It Is Time To End the SNS Ban

In a time when sumo events can no longer be sold out, people are hungry for content.

If you know me by now, you know I don’t like to bury the lede. A couple years ago, after an incident starring notorious trickster and lord of the night Abi, the powers that be within the Sumo Association enacted an instant, enduring, and comprehensive ban on rikishi social media use. I think it’s time to end it.

Sumo has a lot of rules. This itself is not bad, and I am certainly not here as a foreign person to criticise the culture or the structure that has created the somewhat rigid and fascinating world we all follow. I understand why, for instance, rikishi may not be permitted to drive a car.

When the ban was enacted, perhaps the Sumo Association had one too many complaints, one too many episodes of feeling the sport’s name had been dragged through the mud by some joker. In (association) football, you’d call this “bringing the game into disrepute.” Were pranks the only reason this happened? It’s hard to say, but other rikishi came under the microscope or were reprimanded previously for tweets appearing to be sympathetic to controversial political causes or in some cases holocaust denial.

What is uncontested, however, is that this social media ban has left an enormous hole in the online experience for sumo fans. It’s not that rikishi had an awful lot to say before anyway, always giving their thoughts in some kind of expression of their will to gambarize and do their style of sumo, with better results in the upcoming tournament as a gesture for the support of their fans. But it’s the nuances in between which are missed.

These days, as fans we’re reliant on a small but passionate collection of archivists throughout the digital ecosystem to dig up quotes and photos from various newspaper articles and bring them to the world. Fortunately these people exist on YouTube, in places like the Sumo Forum, on Twitter (folks like our own contributor Herouth), and sites like this one.

Without this, for whom would we cheer? For sure, many fans are attracted to a rikishi’s fighting style. Sometimes it’s their physique (or lack of it) that creates a fan. But many folks – especially those of us who have followed the sport at least a fair few years – are inspired by the personalities of these characters. We can’t do sumo, we want to know what it’s like. We’ll never have (and probably don’t want) the lifestyle that comes from living in a heya. That doesn’t mean we don’t have an almost voyeuristic passion about the lifestyle and the desire to at least be able to understand and explore it, if only at arm’s length.

The digital experiences that rikishi are able to create and share with the wider world give us, as fans, the ability to have these feelings realised. When we hear that a rikishi like Tobizaru is learning English so that he can communicate with sumo fans around the world, we know that he has everything to do so at his disposal… except permission. And as the pandemic edges ever onward, and as cities like Osaka are robbed yet again of the live event, there’s an enormous part of the sumo experience missing right now. Some stables have stepped up a (somewhat) curated view into their day-to-day activities in the meantime – occasionally in highly entertaining fashion – but this is both limited in scope, and, as with many things in sumo, often lacking individuality. While other industries and sports have done all in their power to transition live experiences to the digital space, sumo’s given us a livestream of keiko every couple months.

I’m not complaining about that (I would, however, like to see one of these newly built stables go full 1999 and put a webcam in an upper corner of the keiko-ba, but that’s a matter for another day). But there’s more that can be done to engage people during this time who live in Japan and can’t go to sumo, or who would be visiting Japan at the peak of the country’s decade long tourism drive and would be experiencing sumo. Let’s be clear, this ban happened because at times rikishi can be the worst ambassadors of the sport. But they are also always the best ambassadors. That will never be a big yellow mascot, and it will never be a group of recently retired oyakata.

At this point, years on, we have to ask how long should this ban really last. Are there risks to ending it? Absolutely. There will always be risks. Maybe because of those risks, and the behaviour of a handful of jokers, the ban lasts forever. That would be the whole sumo community’s loss: let’s not even consider it.

20 thoughts on “It Is Time To End the SNS Ban

  1. It’s as if we coordinated my retweet of flambéd burgers from Asahiyama-beya. The peeks into the heya lifestyle afforded by those official accounts are quite rare. It would be nice to see more individual glimpses.

    • Yes, I hastily added a sentence about the stable accounts once I saw your post!!! 😓

      Shikoroyama did a cool video in tandem with the kyokai I think a few weeks back about how to make a training mawashi, that was cool, I must give credit

      But the mawashi thing is like, more for the promotion of sumo the sport rather than insight to their world. Since these stable accounts are for sure not all created equal and also have differing personalities in charge, it’s inconsistent. I feel like sumo is one of the rare sports anywhere around the globe that didn’t quite rise to the challenge of the pandemic from a digital point of view and I think the social media ban is a big part of it.

