Two Ranty Things

The beauty of a blog is that we can dive headlong into subjectivity. I will do that now for two sumo-related topics. Feel free to not read this one if you don’t want to.

Rikishi Health

Today we got a 1-2 double punch of bad news. Both, coincidentally, occur during the period of rikishi physical exams. Maeta Masaru passed at the untimely age of 38 years young – while coaching sumo. He won the Makushita yusho in 2010 and peaked the next tournament in the Makushita joi at Ms3 West. He retired in 2018.

Next up, the retirement announcement of Kizakiumi, the brother of Churanoumi. Kizakiumi’s career started just about as Maeta’s was beginning. He was granted the privilege of starting in Sandanme based on his college success. We see him here as he welcomed Hoshoryu to a big-time Juryo bout. Hat-tip to Herouth for finding the video.

Unfortunately, his career has now ended due to chronic neck pain. He suffered a terrible fall earlier this year in a hatsubasho bout. I was particularly scandalized that he sat motionless for quite some time before coming to his senses and having to walk himself down the hanamichi. This is where I will get ranty. Any wrestler Any athlete Anyone who suffers a potential neck, or back injury should be assumed to have suffered a spinal injury and should be immobilized on the spot and taken to a hospital for diagnosis and treatment. Now that he is in retirement, he will pursue proper treatment at a hospital? That is a scandal.

Here is where this blog post may take a bit of a political turn so if you want to stop reading, fine. If you choose to read on and participate in the comments, let’s just keep it respectful, please. Too often discussion gets polarized and even my own mind is certainly no monopole. We can keep this relevant to sumo and that may help us keep it from deteriorating. If it goes rogue, I may delete the post but I don’t think I’ll have to go that far. I think we can do this.

Anyway, my frustration is that this is the healthcare we see our gladiators receive and yet the system which treated me this year is often dismissed and denigrated as unfit for the developed world.

There are no doubt improvements that need to be made. That can be said of any system. All of us, sumo wrestlers included, need quality care, we don’t want to go broke when bad things happen, and we want to be able to make it worth their while for the laborers and innovators who help us through. I would have assumed the price of admission to Kokugikan would cover a plus-sized neck collar and backboard plus the services of ringside paramedics. If not, I’d love to see what that would cost so we can get it done. And I want to see it done before a tragedy happens on the dohyo. Kizakiumi came uncomfortably close to being one.


While I’m talking about this, I’m going to address an issue that came up while I was in the hospital and is clearly on the minds of my fellow sumo fans — and keep it sumo related.

My last day in the hospital happened to be the day that former rikishi Wakaichiro was driving through the area on his way up to start his new career. The following tweet had me shook, especially since most of the people who helped me in the hospital were women of color. The nurse who discharged me and took the PICC line out was a black man. The last doctor who came by to check on my breathing and oxygenation — a black man. It would not have occurred to me that they would face the fear that a misunderstanding or a bad day may take their freedom, or worse, end their life.

I had always thought the fear of police was just something that was for people who were up to something. Whenever I’d interacted with police (black or white) it had always been an enjoyable experience, usually laughing at my dumb butt for speeding. The first time I got caught, the officer was black. This was back when drivers’ licenses were basically laminated paper and I looked like a 12 year old, so he didn’t believe it and almost called my mom but let me off with a warning. From what I learned, that’s a far cry from Ichiro’s experience with an officer after an accident.

Anyway, this tweet made me realize that it is a bit bizarre how guys who look like me can carry an AR-15 and shout at people in a State Capitol building, or a young 17-year-old kid could open fire with a long rifle but not get a knee in the back of the neck, threatened, not get “choked out,” or shot. But men like my nurse’s son, her husband, or sumo’s first black rikishi, live with fear in their mind when they drive. Or when the gas meter reader is black and wearing a vest, he feels the need to call the police ahead of time, anticipating the 9-1-1 calls.

Racism is rough and it’s based in fears, misunderstanding, and ignorance. Even in the sumo world, I think some sumo fans are afraid they will not live to see another Japanese Yokozuna who can hold a candle to Hakuho or displace Mongolian dominance. It creates a lot of jingoism, negativity, and trolling. Bitterness may seem trivial but when we encounter each other with that baggage, it turns into something more. I’ve seen it first hand, and it’s ugly. Yes, the world is going through some challenging times but we’ll get through it. If a sport as staid and traditional as sumo could come as far as it has — instant replay, foreign yokozunas, whatever that BMI machine Kakuryu was sitting in — and yet preserve its root awesomeness, we will move forward, too.

That said, I do not think this is the end of times or this is a terrible place. It’s been an eye-opening year but we’ll get through it and be better for it, on the dohyo and off it.

