An Abi Fan Asks: How to solve an Abi like Abi?

Josh_Abi_Purikura
The author, in a rare moment of sumo purikura not featuring Ichinojo

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.

36 thoughts on “An Abi Fan Asks: How to solve an Abi like Abi?

  1. Sadanoumi? HAHAHA!

    That comment transported me back to eighth grade when, in the middle of music class, I pulled Nick’s chair out from under him when he was going to sit down and he fell flat on his ass. Everyone’s reaction (including Nick’s): “Andy did that? Hahahahaha.” Even the music teacher laughed.

    I just can’t imagine Sadanoumi sneaking out a dozen times to a hostess club but somehow, if he did, I’d think the NSK would think it’s sweet that he has a crush on some girl.

    I would also like to second Josh’s description of hostess clubs, as a couple of my roommates once tried to recruit me to work in a host club by showing me what their hostess club was like. Quite tame…so I wandered away after a little while. The thing is, the clubs are tame but I do know that after closing time some of the girls would occasionally wander off with the guys, occasionally meeting them outside the club to go to other clubs, dinners, sometimes trips. One had a different “birthday” each month, depending on which guy she was hanging out with. She’d request presents, and get the same thing from each guy, keep one and sell the others. The guys would see the watch, or shoes, or bag and think it was the one he bought her.

    • This is a real shame as I’d have loved to hear your tales of working in a host club on a Tachiai podcast, but it’s probably for the better as I imagine you have been able to retain your taste for fine whiskey having not overindulged as a part of daily business ;)

      Unrelated – your tale of hostess’ birthdays sounds like several subplots of the Ryu ga Gotoku (aka Yakuza) franchise of games

  2. I’ve been thinking more about why Abi’s being spared and, if the Japanese job market is as bad as some countries’ right now, maybe they just don’t want to toss him out on his ear with a new wife and a bad job market. (I have no idea what he has sacked away in NSK retirement money, obviously, but if he’s going to start dipping into that NOW…)

    • I hear he has a family in the construction business, so if he stops being a rikishi, he’ll be a construction worker, most likely.

      • Again, I don’t know about Japan, but in the States, depending on where one lives, that stuff’s slowed down a lot and hasn’t totally restarted.

  3. Your cynicism may be justified, but on the other hand, he didn’t do anything illegal, like striking another person or driving without a license. It was highly undesirable, and could have had more serious consequences than those other actions, but it wasn’t illegal. It was wrong only in the context of the Covid environment. Short-term directives because of Covid are not part of permanent codes of conduct, so become a grey area when authorities try to enforce them. I thought the NSK’s decision was a good compromise.
    Also, do we know that Abi has actually accepted it?

    • Your last statement is the key here. I don’t know whether other wrestlers weren’t given similar options: accept punishment or quit…with most choosing to quit. This soap opera is playing out in the papers while I am sure there are some that get handled in a, super-“double secret probation” kind of way.

      • Judging by what Kintamayama and other sumo elders say, there is no real precedent to a rikishi handing over his resignation and it being turned down. They did that with Takanohana’s resignation, citing technical reasons, which I interpreted at the time as attempting to give him a ladder to get off his high horse. But not a rikishi.

    • I’m actively searching for news about whether he accepted it or not (or rather, whether he has handed the written acknowledgement he was required to hand). So far there has been nothing.

  4. The one right thing Abi has done is being Japanese. Was him Mongolian he would have been sent packing right away.

  5. We can all think up various reasons why the NSK decided to change its pattern. Here is another one: there was also an oyakata who went out drinking against COVID regulations. If they had Abi retire for this, they’d have to increase the punishment of that oyakata accordingly. I saw tweets wondering how come Shikoroyama oyakata ended with a docked salary and Tagonoura with a warning, when it should have been the other way around. There may even have been some board members with guilty consciences who were worried about their own guilty photos making it to social networks.

    Another is that there are many Abi fans and they would have gotten a negative backlash, so instead they offered him an impossible deal, because the condition about moving back to the heya is a pretty tall one, especially if the rumors are true and he is already a father.

    But this is a black swan of sorts. They did something unusual, and now we try to find the reasoning to make it make sense.

    • Re: Tagonoura – that’s a really good point and there is space here for further examination. Perhaps we can weigh in on that later with a hot/lukewarm take. I’m actually surprised given his actions there hasn’t been increasing cross-examination of his worthiness given the way he’s handled first Kisenosato and now Takayasu although maybe the jury is still out. And perhaps you’ve seen more of that on the Japanese side (since my reading comprehension is poor, I look to some of my various relationships for information, which is harder when you’re not allowed to go into Japan!).

      Re: heya move – I think we have the same feeling that there is still some space for this story to run and run a bit. That’s why I included in one of the last lines, the biggest disappointment Abi can give to his supporters and fans at this stage is not taking the challenge head-on. But sometimes – as we have seen all over the world in many sports in recent months – us fans can forget that these are people with real people problems.

