dohyo-iri ceremonies. You get more maegashira down the banzuke to complete the 42 slots of the Makuuchi, and that’s about it.

    • Yes. It’s happened before. Akebono was promoted when there were no Yokozuna. My guess is, if all the Yokozuna are gone, especially Hakuho, it won’t be long before someone wins two tournaments in a row and gets promoted.

  2. One problem is that we have no Ozeki to take place of the dropping Yokozuna. Goeido is old, has a kadoban habit, and seems unable to win a yusho even when everybody around him is injured. Takayasu is still green and injured. And with Kisenosato not being available for him to practice with, will probably deteriorate into a surviving Ozeki (8-7, 9-6, occasional kadoban). I’m still hoping he’ll have the sense to take Ichinojo as a frequent sanban opponent. It will benefit both.

    So somebody needs to do an Ozeki run. Whoever it is, it will take at least 6 months before he becomes Ozeki. Then he needs to win two yusho in a row. Somebody needs to be very dominant. Not Takakeisho one basho, Onosho one basho, and Hokutofuji the next basho. It can’t be the constantly underachieving Mitakeumi.

    Hakuho is very careful of his health, but if he becomes sole yokozuna, he’ll be under pressure to attend basho and jungyo even when injured. That will shorten his life expectancy, which is probably why he is desperate to keep Harumafuji around with his sense of duty.

  3. A rotating jungyo schedule is probably not a good idea. Jungyo gets in the way of training, so the rikishi who avoided the jungyo would be expected to have better chances in the next basho than those on the tour.

    • How about rotating by week? Suppose the Jungyo is 3 weeks – each rikishi does one week of that. No rikishi skips all Jungyo. You get about a third of the roster in every given town. The real issue is what to do with the up ranks. If you have a yokozuna in one city and not in another, it may hurt the feelings of the locals in the “no yokozuna’ city.

      • That was along the lines of what I was thinking about too. Sorry to go back to this pattern, but in my unit in the Marines, we divided into three sections. Each section took turns going to Japan for 6 months to man the forward detachment. That way you don’t get people who are forever in Japan, everyone takes their turn and it’s more or less fair.

        Something similar could be worked out for Jungyo, so at any given time a third of the sekitori are on Jungyo and the rest are training. This would probably require 3 Yokozuna to pull it off.

      • Am I correct that we’re only talking about Makuuchi division rikishi here? My thought was to have your “1 week” schedule and have the Makuuchi “hometown boys” visit their specific prefectures. I think the Jungyo is good for the lower ranked rikishi and it puts them in front of the public so that they’re better known if/when they get promoted. So, I’m more inclined to have the lower ranks attend more than one week (maybe two out of three weeks?) because it helps get the public invested in the younger rikishi which will potentially grow the sport and help it in the future.

        • The jungyo currently includes all sekitori (Makuuchi+Juryo) plus a certain number of lower-level rikishi: tsukebito (at least of the higher ranking sekitori), the shokkiri team, the yumitori man, the sumo song performers, hometown boys, and apparently everybody from Takanohana beya.

          The thing is, lower ranked rikishi is not what the crowd wants. There are some favorites (Enho), but for the most part, the lower-ranking rikishi are there to do the laundry and carry the packs.

  4. The jungyo is nuts because of the distances travelled. My hope for reform is a shorter jungyo held entirely in one region rather than 3 straight weeks of cross country travel. For example, tour Hokkaido and Aomori for two weeks with 3-4 day stints at each venue with a couple days break in between. Each jungyo steadily focused on a new region.

    • If only they’d bring back the US Jungyo tour. Watching the video of the 2008 one in LA makes me jealous that I wasn’t on the west coast back then.

      If you are going to make them travel long distances, make it a fun trip/vacation for the guys as well. Let them enjoy some sun and fun in the middle of winter. But it’s probably hard to recoup the cost unless the government subsidizes it into a Japan tourism promotion.

  5. I think Harumafuji, assuming he survives this “event,” will benefit tremendously from the forced time off. I even have a little conspiracy-theory voice whispering in my head about this being verrry much to his eventual benefit in the shorter-term. His wheels are coming off but this break will slow down the descent.

    I agree that a fire is coming for the deadwood, but I also think that the new crop of top level guys are going to suffer from being “first out of the trench” so to speak. None of the young guys has shown that they can hang with the best, even though they are terribly injured and shadows of their former selves. Fair or not, there will be some justification in saying that the next generation got their promotions by default once they guys they couldn’t beat are put to pasture. I’m leery of comparing athletes across generations, and of course the younger guys are getting better and may one day be “true” ozeki, but they will always have the shadow of the previous generation cast over them, since they were never able to tear the crown from their hands until they had fallen.