32 thoughts on “Two Ranty Things

  1. To be fair, I don’t think you can really compare the healthcare protocols of a sports organization like the NSK and the US healthcare system. If we think back to Kisenosato, I am sure his doctors told him that surgery was the best course of action but he went with an alternative approach that ended his career. That’s not the Japanese healthcare systems fault, that’s on the NSK and it’s culture of rushing back to competition without proper healing time. I agree that both the NSK and US health care have significant issues that need to be resolved, but to hold one up against the other is like comparing apples and oranges.

    • When I was a college student, a ref had a heart attack on the football field. The ambulance drove out and helped him right there. It is always there for games, just outside the endzone. It was required by regulations. I just don’t see how the fact that there were no paramedics there to help Kizakiumi and that would not be a failing of local or national health regulations. How is that even allowed? What if a fan had a heart attack or medical emergency? There is a clinic on the premises. I’m sure there are regulations requiring AED and trained professionals in buildings of a certain size, for example. There are some places where the national or local regulations determine what the sports organization or business is required to have. A spinal injury should be treated immediately.

      But I know what you mean. And I actually want to stress a similar point. All of these systems are so different that it is very difficult to compare one-to-one and that’s the key issue I have with the debate as a whole. The systems are unfortunately treated like a banzuke where they’re ranked relative to each other. In this paper, the WHO does just that: I find that absurd. I would agree with you that they are apples and oranges, even within countries. Would health care in Toronto be the same hospital-to-hospital? Would it be the same in Halifax or the middle of the Yukon? It is unfair to sum up a system or a country with a number and rank them like some banzuke. And sometimes these health discussions suffer because of it.

      That said, I do think Emergency care may be somewhat comparable place to place, and that was the point that I was hoping to make with what happened to Kizakiumi. A regulation requires AEDs and medical professionals to be at sporting events of a certain size. Also, your point about Kisenosato is also quite valid anywhere. Any doctors’ advice is, ultimately, just advice. We often ignore it. Our diabetes epidemic is certainly partly due to people who don’t follow it. Market forces also impact these systems in the same way as costs are substantial and a lot of it comes down to labor and innovation. We live in a world where nuclear medicine exists so I find some of the comparisons very short-sighted and many of the disses unjustified. I just do not see how Kizakiumi’s treatment on the dohyo (or lack of it) would be acceptable of emergency care anywhere.

      • Ambulances at games in the west is not a regulation of the local health authority. It’s a regulation of the various sports associations. Sometimes it’s dictated by the local ministry of sports (I don’t know if you have something like that in the USA).

        • Is that the case for “mass gathering” events, like at stadiums? I thought those were subject to state and local regulations. There’d probably not be enough available every Friday night at every school and independant league but I thought building codes cover requirements for a big building (office or stadium) and its capacity and what’s needed at mass gatherings.

          • I played rugby in Argentina all my life, and I remember that at some point during the 90′ the Arg. Rugby Union decided that it was mandatory to have an ambulance (and a doctor) by the pitch. The regulation of that sports union says that a game cannot start without that.
            Nothing to do with national, provincial, or municipal regulations…

      • First, great article. If there are people than can’t handle having a discussion, then so be it. There are plenty of rocks to crawl under.

        As to medical personnel at sporting events in the US, the situation is cooperative between the sporting association and the local authorities, but the sporting association holds final responsibility. There have been a number of high profile high school football injuries in the last two years where no ambulance or medical personnel were on sight due to budget constraints. These have lead to legal actions and significant bad press.

        I have had the opportunity to see an EMT at a baseball stadium and discuss this very topic with them. (Foul balls can be sneaky, especially when the focus is on the chili dog and not the battter!) At least at that stadium, there is no direct regulatory requirement for medical personnel to be present. The EMTs and doctors are contracted by the stadium facility. The city owns the stadium, and the lease terms contain a clause requiring a medical presence paid for and arranged by the team. The team owned the previous stadium, so no lease terms, and also no regulatory requirement for medical personnel. However, since foul balls can be very fast, people do fall down concrete stairs, and 50,000 people together makes having a medical surprise not much of a surprise, the team had staff on site for each game. That’s partly because while you acknowledge the risk and waive your rights when you enter the stadium (read the small print on the ticket), the US is still a litigious society and the medical personnel cost a lost less than defending a lawsuit. Plus the team owners just believed it was the right thing to do.

        I have been treated by a doctor that is also on the sidelines for NFL games. According to him, all player treatment during practices and games is the responsibility of the team. It’s part of the contract between the owners and the players union. He works for a local medical group but has a separate contract with the team for game days. The team also plays in a privately owned stadium and is not legally required to have medical personnel for the fans. However, just like the baseball stadium, they do have staff. People still fall down concrete stairs. Beer fueled fan fights do happen. People still sue even after reading the fine print on the ticket. And the team thinks is the right thing to do.

