My Thoughts on Kyushu 2019

Hello dear readers, with the Kyushu Basho now behind us, I wanted to share my opinions on sumo and 2020 with all of you. Those of you who think I can be a big gloomy, feel free to skip this post. I do see these as honest, rather than gloomy. I maintain that the future of sumo is awesome, but the transitional period will be new for sumo fans who came to the sport in the Asashoryu / Hakuho era. Simply put, we have been in an anomalous serious of stability and dominance by a handful of top performers. As that has given way, it’s sometimes anyone’s guess who will show up genki, and who will be competing for the cup by day 10.

I think the first thing that has really not been much of a topic anywhere was the ban on social media that took hold just before the basho. This came about from the NSK due to a video posted on the internet by a top-division rikishi. I am 100% it was done in good fun, but the NSK was in no mood for the outrage mob to once again take aim at Sumo. As a result, all rikishi were banned from posting to social media. Why does this matter? To anyone younger than 35 (and some older), social media channels are a vital and important part of any activity they enjoy. It would be as if the NSK had suddenly declared that TV coverage would no longer be allowed.

As a result, the chances of sumo finding favor and following in Japan are diminished by the action. In the present age, sumo needs all the fans it can get (maybe more on that later). But it seems to be part of a broader overall pull-back from visibility that seems to be a theme with the NSK. The format of sumo makes it a challenge to follow at times, and reducing the interaction rikishi have with the public (say, isn’t that the point of the jungyo?) really will hurt the sport over the longer term. Ideally, the NSK would have someone aboard who actually “gets” how things work now that the Edo period is some 140 years in the past. Maybe like some former Yokozuna who was excited to bring new ideas and new media into the sport. Nah, let’s throw that guy out. He’s bad news. Rocks the boat. (Yes, I am grumbling about Takanohana).

While the NSK is trying to ignore social media and streaming, in hopes it will go away, they are facing a business problem of the first order. They are in the entertainment business, and their stars are not performing much of the time. As a result, we get a basho like Kyushu. I credit everyone who stayed in, or gave it all they had before they were just too injured to continue. I do NOT fault the rikishi. In my opinion it is the sole responsibility of the sumo elders to manage their talent, and ensure that the best possible roster of competitors is ready for their media events. That means Honbasho. That means the best rikishi fighting fit and ready to compete.

Instead we get day 15 torikumi that features a die-hard Yokozuna, and a recovering from brutal injury Ozeki. This is not their fault, it IS the fault of the sumo elders. They have constructed a system that grinds these guys up, and provides no mechanism to keep them healthy. Yes, its a combat sport, and people get beat up and hurt. For some, that’s part of the attraction of sumo. But when 4 out of 11 san’yaku rikishi are out due to injury by day 10, you have a problem managing your talent. While folks may insist that people still show up, the still sell out the Kokugikan, all is well, I would point out that these systems are large, complex and the path between stimulus and response are full of lag and complexity. Actions today that limit the sumo eco-system may not manifest themselves for a year or two. I promise you, its going to hurt their bottom line by this time next year. And the last thing I want to see is for sumo as sport and a global phenomenon suffer.

But know that it’s only going to get worse. I think 2020 is a year we lose at least 1 Yokozuna and 1 Ozeki. Both Yokozuna will turn 35 in 2020, and for both its clear the cumulative damage is starting to keep them out of the action more frequently. People rightly point to Hakuho showing up damaged and still claiming a 14-1 yusho. I will point out he only completed 3 of 2019’s 6 basho. If we expand that out to 2 years, he’s sat out all or part of 7 of the last 12. He seems to be carefully managing what he has left, and I applaud him for that. But as I posed in the comments this week – I wonder which young up and comer is going to be the one who convinces him its time to hang up the rope. I dearly dearly hope we never see Hakuho in the giant wheelchair.

Much like Kisenosato, I do harbor hope that Hakuho will realize this, and own the evolution that must happen soon. Do it with pride, dignity and in the way an unassailable champion should exit. Do it while you are still on top.

But as much as I hope the old guard will sunset with style, I can’t help but look the the future with a great deal of excitement. Kintamayama added quite a few comments about Abi to his video’s this November. I would guess that Abi has many detractors on the sumo forum, which is a shame. To me, especially this basho, he’s starting to remind me a bit of Akebono. I loved Akebono’s sumo.