      • I agree. Honestly, I’m not sure why the Kyokai hasn’t offered or encouraged stables to use certain web platforms for outreach. Some of the websites are rather rough or just a disused Facebook page. I get the feeling that a strong social media policy could serve the Kyokai, stables, and staff quite well. That said, I doubt wrestlers are fully off SNS…they’re likely just much more private about it. As my son gets older, I’m steadily surprised how connected they are on all manner of networks.

        • It seems that liking and retweeting (resharing, whatever it’s called in other networks) are considered acceptable (though of course that will probably be banned the next time a rikishi retweets hate speech.

          But it gives them some leeway. For example, Hakuho sends stuff to his personal trainer (e.g. yesterday’s keiko video), who puts it on his IG, and then Hakuho can share it in his IG. Problem solved. :-)

          The Takadagawa approach could be the solution (though they do it in a very dull way): every day they let another rikishi post the daily blog post. So on the one hand there is an overseeing adult, and on the other, you get individual content.

          In any case, like everything in Sumo, the Kyokai is not likely to coordinate such efforts. It seems to involve the rikishi in its SNS posts only when they step on its turf (e.g. that grip strength competition, filmed on the most recent rikishi-kai, which took place in the Kakugikan). When the rikishi are in their heya, they are in the shisho’s autonomy.

          Yes, you might ask “why can they lay limiting guidelines, overriding shisho autonomy, but not constructive guidelines?” Well, that’s the NSK for you. It’s just a derivative of Japan’s corporate culture, really.

          • Re: Takadagawa-beya as a counter example. Concerning social media, isn’t it indeed mainly the near-complete lack of oversight that’s troubling the Kyokai, combined with the possibility that stuff can go viral and get out of control in a matter of minutes? It’s not like rikishi and heya using the internet for publicity is a particularly new phenomenon – Tooyama was blogging on behalf of Tamanoi-beya (with occasional guest posts by stablemates) as far back as a decade and a half ago.

            • Yeah, but I get the impression that their posting on Takadagawa’s blog is not unattended. That’s why I suggested it as asolution. They post individual material, but they get it looked over.

              • This has to be the solution. Put somebody senior from each heya in charge of social media and let rikishi send that person messages for them to post on a heya account or better still individual accounts – but only once the “manager” has approved them.

                I sense however, as Josh has suggested, that the older generation who would have to set this up and do the checking and posting are just not sufficiently convinced of the value of social media.

              • The Kyokai itself has had SNS accounts, even TikTok, for a while, though. I think they’re terrified of a serious bullying video and Abi’s video was just enough to freak them out.

              • I like the idea but I also think it’s fair to say the NSK could use the unfortunate moment to conduct social media training and then simply incorporate it into sumo school: “Here’s what you can and can’t do, if you break the rules here’s what happens.”

                The other thing I didn’t even touch on is that this kind of digital “fansa,” in a time when the NSK is facing revenue shortfalls, can be hugely impactful, and present avenues to market revenue generating merch and other things the NSK already sells to people who are (not always) but more than likely in the higher spending/super-fan/whale category.

                Example: With all of the interesting characters in his stable previously active on SNS with good followings (Ishiura, Hakuho), Hokuseiho could easily arrive in Juryo (whenever that is) with a reasonable amount of followers. Since they sell things like badges, magnets, nobori with the rikishi’s likeness, this would be a good avenue for the kyokai to be able to capitalise on his pride at seeing his face on sumo merch for the first time.

                Not everyone even wants to be on there, but I can see the potential for “you scratch my back…” opportunities to ease back into this.

  2. Pretty sure the less I know about the rikishi i like, the better. IMO keep the ban. Youtube videos of training and the official twitter are fine.

  3. here here! i think the time has come too… us poor sumo deprived are climbing the walls. any kind of interaction would be welcome plus i think they’d welcome it too, if you can’t cheer at the basho’s then u can cheer on their social media pages!

  4. For me, the Kyokai’s social media ban changed next to nothing. I don’t understand why so many people feel the need for pseudo-personal interactions with celebrities in the first place, in order to sustain their fandom. Behind the scenes looks can be enjoyable and informative, of course, but those don’t require the immediacy of social media particularly, just the reach of the internet.

