Sumo World Reforms Announced

The pandemic presented the sumo world with tremendous challenges, notably maintaining wrestler’s health and fitness, and their mental health, within an enterprise with deteriorating financial health. The world has reopened but the impacts have yet to shake their way out of the system. A day after announcing that a total of nineteen rikishi had retired during (and after) Aki Basho, we have heard news that the Kyokai decided to eliminate the height and weight restrictions on new recruits. It is hoped this will allow more wrestlers to join. Previously, most shin-deshi had to be 167cm and 67kg (middle school recruits needed to be 165cm and 65kg).

The Kyokai will also end the practice of granting some top amateur recruits preferential placement in the middle of Makushita division, at Makushita 10 or 15. Instead, Makushita tsukedashi will be limited to Makushita 60. That will probably be revisited if the division is expanded back to 90 ranks. Recent university phenoms, like Hakuoho and Onosato, as well as veterans like Endo and Mitakeumi, benefited from this. Both of these changes will be effective in January 2024.

Of Weights and Measures

Eliminating the height and weight restrictions for rikishi seems like an act of desperation, a way to throw open the doors to any Japanese male teenager. This is not necessarily the case. Several smaller wrestlers have been hampered by the restrictions. Famously, Mainoumi failed the height restriction (which at that time was higher than the current standard) so he had silicone implanted in the top of his head! The picture in this article announcing the change, is of Baraki* (Thank you, Sarah) standing on his tip-toes. I’m not sure if that’s how he reached 168cm. Anna Erhard’s recent hit, “170,” springs to mind when hearing of these shenanigans.

It’s not apparent how many wrestlers have been denied entry to professional sumo because of their height over the entire time frame that the restriction has been in place. It’s also not clear if there are any up-and-coming amateurs who are in danger of failing to meet the legacy threshold. However, what is clear is that the Kyokai is not going to disappear anytime soon. When I saw the list of 19 retiring wrestlers, that seemed like a lot to me until I started going through the historical data. The blue line in the chart below shows the total number of annual intai, according to data pulled from the SumoDB.

The spike in recruitment after Takanohana’s first yusho is apparent. However, that boom was followed by several years where retirements exceeded the number of inbound recruits. The massive recruitment drives of 1992 and 1993 are probably not repeated for many reasons, not just declines in popularity of the sport. The recent dip from Covid is bad news, sure. But the declines from the yaocho and bullying scandals of 2010-2011 appear to have been worse.

Along with the elimination of the height and weight requirements come some wishful thinking that the limitations on the number of foreigners in stables should/could be relaxed, too. Undoubtedly that would increase numbers. I’m not convinced that is what the Kyokai is really after here, though. I think they want quality wrestlers, yes. But they want quality Japanese wrestlers. I have always viewed the sumo world as a social welfare program for young men and I think that is why they will not cave to calls for more foreigners. Not many social benefits programs allow foreigners to get a visa and a path to citizenship.

The sport is subsidized by the government and has deep cultural and religious significance. “Foreign” membership will always be very small. That said, many wrestlers have found ways to skirt those rules, just as Mainoumi found ways to skirt the height requirements.

Slow Down the Hot Shots

The elimination of higher-level Makushita tsukedashi, at the 10 and 15 ranks, may have more of an impact on the quality of Top-Division Sumo than the height and weight reforms. Promising amateur recruits may decide that they would rather forgo their shot at professional sumo if they have to grind it out and fight their way through from the bottom of makushita. However, even this may be of limited real impact.

All of the current sanyaku wrestlers fought their way from Jonokuchi. The top tsukedashi wrestlers are Asanoyama and Gonoyama, both of whom started in Sandanme. University champions have not been the dominant force which I, personally, would have expected. Is Daiamami on any of your top watch lists? Mitakeumi and Ichinojo have probably been the most successful from that cohort. But there are so many other talents out there that come up from the bottom that I am starting to think that we should look in Jonokuchi for our next Yokozuna.

Anyway, they are very interesting reforms and time will tell how wrong I am on both of these. I’m curious what you all think.

24 thoughts on “Sumo World Reforms Announced

  1. Elimination of height and weight restrictions, looks like to accommodate more wrestlers rather than health reasons. As once they enter they have increase their weight to be more competitive.

    Regarding increasing the number of foreign Rikishi per Heya, I am not so sure they will implement this. Already foreign rikishis are Dominating the sport. And the sumo association are kind of conservative and wants to cater mostly Japanese fans.

    • “Already foreign rikishis are Dominating the sport.”

      Devil’s advocate take here is that that’s a result of the kyokai’s own making: by limiting each stable to one, the one that they recruit has got to be so good, because they can’t afford just to take a flyer on someone who’s going to clog up their slot for potentially several years.

  2. Not sure I agree with all of the lines of thinking in the comments section here, I think the kyokai dealt with the pandemic situation as best they could with the resources, information, and cultural sensitivities (which are undoubtedly different in Japan than in much of the home countries of Tachiai readership base) available to them at the time. Were all of the decisions ones that they would repeat or that made the most sense? Not necessarily. The crazy mass kyujo incidents got a bit farcical at times. But at the same time, I think we can speak for many fans in saying that we can be grateful to the kyokai for everything they did to keep the sport up and running at a time when sumo was all that many folks had to look forward to.

