As the world attempts to return to normal and the Haru basho rolls towards its dramatic conclusion, we’ve received word from New York City that famed sumo hotspot Azasu (the bathroom of which is pictured above) has pivoted amidst the continuing COVID-19 pandemic. We previously covered the location – a mecca for fans of Sumo in American’s northeast – on these pages, and are very sad to learn of its demise.
According to the restaurant itself, “we struggled with the impact of the pandemic, and we determined the need to reinvent ourselves and to adapt to a new environment.” Sadly, we have been informed by Tachiai reader Lydia that all of the sumo paraphernalia and decor has already been removed amidst the rebranding as Azasu now merges with sister shop Yopparai.
Azasu was previously a rare location in the States for sumo fans to not only enjoy food but also watch televised sumo. Hopefully, some of the staple food offerings will at least remain. While we wish the restauranteurs every success in their attempts to thrive in this unparalleled environment, we also hope that another sumo themed location will rise to provide fans outside Japan with an opportunity to enjoy the sport on a night out. As Japan remains closed to visitors and those of us outside its borders do not have the opportunity to visit Chanko Ho or Kirishima’s spot, fans need all the options we can get.
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.
This feature started off several years ago when I – and others! – were interested in the idea of ranking the performance of a stable.
Now, to be clear, this concept is not central to the idea of sumo at all. Heya do not compete with each other. Nor do they probably want to be told they are better or worse than another stable: they all have their own mostly distinct cultures, histories, chanko recipes, traditions, personalities, etc. While I also wanted to see performance of the various ichimon (the groups of stables organised largely for administrative and also historical purposes with many cross-stable relationships, training partnerships and links among oyakata and elder names), the idea was that perhaps training partnerships could show a correlation of performance over time and a rise in performance of associated stables under certain leadership.
It’s kind of an interesting concept, but I think the presentation was a bit ham fisted and while it was a good thought exercise, I’m sure there were plenty of number crunching people dwelling in the dark recesses of the sweat stain encrusted corners of the mawashi that is global sumo internet fandom slamming their faces into keyboards at the idea of measuring this kind of thing based off sekitori kachi koshi and various prizes.
Admittedly, when you follow the sport more on a personal level and also over a longer period of time you start to understand nuances that appear: Scouting partnerships, relationships, connections to the amateur world, details of the specific oyakata and so on.
For me the most problematic thing, if you look at the old model, is how we would have handled a stable like Michinoku: having a yokozuna and a high ranking maegashira, it would have scored high in 2020. But the reality is that the perma-kyujo yokozuna was transferred there against his interest, and apart from Kiribayama, almost everyone the stable has put into the salaried ranks over 20+ years have been inherited from other stables (and number of those guys were even bounced in the yaocho scandal, truncating their sumo careers significantly). So our old model would have given very inaccurate portrayals of a stable like that, and its development relative to the rest of the sumo world.
The series also spilled a lot of words on these pages about the supposed “fall” of Isegahama beya, as our model showed its numbers going ever lower, to the depths of some stables like (for example) Isenoumi. Again this is a misrepresentation. While Harumafuji’s retirement, Terunofuji’s injury driven fall out of the top ranks and Aminishiki’s intai certainly impacted the stable’s impression on the sport in the short term, this model did not take into account the incredible stream of talent coming up toward the top two divisions while this was occurring. Nishikifuji and Midorifuji have since impacted the top two divisions while Terutsuyoshi has turned himself into a makuuchi regular and even handed his stablemate Terunofuji an assist in his improbable yusho on his makuuchi comeback. This all while Takarafuji continues to be a solid fixture at the business end of the top division. There’s more that happened there in the fallow period following Harumafuji’s retirement than has happened in the total of Michinoku-beya’s 22 years, but our model won’t have seen it that way.
