This is the third and final part of our chat with journalist and sumo pundit John Gunning. Click here to read part 1 and click here to read part 2 to get caught up on our conversation if you haven’t yet! Many thanks to the Inside Sport Japan founder and NHK World and Japan Times man on taking the time to chat with us and answer many reader questions. While I wish we could have asked all of our reader questions, John was very gracious and giving with his time and volunteered the opportunity to do it again.
That being said, we weren’t going to miss the opportunity to talk about someone who’s become a bit of a curiosity to Tachiai readers (and the Tachiai team itself!), so let’s start with a question about our favourite hapless rikishi…
Tachiai: On a completely different end of the spectrum, have you heard of Hattorizakura?
JG: Yeah, yeah. Of course.
Tachiai: We’re huge fans of his enthusiasm, and the fact that he continues to have a go despite his incredible losing streak. Has there ever been anyone like that in sumo before that continues to not put up wins but just get up there on the dohyo and keep going?
JG: There have been lots of guys over the years. Do you remember Sugishita?
JG: He lasted 2 years in sumo and didn’t win a single fight. He got one win by fusen-sho. And he retired soon afterwards. He was something like 0 and 40. [nb: fantastic memory – including the fusen win, he was 1-41]. People were thinking he was just doing it as a piss-take. You never know. But you have guys that go their whole 20 year careers and never get past lower Sandanme.
You get all types of people. It depends on their own motivation to be a rikishi as well. Some guys you know from day 1, if somebody comes into sumo like Baraki who’s in Kitazakura’s place –
Tachiai: Shikihide-beya. Same as Hattorizakura.
JG: He’s about 161… 163 centimetres tall, right? What’s he going to do? There’s no way… no way in hell he’s ever going to get to the top division, or even become a sekitori, it’s just an impossibility. He’s too small. So… why is he even interested?
You’ve got guys who love the sport, guys that just love the lifestyle of it, guys who may be doing it for some other reason. Maybe their grandfather or grandmother loves sumo. Maybe they just don’t have anything else to do. A lot of the kids who join sumo at 15, if they’re leaving school at junior high school level, they’re not going to go on and get their doctorate in mathematics. So, for somebody who doesn’t really have any desire to continue education, what are they going to do? They might go and work in construction or farming or something like that, and sumo is a better option for them. So they give it a go, and when they retire they can go do that other thing anyway.
I know guys like that and I ask them that question – why do you stick with it? They just love sumo, they love being a rikishi. They might not be a sekitori, but it’s still special. They’re still part of a very unique group of people. Even if you’re not a Yokozuna and you’re just in Jonidan, you’ve got the mage, so that’s something you can say. You’re on the banzuke which has been published for a few hundred years, it’s a special thing!
Tachiai: Yeah, of course. Here’s more of a cultural question from AG. He says: “Mr. Gunning, we have all seen the tensions between the ‘sumo for Japanese rikishi only’ crowd, and those who accept or even celebrate the infusion of international talent. As Japan changes demographically, how do you expect that to change?”
JG: Sumo for Japanese only rikishi crowd? In the Sumo Association or online?
Tachiai: I think he means in the fan community. Let’s say that.
JG: If it’s in the fan community, it doesn’t really affect anything. In the Sumo Association there’s no “sumo for Japanese only” feeling – it’s one of the most open to foreigner-organisations in all of Japan. I think this may be a misconception among some foreign fans, that there’s some inbuilt dislike or distrust of foreigners. Look at all of the Mongolians who have become Yokozuna.
There is the one foreigner per stable rule, but that wasn’t introduced along racial lines. It was introduced because you would have ten Hawaiian guys in the same stable, they weren’t learning Japanese, and were just hanging out. That was about protecting the culture of stables.
Tachiai: So that people would culturally assimilate?
JG: Sumo’s remit is to protect sumo, not to give way to different thoughts and ideas. So with having one foreigner per stable as a rule, it’s to ensure anyone who comes does assimilate because they don’t have a little clique where they can just live in their own culture. There are still Mongolians that do hang out together, but if you come to join sumo there are no concessions made. You become a rikishi, the same as anyone else. There are people who are racist in every walk of life, but there’s no “sumo for Japanese only” crowd or thinking like that in the Sumo Association. If people think that, then they just don’t understand the world of sumo.
Tachiai: Yamanashi is a Tachiai reader who wants to know if you are able to identify any innovators in sumo – an oyakata, or someone with new training ideas – or someone who has invested in logistics, management, publicity, et cetera.
JG: Hmm! There are some stables and some rikishi who do stuff in addition to the traditional sumo training. But go back to the question of “what is sumo?” Ozumo is not a sport, it’s a lifestyle. This is also a thing that people have trouble getting their heads around.