        All of that is to say that if Japan were to be like the US, then the responsibility would fall completely on the NSK. Putting all of the legal and regulatory discussion aside though, it still comes down to the last consideration: does the NSK think it’s the right thing to do. Clearly not, and that’s the problem.

  2. I agree with you on both counts. Have medical care right there to take care of them. And I hope Wakaichiro has a safe trip, it’s outrageous that he should have to fear the police just for driving while Black.

    • Thank you for this post, Andy. Ichiro’s tweet during his drive seriously hurt my heart. We should be so much better than this. So much better.

  3. Hey Andy if if someone may disagree with you they can’t say your article wasn’t well written. Good work! While the lack of adequate care for rikishi is obvious to me I imagine if a pro baseball player knew that disclosing an Injury would mean a demotion all the way down to Single A ball they would hide injuries too. Perhaps they already do. And with the difference between jury and Makushita being so stark and a kyujo equal to a loss exists the system is going to be perpetuated right?

  4. Also, I imagine having a sekitori is financially beneficial to the Heya/oyakata. So the pressure could come from above to “play through” the injury

  5. Most major sports teams have their own medical staffs who are fully trained and equipped to deal with sports injuries. Sumo would need only one such staff, paid for by NSK, so it wouldn’t be so expensive.
    The question is why don’t they see the importance of proper care, the way we do? Is “fussing over” a fallen rikishi seen as not in keeping with the traditions of the sport? Whatever it is, they need to change, before, as you hint, somebody dies as result of their negligence.

  6. The sport makes itself look ridiculous when there is a procedure to ‘purify’ the dohyo with salt after a serious injury but not to ensure a potential spinal injury is dealt with properly.

    I witnessed exactly this in Fukuoka where a sandanme rikishi was left on the floor for minutes after sustaining a serious injury before being ‘helped up’ so he could stagger to the wheelchair.

    • Also, this is a sport that denied a doctor access to an injured rikishi because of the doctor’s gender. The odor of male supremacy in this sport is worse than Tochinoshin’s mawashi.

  7. It’s one of the things that has really stood out to me since I’ve started watching, in that the medical care/awareness seems worse than you’d find at a local village sports club, and yet this is meant to be a pinnacle of the sport?

    Also agree on both points.

  8. As a former pro-wrestler I have to live with many injuries, I will have for life. (Broken back, broken fingers and toes, arthritis, brain damage). I say all that to say even as dangerous it was in America, I made the decision to not do a Japanese tour because I had to sign a waiver saying no medical care will be provided. One of the provisions that was required to sign said, “I know that medical care is not provided at such events and I am willing to risk injury including death.” I believe it is different now with larger promotions but maybe it is the same old mindset that prevails today in Japan. You know the old saying is, it’s not ballet. But I bet a ballet has medical staff on hand.

    • Very interesting. I wonder how big the audiences were and venues? Also curious what year this was. I ask because I wonder about other international wrestling events…especially in light of Akebono’s involvement in wrestling in Mexico and his health. Your use of the term, “tour” also makes me wonder about Jungyo and those smaller, local events, but even in those cases, I would assume the crowd size would require certain health precautions…though now this now makes me wonder about matsuri and other mass gatherings.

      • This was in the early 90’s. During the blood and guts wrestling period. I think the venues were small to mid size. With a final show at a mid to large venue. Three week tours.

  9. what does dumb american politics have to do with sumo? american exceptionalism at it’s finest.

    Kakuryu is treated with nothing but respect, & if Hakuho didn’t act like such a jackass all the time he would be more well liked.

  10. For me, sport is not just a lot of fun to follow but an escape from current affairs and the wider world. If you want to use a sumo blog to reflect on current affairs, that’s your call, but in future I’ll be finding my sumo information elsewhere.

  11. First of all Andy, THANK YOU for expressing your thoughts on how you feel about the current state of rikishi health, rikishi injury response measures, & race! Well said (and a shout-out to Herouth for reporting the untimely passing of Maeta Masaru, who I did somewhat followed from the lower tiers of sumo. My condolences to his family and friends…38 is WAY to bloody young).

    I have said on many occasions (either here or elsewhere on the ‘Net)…that there needs to be fundamental changes to sumo, and one of them is responding QUICKLY to provide medical service to rikishi who have been, unfortunately, injured while battling on the dohyo. Andy…you make excellent points across the board…but will something change? Honestly…I dunno. After seeing how long it took Tomokaze to get urgent care after battling with Kotoyuki…and seeing Tomisakae flailing around until he was finally assisted off the dohyo after clashing with the recently retired Musashikuni…I wouldn’t hold your breath.