And who could help but love what Asanoyama is doing? The guy loves sumo, and every day he steps on the dohyo seems to be a happy day to him. Each basho he’s a bit stronger, a bit harder and a bit more skilled in his sumo. I predict this guy is going to be the man to beat a year from now.

Mitakeumi? I know that some fans find him a grave disappointment. He has two freaking yusho! The knock he took on the head on day 3 really put him at a much lower energy level, and you could see him struggle with balance, coordination and motor activity. I do hope they had him checked by a neurosurgeon, as he was showing classic signs of concussion.

Lastly, maybe the Grand Tadpole, Takakeisho. He had only 9 wins against a middling crew at Kyushu. I am impressed that he was able to reach kachi-koshi with his pectoral muscles still not quite right. Please note we did not see even one wave action volley from the man. Many people may wonder about that day 15 match with Hakuho. After grabbing Takakeisho’s mawashi, I am sure Hakuho knew for a fact there was nothing that Takakeisho could do to escape, or even really counter whatever The Boss was going to do next. But I think he was trying to see if the young Ozeki would try. I too found myself hoping he would muster the gall to attack in a position where he had no chance of victory. But given his partial recovery, it was probably best that he just rode it out.

In spite of what some might consider an odd basho, with a spate of injuries, the rikishi that managed to compete gave us quite a few excellent matches. My hat tip to team pixie, and also to (not kidding here) Shodai. Please do keep it up, we are grateful for you stepping into the gap when the others can’t compete.

31 thoughts on “My Thoughts on Kyushu 2019

  1. Yesterday i saw old videos od Hakuho’s fights and his opposites were more genki compared to the current rikishi, Kotoshogiku was a giant Ozeki at that lost time. The fast movements, the energy level and skills were different in my unskilled eyes, they were much better than all curents top rikishi. I hope that i’m wrong since i love sumo and that the younger in their 19-20 years rikishi will be better, stronger and more athletic than Kakuryu or Harumafuji in their prime. Last but not least i love your sumo news and insights, great thanks to you for taking so much efforts. 🙏🏻

    • Have no fear, great times are ahead. Did you notice once Kisenosato retired, that the yusho races got broader? For the new heroes to rise, the old favorites must take their final bow.

      Now if we can just get some proper sports medicine going in conjunction with the NSK, we will be on the road to awesome.

  2. I think you are taking the ban on social media a bit too seriously.

    First, the NSK is well aware of social media and its importance in fan interaction in this day and age. They have their own collection of social accounts – Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and TikTok. And the accounts don’t sit around idle. Many heya also have social network accounts. The smarter ones – and that includes chairman Hakkaku’s heya – post stuff beyond just “Today’s results”, “Thank you for your support” and the like.

    Also, the ban is temporary. They want to create a posting policy, and that’s not a trivial thing. They teach the rikishi how to interact with fans in Sumo School. They’ll probably want to add social media as a topic there as well. The company I work for has a social media posting policy. In our case it’s easy – just make sure you don’t imply that you’re representing the company in any way. But it’s more difficult for rikishi because they are more than mere employees. In any case, they do not intend the ban to be permanent, or they would have asked the rikishi to terminate their accounts or surrender access to them (they did not, I’ve seen many of them liking posts).

    • The issue as I understand it from talking to folks here is that now these guys just don’t have anywhere to blow off steam. Particularly lower division guys, it’s a horrible lifestyle, so that communication and fun with friends and supporters is something that at least gives them some joy.

      I agree that NSK actually does a surprisingly good job of bringing out rikishi personality pieces in their social media content. Probably better than most other sports leagues! What was really clear to me was – in a place where it’s commonly accepted that MOST folks who know sumo don’t know guys below the Makushita joi – how many younger people, especially women, were able to come and support and communicate with rikishi they can only typically engage with on “SNS” – so from that point of view I think it’s a loss.

  3. I hope Hakuho reaches 50 yushos before he hangs up the mawashi. Then the Japanese will have no choice but to acknowledge him as the greatest.