      • Here is another theory I saw: there was a wrestler at Takanohana beya a couple of years ago or so who handed in his resignation and it was accepted. Later on, he claimed the oyakata handed it without his consent, and the NSK had a long litigation with him that ended in an out-of court settlement.

        The theory is that the board suspected Abi’s resignation could have been handed in under duress, and wanted to avoid a repeat of that incident.

        About Tagonoura – I’m not an “in person”, but I don’t get any vibe from either columns or Japanese fan tweets that anybody thinks there is a connection between the injuries of high-ranking rikishi in his stable and his capability to run a heya. It seems people are giving much more weight to the influence of his recent divorce and the circumstances that led up to it.

  6. I have been wondering if the reason that the authority didn’t accept the retirement papers is that it would have set a precedent. I don’t believe for a second that Abi and his buddy are the only ones to break quarantine (although I wouldn’t be surprised if he was the most egregious violator). If a slew of other instances came up I don’t think that a mass expulsion would be avoidable if Abi had been kicked out. And the culprits would probably be the younger, cuter, more marketable chaps.

    On a related issue, It would be good to see an article on the role of supporters, sponsors and fan clubs. It’s been mentioned a lot lately but what I believe is termed a “deep-dive” into the topic would be most welcome.

    • This is a really good point. He may well not be the only one, he may just be the only one who got caught.

      Re: supporters/sponsors/fan clubs… perhaps you are right that it’s worth a write up. I’ll have a think about it, some of the other writers here have some experience with it as well. I have actually been to a supporter senshuraku party, and had resisted writing about it at the time. However as those events may not resume for the foreseeable future in their past incarnation, perhaps it’s worth digging up the notes.

    • I don’t know about sumoforum, but at least two newspapers I saw said he had a child born in July. Makes one wonder.

      • Makes me worry about his wife being too isolated during a pandemic… That can’t be good for her physical or mental health =-\ I’d like to think that, if I were Abi’s Oyakata, I’d be pretty generous about allowing Abi ample time for Skype/LINE/FaceTime/whatever as long as he’s still fulfilling his other duties. I look at Tochinoshin and I wince for what it must be like to be a father in this sport in the best of times…

        • Hmm. The NSK restrictions don’t apply to spouses or family members. There was another oyakata who had to take a test because his daughter was exposed at work to a COVID positive colleague. Meaning, family members go to work, see friends, and are answerable to nobody but their own manager and local government.

          If Abi is at the heya, his wife can actually do pretty much whatever she likes, including go live with her parents to get help with the baby, or have friends come in, etc., so I’m less concerned about her isolation.

          But I do wonder about that relationship. A man was just married. Furthermore, became a father, and what he does is run away from home every couple of nights and gets thoroughly drunk in the company of strangers. Just imagine the terrible fatigue after having a baby, and having to spend the whole evening alone with her (well, maybe there’s a grandma to help, I don’t know), and then you get a totally inebriated smelly unhelpful “dad” coming back home after midnight or something.

          Now, I’m starting to sniff a serious smell of a shotgun marriage. Maybe it’s too ungenerous of me, I don’t know, but it would explain a lot.

  7. great insight Josh (as always) and now that tag will follow him around Tachiai circles ‘what to do with an Abi like Abi?’…..

  8. Thanks for this piece, Josh, it was a good read. Without being overly fussed myself over why leniency was shown on this occasion, maybe it’s just a case of an unusual punishment for an unusual situation. Perhaps the benefactor Abi was out on the town with spoke up on his behalf?

    I also would like to know more about fan clubs and what expectations or obligations they place on the rikishi, if someone is able to enlighten us with a article on that at some point? I’ve been particularly curious since reading about Endo and one of his fan clubs.

    • I think some perceive the “benefactor” part in the wrong light.

      The tanimachi and koen-kai members are very important in heya decisions, but they are strictly heya-oriented and have nothing to do with the NSK. They would not have been invited to the board deliberation and would not have been considered a side in the matter.

      Also, I think that this one was a “rogue” benefactor. One acting behind the oyakata’s back, and also inviting an unrelated rikishi. To me it smells like he’s just a rich boy out to have some fun rather than a proper tanimachi.

      All we know about this person is that the story described him as “someone who looked like a tanimachi, and was buying Abi drinks”.

      • So he could’ve been what, (in American English,) at least, we’d call a “trust fund kid.” If his name isn’t even being leaked, he’s getting off scot-free, since it sounds like he didn’t break any civil laws in this stunt. That kind of cheeses me off, in part because I’d rather see him serve as an “example” to other tanimachi who might think of pulling the same move. I hope the other wrestlers all have better judgement than Abi, though…

        • Yeah. Mind you, we don’t know either way – unless that IG story surfaces and we can see what type of man he was exactly.

    • Yeah, I read that Endo lost his big fan club because he got married to someone he chose for himself. More power to him. It’s pretty outrageous that a fan club would think they can push a marriage partner on someone!

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