    I think the reforms are broadly positive, I can understand why they don’t want another 1 and done in makushita for someone coming out of college and posting a 7-0 and going straight into Juryo, and to your point Andy, I think it’s fair to say that it hasn’t necessarily contributed to us getting an influx of reliably competitive rikishi at the top end in quick time (Mitoryu is another good example). Rikishi are probably better for having to develop rivalries on their way up the ladder.

    I would like to see them relax the foreigner limit with one caveat – the understanding is it’s a rule they put in so that foreigners would have to assimilate into Japanese culture since you were having stables with a handful of rikishi from the same background (ie Samoa or whatever). Maybe they can have it so you can take on a second foreigner but only if they are not from the same country (or continent) as the first foreigner? I know it’s not what they’re after but it would potentially raise the quality level and global interest level and help draw more money into the sport.

  3. I disagree. They had to protect their charges, especially after one of them died (RIP, Shobushi), very early in the pandemic.

  4. I’m curious to see if the removal of the physical restrictions means changes to sumo as a whole from a strategic standpoint. We’re already seeing more trips and agility in the top ranks of sumo than we have in the previous couple of years and adding more “smaller” rikishi will mean that the heyas that teach those kimarite more often will potentially have more long term success in the future. We will still see larger rikishi (Hokuseiho isn’t going anywhere for a long time barring a serious injury, for example), but I suspect that the “average rikishi” size will get smaller over time based on this decision. That might also affect general Japanese interest in the sport. Seeing people of a more similar body type might encourage younger Japanese wrestlers to turn pro.

    I agree that the removal of the “higher start in the ranks” probably won’t change much for professional sumo in general. I suspect that the Kyokai wants to slow down promotion rates and have less “green” rikishi in the top ranks for several reasons including time to build a larger fan base/support system and providing more time for recruits to learn more advanced sumo before arriving in the top two divisions. The highly skilled will zip up the banzuke anyway. Starting at the bottom of Makushita won’t slow them down at all.

    • Allowing smaller rikishi may not impact the top division, either. There aren’t a lot of guys over 2 meters and I doubt there will be many under 165cm. Time will tell. But my initial alarmist views were probably unwarranted.

  5. “The sport is subsidized by the government”

    Not correct. The JSA used to be overseen by the Ministry of Education but wasn’t (and isn’t) subsidized by any government body.

  6. “Slow Down the Hot Shots.” Per a recent episode on Chris Sumo’s channel, this is an anticompetitive move by older (elderly?) coaches unable compete for the hot shots who want younger, more modern thinking coaches.

    • I don’t know how it impacts competition at all. There’s a small fraction of recruits that this would apply to and it would presumably give them an easier start to sumo, rather than throwing the select few into (closer to?) the deep end.

      • Maybe less about altering the balance of competition for recruits and more about spite? “Sure, you’re getting all the uni stars, but they have to toil in makushita for at least a couple of tournaments…”

  7. As far as I’m concerned, these tsukedashi changes merely finish correcting a 20-year-old mistake, them having started to address it with the SdTd introduction a few years ago. Ms15 never made sense the way it was implemented: as a highly exclusive access tier based on very flawed qualification criteria, which meant that both false positives (Mitoryu-type rikishi eligible) and false negatives (Shodai-type rikishi having to start from Jk) were way too high and way too impactful for a useful entry classification scheme.

  8. I don’t think that moving the makushita tsukedashi from Ms15/10 back to Ms60, where it used to be, will strongly affect the most talented rikishi. According to Sumo Database, in the past a 7-0 yusho from Ms60 (seven rikishi in the modern era) resulted in a promotion to Ms8 or higher. This is Juryo promotion territory, and the four rikishi (all tsukedashi–I’m counting Wajima also) who followed up with a 7-0 or 6-1 were indeed promoted to Juryo in the next basho. So the new (old) system might add one or two more basho in Makushita, for the very best performers.

    A 6-1 in the debut basho would not be as valuable, but it still would result in a nice promotion. Of course, it is up to the rikishi to follow his debut with further strong performances. Two or three successive strong basho, especially if one is a yusho, would likely see the man in Juryo.

  9. Dear Tachiai team,
    You seem to be the only institution who knows the names of the newly promoted juryou rikishi and of those, who retired. I think, all the other homepages copy from you. Could you please publish those names, that would be great. Thank you so much for your excellent homepage! Wolfgang from Germany, sumo fan since 1990

      • I’m not going to wade into that. I don’t keep track over there, or on Reddit, YouTube, or other platforms. There are definitely a lot of great resources out there. Frankly, too many for me to process anymore.

        My primary resources are The Kyokai website, The SumoDB, and Japanese media outlets. I always cite and link to those. Twitter’s made that a bit more difficult lately since Elmo’s been mucking about with how he treats embeds. I’ve noticed some of them on the site going wonky, so I’ll probably not be using those embeds much, anymore. They were handy, though, because it was like a built-in citation…I digress.

        Anyway, call me out if you ever see anything that is not attributed on this site. I take mea culpas rather seriously and like to rectify them.


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