    • Going to switch hats for a minute and say therein lies the beauty of choice. As a long time digital marketing person in the entertainment world I know how right you are. At the end of the day some people just want to hear a song or enjoy a movie, that alone is enough to be a fan of an artist or actor. On the other end of the spectrum, people will become a fan and read the next book, see the next movie, etc, because they are a fan of the person. So I have sympathy for the desires of both ends of the spectrum because ultimately in my day job I have to serve all of these types of fans.

      Personally, despite the tone of this post, I’m actually somewhere in the middle. I don’t like Aoiyama’s sumo at all (like, at all), but everything I’ve read and seen about him is that he is a thoroughly decent person making his lot in life having gone where he has. So in spite of not loving the “content of his sumo” as some might say, I don’t hope he falls through the trapdoor. Similarly, while there was much to admire about the Taka twins potential a couple years back, I didn’t love much I saw about them as people, I wasn’t excited for them to someday win a yusho.

      The magic happens for me when I see a rikishi whose sumo I like and want to cheer for, and then I am able to discover through their personal expressions that they’re someone I think is really cool. This makes me a fan of Ishiura. I actually love his style of sumo when he commits to it, he’s not Ura or Enho but he’s done some audacious stuff over the years. Then when I looked him up, I saw we had a lot of common interests (not protein shakes), I loved his posts on fashion, music, culture, art, etc. I wouldn’t have had that insight about Ishiura the rikishi on henkas alone. So even if I can admit he probably on balance hasn’t deserved to be in the top division much of the last couple years, I’m no less of a super fan. So I miss this, for sure.

      I’d put a few others in that category, too.

  5. I don’t know, most social media aren’t really a source of joy… with high levels of agonism and media attention in the mix, it’s good if the young fellows have somebody to filter their online communication.
    Moreover, rikishi are required to look serious about their sumo (especially sekitori around bashos).
    In many aspects, they live a monastic life, and of all the prohibitions and unhealthy lifestyle choices they have to endure, to me, social media are very down in the list.
    As someone has pointed out, heya-managed blogs/channels seem like a perfectly fine solution.

    • Agree. I think it’s better for the rikishi (career wise and mental health wise) if they stay off social media as much as possible. They’re just young lads and it’s best to filter their public communications through an ‘adult’ and keep the communications between themselves and personal friends on the DL. As someone else pointed out there are more private channels young people can use to communicate that aren’t broadcasting on twitter.

      • All opinions are definitely welcome here, but followers of Aminishiki (now Ajigawa) over the years would have to raise an eyebrow at the sentiment that these are all young lads who need all need to be filtered by an adult.

        All of us in our daily work lives at any age (I joined Twitter at 23 or 24) must be cognisant of what one should and should not say publicly. That’s no different for a recent graduate than it is a senior executive. So I respect the broader opinion, but I do think it’s a little patronising to say a rikishi of the same age as a recently graduated salaryman is necessarily lacking the ability to be as discerning. The NSK has a Sumo School that educates these guys on decorum generally, so it’s well within their ability to set expectations as any “company” would.

        Interestingly, Japan is unique culturally in that many 20 somethings actually have multiple profiles per platform for broadcasting public communications as well as communications to friends and private thoughts. I’m not saying they all must join social media now for our selfish benefit as fans, but I think it’s difficult to remove the choice.

        • Oh, I think the recently graduated salaryman of the same age is probably just as likely to post something injudicious. He probably doesn’t have as many followers on twitter though.
          And his employers probably won’t have to hold a press conference to address his posting.

  6. Agree with staying off social media, for athletes its trouble.
    Long past time for merchandise over the web. I can’t get to Japan during a tournament.

  7. I still kind of wonder if it had a role, however small, in Wakaichiro’s intai. His family was on the other side of the globe and suddenly a very popular and simple way of communicating with them was taken away. I doubt he missed Twitter as much, (he’s barely posted in months,) but even a private, family/friends-only FB page is also forbidden.

    Agreed that “digital literacy” should be part of Sumo Finishing School, as it were. The foreign rikishi can also learn how the Japanese sports press differs from their home countries’ press. I would hate to see anyone forced into intai because he didn’t understand how narratives work in Japan.

Comments:

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.