    And lastly…Race. You touch upon a very sensitive subject there. As a black man who hasn’t always had the best encounters with the local constabulary…I’ll just said that WE have to find some kind of way to LOVE, to GROW, to LEARN, to ACCEPT differences, or agree to disagree and walk away PEACEFULLY. Maybe one day we can EVOLVE to an ENLIGHTEN place where such STUPIDNESS is no longer a PLAGUE on humankind. We can do BETTER.

  12. Regarding the first point on medical care, I think we’re in an unprecedented time where emotions and feelings are very raw specifically because of the fear of the unknown, that the virus can mean different things for different people. I certainly don’t want to go through what you went through in *any* country regardless of the level of health care!!

    That being said, I don’t think that the type of health system is related necessarily to the steps taken or not taken by the JSA. If you look at the Premier League, that’s operating in a country where they have the NHS and even before the pandemic, medical services are straight onto the field and the player goes straight into a hospital or other medical care in the case of basically any kind of injury. A good example of this would be Andre Gomes ankle injury for Everton earlier this/last season, which was absolutely horrendous, but I think it’s possible the speed at which medical services were applied to him probably saved his career (never mind managed to get him back on the field).

    I don’t think that’s the case though because England has the NHS or doesn’t have the NHS, I think it’s that Premier League clubs know they have to protect their players when injuries happen and the best product they can put out is a product where their players are fit and as healthy as possible. Whether or not the system is fit for the majority of the public is probably another debate entirely (I’ve had the reverse of your situation).

    In Sumo’s case, the NSK has a long and undistinguished track record of leaving the medical care of injured rikishi to 60 year old guys – who probably themselves have CTE. I lived for a long time with an athletic trainer and it’s astonishing how much better the care is that they provided to amateur college athletes vs what a professional rikishi gets. Having been to more than my share of basho over the past years, it’s always sickening to see someone audibly howling in pain a couple hundred feet away and no one from the association doing absolutely anything about it. Kizakiumi’s injury was not avoidable, but it’s absurd that he now “goes to look for a hospital to treat him” seven months later, having been failed by the NSK and Kise. No matter what we think of the right way to run a health system, putting medical care in place and a system for handling injuries in the basho is the responsibility of the organisation running the basho. And if that’s how they run medical care when the cameras *are* present, what about when they’re not? All this talk of Araiso running a “modern western inspired” training regimen doesn’t really mean anything if the organisation he reports to doesn’t have modern medical care in place for his deshi.

    With all of the money flowing into heya from supporters, it’s truthfully astonishing that we haven’t had letters from wealthy supporters to the JSA about this, when meanwhile the pens come out as soon as Hakuho does something a bit daft and at odds with tradition.

    This is becoming a post in itself now, so I’ll leave it here.

    • Was that the one where Son got (wrongfully) sent off? I was watching that. One of those very serious moments and that’s part of my point. Poor Son was beside himself and Gomes received quick treatment and didn’t have to hobble off under his own power…almost like the staff there knew what they were doing, which is what I ask of the Sumo Kyokai. I seriously just have to question if it’s legal or up to health codes for the Kyokai to be this shockingly unprepared for serious injuries. These bouts are televised during prime time. If Gomes did not get treatment and had to hobble off or got a wheelchair, that would surely touch off investigations, sanctions, etc. Since this incompetence continues, despite status of National Sport and with the Emperor himself in attendance, I can’t see how it doesn’t cross the jurisdiction of local or national health or sport authorities. Sport has horrific injuries and always will but the Kyokai needs to act like they’re actually prepared for them. 安全第一

      • Yeah that was the Son red card… and fully agree on all counts.

        This is a bit cynical of me – but I wonder if Kizakiumi were a makuuchi guy or former san’yaku or someone with a bigger support group if things would be different in case of a backlash. There has been reportage since his intai that the hatsu situation was not the cause but merely an aggravation of an existing injury, but in any case, that’s one example of many we can think of off-hand (Mitakeumi, Takayasu, Tomokaze, etc). What’s it going to take – someone like Takayasu going intai after an incident where he was left for minutes on the dohyo?

        I tend to agree with you that in a normal moment, what we’ve seen over the last year is probably grounds for a rational national authority to step in (not being Japanese I’ll stop short of saying ‘their government MUST DO THIS’ as I know that’s annoying gaijin behaviour)…. however I’d imagine in the current state of global health the powers that be are happy to keep the likes of Abi out of the kyabakura and let the NSK get on with it as long as COVID cases stay down. Would be nice to see some type of inquiry or public pressure after the virus situation dies down.

        I always go back to that quote from Kintamayama… “they’re killing the golden goose…..”


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