  4. On a slightly longer term reflection, with a large number of promising younger rikishi coming up and proving themselves in upper divisions and number of older rikishi losing their ranks due to injury and form, we may see a completely different field at Kyushu next year. I dare to say that this may be the last Kyushu in Makuuchi for the number of wonderful wrestlers who have entertained us for years:


    and few Juryo ones about to return to the top division: Tochiozan, Kaisei, Ikioi and Azumaryu.

    Era of the Boss has been great, but I also look forward to a more even field at the top with uncertainty at every basho.

    Thank you team Tachiai for all your hard and dedicated work and looking forward to an exciting 2020.

  5. Bruce I think a lot of your points are actually bang on

    From a marketing point of view, it is a big silly. In addition to the things I referenced in my other comment above, look at who goes to sumo: mostly old people, and then young women. For young women, the ability to engage on social media with their favourites (and we know who they are) is just a part of their sumo experience now (aided by things like the NSK purikura booth). Of course I’ve seen people creating content, tagging their rikishi, etc. As Herouth says though, it’s meant to be temporary and hopefully it is extremely temporary.

    Re: Ticket sales, as evidenced in our interview with buysumotickets – it seems like it’s actually touch wood getting easier again now to get tickets for non-Tokyo basho. I tend to agree with you that if they can’t get a handle on the injury situation, that tournaments like Nagoya won’t be sold out anymore, possibly as soon as 2021.

    The Mitakeumi thing was a classic situation where he just had no business on the dohyo for the several days after he got popped in the head. It was clear something was dreadfully wrong. It’s possible you have guys getting a concussion a few times a basho at various levels but they need to have some kind of protocols to deal with that, because that kind of thing can impact his long term future and not just as a sumo star.

    Re: Hakuho…. if he realises that the best way for him to reel off 14-1 and 15-0 tournaments is to take 3 basho off a year, I don’t really care. He’s earned that right and if no one else can step up and dominate, he should be able to just do whatever he needs to do. No disrespect to Mitakeumi and Takakeisho but I’d rather see Hakuho winning two tournaments a year at 14-1 if it means two less 12-3, 11-4 kind of tournaments.

    • I don’t follow your “if it means two less 12-3, 11-4 kind of tournaments” thought. A 12-3 tournament yusho is perfectly respectable in my view. 11-4? Not so much, but I’m not sure whether you are assigning the 11-4 tourney victory to Hakuho or not. At 11-4, I would think it’s open to multiple possibilities.

      Fans may not like seeing Hakuho dropping out at the first (or second loss)…but, then again, whenever it happens it immediately widens the field. Which, obviously, shows how dominant he is.

      I can’t argue with the “earned the right” part of your post. He certainly has!

      • I just meant that when Hakuho wins the yusho, it’s generally with a pretty dominating score. Then, lately, he kind of disappears for a while or is inconsistent until he’s in good enough health to come back and dominate.

        So if you take him out of the equation, he didn’t really have a challenge for the title this time. No one else did any better than 11-4, and per a comment that Asashosakari made on SumoForum, this tournament had the least amount of ten match winners in 15 years (his entire comment here from Senshuraku is really really good:

        But the meat of my comment about 11-4s and 12-3s is, those aren’t scores that are good enough to find the next Yokozuna. So, I’m grateful for Hakuho to stick around until someone actually proves they can take the title of Yokozuna, not fall into it because he abdicated and eventually someone gets lucky to win a couple 12-3s in a row.

        • To distill out another Yokozuna, we need some healthy Ozeki. For Mitakeumi to make Ozeki is now at least a 1 year evolution. Asanoyama and Abi are closer now (they have the rank, Asanoyama has the score), but most of these guys fail their first try. They will also have to negotiate a returning Takayasu, and if Tochinoshin can get genki again, he is going to be firing up the sky-crane every match. Heavy traffic to get through to even try to rack up the wins needed to open a bid.

          I think that part of what I was trying to communicate, but possibly missed, is that even though it looks like smoking craters in Ozeki-land, the promotion lanes are not open at the moment unless someone is really really consistent. And consistent is the magic word. I know for a fact that if Shodai could get his sumo together, and consistent, he has a chance of evolving into an Ozeki. Part of my frustration with the guy is that for whatever reason, he can’t quite put it together.

