Hello! My name is Josh. I am an Abi fan.
Let me just put that up front to make it clear, this is an opinion piece, it’s not news (unless you didn’t know that, and had been wondering for some time).
I’m unashamedly such a fan. In my line of work, I’ve met a lot of notable people. I don’t get photos with them. It feels weird to me. But of course, I have a photo with Abi (yes, a real one, not the one above). He has added to my enjoyment of this sport I love.
Is he fun to watch on the dohyo? Yes. Obviously he is. He’s never going to be a Yokozuna. Most Abi fans know he’s never going to be a Yokozuna. The on-dohyo experience of Abi is part of what makes him such great fun: the beautiful shiko, the long limbed oshi-zumo, arms and legs flailing everywhere, dancing circles around the perimeter of the tawara, to the point that you’re unsure if he lost a match just from getting dizzy. And on the days when his thrusting attack is on, it’s great entertainment. Abi matches don’t last long. Don’t blink! You’ll miss it.
If you’re an Abi fan though, you know it’s not just about what’s happening on the dohyo. Up until last year, his social media activity was can’t-miss hilarity. Abi and a tsukebito (usually the now-retired Wakakoki) up to various hijinks, from constantly waking up a snoring rikishi (maybe Chiyomaru) on jungyo to some other kind of good natured pranking. Inevitably, in the eyes of the association and some fans it eventually went too far, and all of sumo got banned from social media. Whoops!
What attracts us as fans so devoutly to the sumo world is that it is full of tradition, full of mystique. Abi would just lift the lid on this notoriously insular world and allow all of us a peek inside, be that a delicious sushi meal out with his tsukebito or twisting some random sekitori’s nipple before stepping on the hanamichi at an exhibition. It’s why, in spite of him ultimately costing us the view into the world, Abi fans still showed up, in their numbers, at the basho, with their cheer towels, and bought up Abi memorabilia and merchandise.
It’s no surprise really, that a rikishi with such a reputation for causing mischief and mayhem, would then invariably find himself at the wrong end of a disciplinary matter again at some point. And there’s no excuse for what he did: breaking the NSK’s quarantine – over and over, reportedly upward of a dozen times, with and probably at the behest of a benefactor, along with lower ranked rikishi, to a hostess club, venues which have been epicentres of coronavirus transmission in Japan. We already lost one basho this year, and, tragically, one rikishi, and in so doing he may have endangered the public, more rikishi, and more tournaments in the process. And embarrassed the sport. It was wrong.
(A quick sidenote for those who are curious: hostess clubs – and host clubs – are popular in Tokyo’s nightlife scenes. They are not prostitution venues, as some readers have inquired to Tachiai writers on Twitter. They are places where you have drinks and share conversation with a companion, in a venue which is possibly themed but probably just staffed by attractive hosts and hostesses with whom to drink and talk. Given the close proximity of people in these venues, along with the fact that people may be going there privately and not necessarily discussing it, they have become places where the coronavirus has been known to be transmitted.)
It was, then, an unbelievable surprise, that the NSK decided not to accept Abi’s resignation papers, and instead to dock him salary and suspend him for three tournaments (in so doing, effectively relegating him from the salaried ranks upon his return). In the past, the NSK has been known for zero tolerance banishment of rule breakers, and especially those who attempt to cover it up: Osunaarashi driving a car and lying about it? Gone. Harumafuji, Takanoiwa and Takanofuji beating up lower ranked rikishi? All gone.
It’s hard not to be cynical. Sumo fans and media have criticised the NSK in the past for “killing the golden goose” by way of intense jungyo cycles and injury mismanagement that lead to us not always being able to see the best rikishi on the dohyo every tournament. And in an era where revenue by way of ticket sales and sponsors will be reduced owing to capacity limits and event cancellations, it isn’t hard to envision a situation where the NSK would be further hit by losing one of their top stars (in terms of fanbase and merchandise sales) permanently. In that context, it is easier to understand their decision.
But their decision just doesn’t jive with history. It’s hard for me not to wonder what would have happened if this had have been a workmanlike rikishi who doesn’t put butts in seats or sell refrigerator magnets (yes, I have one), tote bags or t-shirts. If it had been – for example – Sadanoumi, and not Abi, is he getting off with the same punishment, given the NSK’s track record of meting out justice? I don’t know.
No doubt, Sumo Internet will be full of thoughts and opinions about what this latest faux pas and reprieve means for the future of Abi. The NSK has held his resignation papers, meaning they could later be accepted should he commit further faux pas. In the short term, obviously, we have to hope he, like all rikishi, upholds the duty and the quarantine in the face of the global pandemic so that we can all safely continue to enjoy sumo (especially those fans in Japan who may have an opportunity to watch it live), and the rest of our lives.
But how do you solve an Abi like Abi in the long term? The reality is… you don’t. No doubt, he’ll find another way to get himself into trouble again. And some of us just won’t stay mad at him forever about that, even if it results in his dismissal. What would be upsetting is if he doesn’t attempt a comeback at all, in light of the stories of so many actual hard-luck rikishi who have bounced back from far further down the banzuke, in poor health, to achieve something notable. But after all… however much he makes you want to cheer, sometimes he makes you cringe. That’s Abi.