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.