          With Hakuho showing up every couple of tournaments and devastating everyone (closing the promotion lanes), it keeps the Ozeki ranks (and by extension the Yokozuna ranks) depleted and in decline. So we are going to likely see a log jam in lower san’yaku with our cast of favorite candidates, but breaking into Ozeki may continue to be out of the question until maybe Natsu for Asanoyama, and Aki for anyone else. But fans, expect all of our up-and-coming rikishi to fail their first Ozeki bid. It’s how sumo works most of the time.

          • I know where you’re coming from, but I don’t think I’m coming along… ;)

            Hakuho just put up a 14-1 and frankly, it wouldn’t have stopped Asanoyama getting to 12+ wins. Losing to a Maegashira 10 did that!!!

            I would actually say the promotion lanes are WIDE open, maybe even more so than ever!!! Here’s why I think that:

            You’ve got two part-time Yokozuna now, and a poor slate of Ozeki (although Takakeisho has the potential to be a good one – and if you forced me at lasso-point and said “you must put a bet on this now!”, I would have to wager Takayasu has fought his last Ozeki bout). Anyone with consistency and the ability will be able to put the run together. The biggest issues are – as you say – consistency and injury. If you look back at the last ten years…. you have Harumafuji and Kakuryu promoted to Yokozuna during Hakuho’s prime – and several ozeki – for me what they accomplished will have been way way harder than trying to do it now.

            Tochinoshin’s promotion is probably the proof. He’s been such a star that it’s tough to remember he had two GREAT and one very good basho. Hakuho showed up 1/3 basho during his run, Kakuryu there for all 3, and Tochinoshin still loses 2 matches vs Yokozuna during that run, but he emphatically got the job done. Apart from that, dude’s only put up 10 wins in the joi twice in his entire career (once being Ozekiwake challenge 1). So he is the perfect example that, if you find consistency, anything can happen. I think it’s so open even Shodai could do it (he won’t, for the reasons you mentioned!!) :D

            The opposite argument could be, maybe we’re not seeing consistency because there are so many folks competing on a level playing field that just an extra 1-2% makes a difference, but I don’t think the current quality level is quite that high.

  6. I would imagine these things go in waves: a crop of strong rikishi is followed by a downturn in talent; demand for tickets is strong and then fades again. Sporting authorities do what they can to manage recruitment, progression, longevity and popularity, but nothing is guaranteed. I’ll just trust the NSK continues to get it right most of the time, and hope sumo’s unique character is not diluted.

  7. Hi Bruce. To me the social media ban makes sense. If you have ever seen a rikishi on a subway in a Japanese metropolis, wrapped in his yukata, on his geta, carrying his furoshiki,… you might get the idea. They are requested to live a lifestyle similar to warrior monks, and to me this ethereal aspect of Sumō is one of the things I like the most.
    Moreover rikishi are required to give the impression to think about sumō and about their next match (or opponent, or kimarite, or bashō). This is the reason Kisenosato was muffling only a couple of words when he was active, and now as Araiso we have discovered he is able to go very deep into thoughts. And I am sure Takayasu was taught the same, that´s way he always looks worried (even before the injury).

    • I get what you are saying. There is a lot of truth to it. Sumo has remained unchanged for a long time, so why change it now. This at the end of the day is a business decision, and that business is the Nihon Sumo Kyokai. As a fan of sumo, I am rooting for the NSK to continue to expand and grow sumo’s popularity. But the leaders have shown a reluctance to manage their sport like a business.

      As an American, I am completely outside of the loop on anything that gets done in the world of sumo, save for a few fun comments here on this blog, which for some odd reason people seem to enjoy. So I sit an ocean away and hope they can find a formula that preserves tradition but embraces the new. This is something the Japanese can do better than almost anyone else in the world.

  8. I’m curious to see what happens with foreign fans if/when ticket sales drop from Japanese fans. Long term fans might lose interest if the familiar rikishi aren’t participating, but for newer fans that matters less. Will foreign fans fill the gap for ticket sales if Japanese fans don’t buy as many? Will that force the NHK to promote sumo to foreign fans more than they do now? There’s a lot of possibilities there and I’m curious to see how all of that plays out.