If you say, “rikishi should pull out for a year and heal up and be ready to come back,” then you’re putting a priority on tournament results over the lifestyle and doing the training of sumo. A truer sense of sumo is being a rikishi and doing sumo every day. The tournaments are part of what being a rikishi is, but the daily lifestyle of a rikishi is also part of what sumo is. Training is not a means to an end in sumo, training is what sumo is. So, you can’t just modernise that, because then you’re changing what sumo is.
You get guys who will still do stuff outside of that in addition. Like we were saying, the young guys like Mitakeumi or Takakeisho will add on extra stuff, either gym work or even working in a pool like we showed with Hokutofuji (on the NHK World Sumo preview before Hatsu). But that tends to be a much smaller part. That’s more about just improving yourself physically. You have to live the sumo lifestyle. That’s what sumo is.
You’re not going to get huge changes, but there are variations: every stable’s keiko is different. What they do is different because they’re all schools of thought, from master to student. You’ll see a variety of different types of things, but they all fall inside sumo tradition.
Shikihide makes sure all of his guys go to high school and graduate. They do yoga after training is finished. There are other oyakata who try to give a more rounded education. Like any sport, you have different coaches with different approaches, and some guys have a much more open mindset to new ideas. In some places, nothing has changed since 1750! But I wouldn’t call them innovators as such, because still everyone has to stick to what sumo is. There’s no skipping keiko and, for example, only doing resistance-band training. There’s nothing like that. Each stable still has the core of sumo training.
Tachiai: So, kind of along those lines, let’s go back to the post that you wrote in The Japan Times about the Jungyo and injuries. We’ll finish with a reader question from Bakanofuji, who says:
“Clearly you believe, and most of us fans agree, that there needs to be a series of changes in the Sumo Association geared towards injury prevention and allowing for full rehabilitation of injured wrestlers. Are there any groups within the Kyokai that are working towards making it happen? One would assume that the Rikishi Association would push for this, but it doesn’t seem like that’s in the works, potentially because some of those people will soon be oyakata themselves. Who else is there that can advocate for the rank and file wrestlers?”
There are probably about 3 or 4 questions in there for you!
JG: Clearly? Really? (laughs) I don’t know if I said that I clearly believe that or not!
I understand the questions, but again that’s making some jumps and assumptions. First of all, the rikishi association is nothing. It’s informal, they don’t have any power, they get together but don’t do anything. There isn’t a monolithic Sumo Association. The Sumo Association is a very loose group of competing interests and ideas. As I said, doing sumo training is sumo. There isn’t the push to change that, because that would change what sumo is and nobody wants that.
I’ve said lots of rikishi hate the jungyo because it’s badly organised, and it doesn’t really help the rikishi. But the problem with that is, again, going back to the sumo association’s remit, they have to popularise sumo in Japan. And a traditional way to do that is to visit the regions and local areas. Nowadays, I think it’s not required as much, because people have more access to sumo through the internet. People have a connection to sumo that they didn’t have before. People can also travel more and have more disposable income, so they see sumo live or online or in a lot of ways they couldn’t before. So sumo may not need jungyo as much as it did before, but still it’s where a lot of rikishi first encounter sumo. Like I said, I saw sumo on TV but when I first went to a tournament that’s what really kicked my sumo interest into high gear.
Tachiai: Same for me.
JG: Same for you, and also for a lot of people in Japan. Most people in Japan have no contact with sumo in a physical sense, so the first time they see a rikishi even if it’s only at a jungyo event, that can spark somebody into wanting to become a rikishi.
Obviously there’s a financial element to it as well: they get a lot of money from these places. So jungyo generates a lot of money, and it’s broadening their appeal and popularity in Japan which is key to them. There’s a competing tension to that: it may not be good for the rikishi in a physical sense. But again, the Sumo Association is run by older people who had a much harder time when they were young, so they feel that “young guys these days are soft and should toughen up!” (laughs). There’s that mentality too!
So, I don’t think there’s any big push to change it. Rikishi moan and complain about it, and it doesn’t help, but it’s not that bad either. You can pace yourself on jungyo if you want. I might have overemphasised the rikishi complaining a little bit.
It’s a contact sport! People are going to get injured regardless, whether they’re at home or not. You can’t avoid it. I never broke a bone in my life until I did sumo, and then I shattered my arm top-to-bottom in 3 places, I fractured my skull, I broke teeth. I didn’t do keiko once without ending up injured. You’re smashing into people on a hard surface, with no protection: that’s going to injure you. It’s almost inevitable! That’s the nature of it, and the nature of sumo is essentially being able to fight through those injuries. That’s the mental thing, you know?
Tachiai: Thanks again for taking the time to chat with us.