  6. There’s a lot to digest here, but I’ll give it my best shot:

    Unless something incredible happens, I think Takanohana is in a lot of trouble. It’s one thing to make an incident that’s normally private a public event. It’s something completely different to have a rikishi go kujyo that can compete in a basho after submitting two contradictory medical certificates. It’s also important to note that Takanohana has been completely unwilling to work with anyone surrounding this incident. I believe that the longest he’s spoken to anyone official about it has been for 10-15 minutes. Add in that the current Jungyo schedule is Takanohana’s idea, which means that the quality of sumo and the spate of injuries that we’re seeing can at least be partially blamed on him, and there’s a lot that he has to answer for to the Kyokai.

    I suspect with Hakuho’s backing, and that of his oyakata (and I’m assuming others with similar clout), that Haramafuji has a decent chance of avoiding going intai over this incident. The more information that comes out about it, the more the results of the incident are softened due to evidence. Also, considering that other people are still throwing around ideas like “Takanoiwa was hit 50 times!” that are ludicrous, Haramafuji will be possibly be seen in a more forgiving way because he is the victim of character assassination. He may still go intai due to his injuries, and his own sense of duty. That remains to be seen.

    Honestly, if any Yokozuna goes intai, or is forced to do so, I would sadly assume that will be Kakuryu. He’s had worse luck with injuries than Kisenosato and he already previously received the “don’t show up unless you’re going to win” ultimatum that was recently given to Kisenosato. I am thoroughly irritated at the Kyokai because this mess is entirely the fault of their own rules that they refuse to adjust. Ura, Teurnofuji and Aoyiama came back to the dohyo when they were injured because if they didn’t then their rank would suffer. So, Ura is now forced to undergo surgery that might prevent him from ever competing again and both Aoyiama and Terunofuji have hurt themselves severely. It’s shameful that the Kyokai harrumphs repeatedly about honor, respect, and dignity, but punishes rikishi for doing those very things for their own bodies.

    As for Ozeki runs, I think if there are three or less Yokozuna, then a couple of Angry Tadpoles will make Ozeki runs fairly quickly. Mitakeumi and Onosho are already on the cusp of doing that, honestly. There are a bunch of rikishi with 10+ wins from this basho who have the potential to either crack the San’yaku or stay there for a long time.

    • OK, now that I’ve written down the article about the YDC, I recommend that you read it and adjust your expectations. :-(

      The Yokozuna corps are the only ones who are actually allowed to heal somewhat, so I don’t think I’d bundle the Kakuryu and Kisenosato issues together with Ura and Terunofuji.

      And Mitakeumi (9-6) and Onosho (8-7) on an Ozeki run? Mmm…

      • Too early for Onosho for sure; Mitakeumi could do it in principle, but he’d have to seriously raise his game in order to average 12 wins over the next two tournaments…something he has yet to do even once as a sekitori.

  7. Little known fact: each time anybody openly questions whether Hakuhou is bound to succumb to age or injury he gains +1 to STR.

    • Interestingly enough, it does seem to work that way. Like Michael Jordan, Hakuho seems to operate outside some of the normal conventions of the human condition.

  8. In 2014 the wrestlers appear to have spent 34 days “on the road”. This year the total will be 75 days. (source Wikipedia). That’s 41 days more of performing, 41 days less of rest and recuperation. Or to put it another way, that’s insane.

  9. Barring the realms of science fiction healthcare, I foresee only one yokozuna and three ozeki by the end of 2018. Jungyo will get scaled back by the new head after Taka tries to pull his red wedding style coup over the kyokai. The government ministers step in to try to calm down public opinion and restore the dignity and honor of sumo in lead up to all the Olympic level PR.

    NHK decides to get with the times and starts streaming all the jungyo tours and basho matches live on Niconico, with an all female commentary team. They finally figure out a way to monetize the sumo stream in a useful way for a younger, global audience. (Though if Softbank can’t make any money off of it, they really need to rethink how to present it)

    Terunofuji becomes a pop idol after retiring after piledriving Takanoiwa through a kotatsu during a raucous New Years party.

    Okay, maybe not that last one.

    • Thing is, Terunofuji and Takanoiwa are actually good friends. I’m really curious to know what Terunofuji thinks of the whole thing. It may be what’s driving him crazy. You did hear that he plans to participate in the Jungyo, right?

      • I was kind of out of it for the holiday weekend…. but really son? Maybe Mr. T needs to see a sports psychologist along with the knee doc.

        Too bad he’s in perilous enough shape that I doubt he’d risk going on a morning show to tell us all about it. Unless he really was in a YOLO sort of mood cause he knows he’ll never get back to Ozeki. :/

  10. As I’ve seen that assumption a few times now…as jungyo director Takanohana may shoulder some blame for the weird travel itineraries that the recent tours have had, but I’m pretty sure the decision to have the number of jungyo events expand to the current level to begin with was made at a higher pay grade. That’s the kind of stuff the general business department is responsible for because it’s a matter of business strategy, not just event administration.


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