    • Interesting thought. Considering myself, the biggest barrier to that is the cost of getting myself to Japan. A sumo trip runs several thousand US dollars, and for many that is a price too dear to consider. For crazed sumo fans like myself, we scrimp and save as we can, and go when we reach enough of a stash to make it across the ocean.

      I think that mechanic is going to limit the impact of foreign fans boosting sumo attendance too far. But it would be fun if it did.

    • Japan tourism official web site is already promoting sumo to foreigners. But they could improve their hit rate if they would provide English/Chinese language services at venues other than Tokyo.

    • ICYMI:

      One of the most eye opening comments I felt from this conversation was that the VAST majority of foreign punters at sumo matches are people who don’t know anything about the sport or any idea of who the stars are. It’s just something they are looking to do on their trip to Japan. This doesn’t mean they won’t be come fans! I certainly hope they do. I think there are certainly folks within the NSK that realise (as can be extrapolated from some other comments in that interview, regarding things like danpatsushiki) that tickets can and will be gobbled up by tourists if they ever experience a shortfall in local sales.

  9. Bruce, I totally concur with your assessment; if anything I am much more harsh and unforgiving in my condemnation of how NSK are mismanaging the hell out of Grand Sumo. I have lived all of my adult life in Asia and these guys are out of touch with modern reality and that is why young people generally stay away. In fact Japanese friends think it is odd and contrary to my values to even like the sport. It is too unmodern, exploitive, opaque and likely rigged in some of their opinions. The potential of making the sport optimal is being entirely missed / squandered. Simply running the sport in a transparent, modern way would be a great start. I have quit watching Grand Sumo in disgust a number of times for just these reasons.

    In some other time-space reality, NSK evolved, Asashoryu wrestled another ten years dueling it out with Hakuho and Ama and all the bullshit scandals never happened and sumo is a common niche sport in many countries around the world and an event of the Olympics. Then I wake up and realize that indeed they are still grinding people up.

    Tomokaze is a good example. Having the distinction of being kachi-kochi time after time and then getting worn down in upper division the guy tried too hard rather than stick to fundamentals and the result is more or less he has ruined his career with injury. Injuries are not just bad luck. There is a reason that for centuries there were only 4 basho a year and rules about promotion and demotion that allow for injury absences. Some like to state that sumo is only following its tradition and so we are stuck with it the way it is. That is bs. They – NSK – don’t even follow the tradition – they simply leverage “tradition” to their short-term benefit, i.e., running things without any true independent oversight. Might as well be run by the Yakuza! Mitakuemi (?sp.) had zero business being on the dohyo after that head injury and I hope to God he didn’t get brain damage from the hard slap he got from Hakuho who used the man’s concussion to his advantage, or any of the other matches.

    A sport’s org that doesn’t care if its stars or staff get mangled has no place in 21st Century Japan, let alone the world. For that reason it will remain something old-timers in Japan alone go to see in the main until someone wakes up and realizes it will be over soon. Few Japanese want to be rikishi. And if Mongolia discovers oil or something to offer better salaries there, there will be no Mongolians thereafter as well. What does that leave for Japan’s future, robotic sumo?

    • What a cogent piece on an important topic in sumo. Thank you very much for not only reading the blog, but taking the time to share that. As you probably suspect, that sums up quite a bit of what I think as well. I maintain hope that the NSK can evolve. Like so many Japanese businesses, evolution can be challenging as the natural hierarchical structure means that unless some person at the top wants to change, you won’t change much any time soon.

      Takanohana, in spite of the fact he was a few bricks shy of a load, represented a real chance, a real hope that the NSK was willing to tinker at the edges. With him driven from the sport, who is the change agent now? I have my eye on Yoshikaze, who has a fine appreciation of more modern approaches to media, training and talent management. But it will take a couple of decades until he is senior enough to set policy.

      • Exactly. Unless someone at the top is reform-minded and ready to put the sport and its participants first, things will stagger on until they collapse. I hope you are right and evolution does finally take place. Anyway, thanks to you guys for the forum and the blog. We all who do not read Japanese properly learn much more than we would ever know otherwise thanks to

  10. The social media ban may be a good thing in some ways. I’ve seen some rather sketchy accounts followed by rikishi who may not want some thimgs public. The NSK definitely needs a good policy on a workable middle ground that includes heya supporters.

    • That last thought is a really good idea. It would be great for them to consult the various fan clubs in terms of what kind of interaction from rikishi they enjoy. After all these are the people who in a lot of cases really keep sumo going behind the scenes. Which gives me little doubt they would absolutely not do it !! Haha ;)

      • My dream job, Chief Social Media Officer for the Kyokai. That controversy wouldn’t happen because it would be my butt on the chopping block if it did.

  11. I’ll never understand this idea that athletes should go out while still on top or that there’s dignity in doing so. Just the opposite, there’s dignity in going on as long as you can, fighting for everything you can get. And while, sure, there’s dignity in deciding you’ve had your fill, and its time to move on to the next phase of life. But there’s none in quitting because you’re worried about getting usurped. That’s cowardice.

    I don’t know if you watch tennis at all, but it’s been a real pleasure to watch Andy Murray’s comeback even though he’s shown no signs of returning all the way to the top as yet. (Okay he’s more Kakuryu than Hakuho, but the point stands)

    • I respect your opinion, going out on top is a style preference. I think a long, lingering fade is unbecoming a hero, better to say – you know, not going to top that, so lets go do something else.

      From personal experience, I think it’s better to exit following a great triumph rather than a fail. Not to compare any of my achievements to Hakuho’s (which are frankly super-human), but I doubt that my changes of track professionally, once I had achieved a great milestone, amounted to cowardice.

      • Well, if it was because you were ready for a new challenge in life, of course not. But if its because your worried about Rebecca in the next office overtaking you, I mean, maybe cowardice is overstating it, but its not how I want a champion to behave. (Its also different for normal people like you and vs highly successfull athletes since we have to make sure we can make money and maybe it is time to get out whereas hopefully Hakuho is set for both his life and his descendants). And since you wrote that you hoped Hakuho left before a youngster made him realize he had to, I think that’s closer to the latter than the former.

        I also shouldn’t have used a bold word like cowardice, since I was really trying to focus more on the idea that there’s nothing wrong with going down fighting, and less on the idea that leaving on top is bad. It should be what the athlete wants, whichever way. I just think its bad for an athlete to leave because he’s worried about losing or being pressured to leave on top. So that’s my bad for wording and such.

        • I get it now. I agree that The Boss will go down fighting. He has too strong of an ego to do otherwise. But it’s an appreciation of that ego that worries me that he will continue to fight beyond the point where he should reasonably stop, which I think is approaching us soon.

          Personally, I have changed tracks a few times in my decades on this good earth. Never because Rebecca in the next office over was going to take me out. In the kind of work I do, we are grateful for Rebecca because if she’s in that office, she can help carry the load. But there comes a point where in a given field of work, you have racked up quite a few amazing things, and you say “Ok, not sure I want to top that. Let’s go do something new”. It’s probably something adjacent to what you just did, but it’s different enough that you no longer feel the drive to better that score.

          These transitions are always a bit uncomfortable, but each time they have resulted in fantastic new adventures. Looking back at them, I can clearly see how if I had stuck to where I was, I would still be happy (I am a naturally happy person), but the adventure would have been diminished.

          Thanks for taking the time to clarify, I appreciate it.

  12. I may not agree with everything that is said here, but Bruce…I applaud you. Many valid comments have been made above, and many hit home with me. I have been following this sport since the early 2000s, and my appreciated of it has grown fondly every year — but I do wonder about it, sometimes.

    Like Bruce, I’m an American…and I have said many times before on this blog, that the deeper mysteries of Sumo leaves me gobsmacked! It is steep in 1500 years+ of tradition and here it is, still going strong in the 21st century — however, can it, will it, should it, why won’t it EVOLVED? I’m not an elder. I’m not even an purist. I’m just an appreciative spectator who would very much like for SOMEONE to address issues that could cripple or weaken the sport.

    Globally, it is ripe for the picking…but as I looked at the eye-brow raising reactions or decisions of Those-In-Charge recently…I can only shake my head. The mounting injuries, the (temporary) ban on SNS, the off-and-on of bullying, etc. 2020 is right around the corner…perhaps an REVOLUTION is in the making…or maybe that is too much to ask…


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