So the question is: how to measure the success of a heya on an ongoing basis? Is it a body of work that can only be measured when an oyakata retires, like a ramen chef who has spent a lifetime perfecting the craft? Or is it fair that like a baseball farm system, we can identify, analyse and grade new recruits and their potential impact on the top end of the sport? Similarly, while the banzuke shifts largely on numbers alone (apart from some strange whims of a group of old men and the interference of a pandemic), the performance and projection of recruits needs context: a 7-0 in Jonokuchi is more impressive from a fresh 17 year old than it is from a 23-year old with university sumo pedigree. Numbers might be able to project a sekitori (as some folks on the Sumo Forum exhibited years ago), but the eye test and other factors are probably required to determine the quality that can lead to improved performance across the board.
I think the answer is somewhere in the middle. But unlike those who find it a pointless exercise, I do think there is value in doing the analysis. There just needs to be a better way. I’d love to hear some thoughts from the community. To what extent should data factor into this? Should we be taking more advantage of Andy’s data visualisation tools (trick question, the answer is yes)? Should it contain large amounts of subjectivity from experts with potentially differing opinions, like farm team rankings? Let us know what you think.
OK, so I’ve said it, and it’s out there. There’s no taking it back now! Look, it even makes me uncomfortable. I’m normally a fan of rikishi who do exciting sumo, going flying around the dohyo, nobody knowing where they may end up, even if it’s all the way to the cabaret club. Takarafuji, at face value, is sort of the antithesis of that.
It’s not that I dislike his sumo style, in the way that I do someone like Aoiyama’s: a one dimensional, aesthetically displeasing, attack. It’s more that on the surface, it’s just kind of the equivalent of Al Gore’s macarena. Normally, if asked if you’d like to see him do it again, you’ve already forgotten what it was and moved on to the next bout.
But that line of thinking ignores the deft art to the Aomori man’s defensive sumo. A lot of times, to the untrained eye, he’s just standing still, eventually suffocating or draining the life out of his opponents. He’s raised his level this tournament, and what has heretofore appeared to be the stalemating of any and all comers has transformed into an anti-terror bomb disposal unit. It’s the Isegahama veteran, in these crazy pandemic times, methodically clipping the wires, defusing, and safely disposing of any dangerous materials between him and the kensho. Perhaps no win summed this up as much as Day 9’s stunning reversal of Okinoumi’s seemingly unstoppable advantage at the tawara.
He’s a big man, not in the category of an Ichinojo, who you think of when you consider a rikishi who can rely on being “immovable object” as a strategy. In the absence of one defining all-around physical characteristic, he’s just strong all over.
Why do I want him to win? Without question it’s been a strong couple of years in terms of veteran journeyman yusho champs. While Takarafuji has never excelled in the san’yaku ranks, certainly there’s an argument to be made he brings more to the table than a Tokushoryu, and while other one-note rikishi have proven triumphant with their one-great skill – see Tochinoshin, Takakeisho – those Ozeki past and present have done so offensively. It’s arguable that we haven’t really seen a yusho champ who can lay claim to being a defensive specialist of any type since Kisenosato (there’s an argument for Kakuryu, but I see him less of a defensive specialist and more of someone with a good counterattacking Plan B). While that isn’t necessarily a bad thing – attacking sumo – like in many sports, it’s more thrilling and attractive – there’s a place at the top table for technicians as well.
The other element is: who else? Sumo does not need another Maegashira 17 yusho champion, so someone please take care of Shimanoumi – or at least stop giving him Juryo 4 ranked opponents. Takakeisho has been impressive, but I still feel it’s too early and too unlikely that he can mount the run that would lead to him becoming a convincing Yokozuna, and I’m hopeful someone (anyone) can step up to be a worthy challenger in that race in the meantime. If he does become Yokozuna, I want it to be because he actually had to take down Ozeki and Yokozuna in consecutive basho… not because literally all of them were kyujo.
As for Terunofuji, it’s hard to argue that he wouldn’t be a more thrilling victor than Takarafuji. While there are the inevitable fitness-derived weaknesses in his sumo, there’s no question he has been overwhelming when he’s been on. And either would be a credit to their mutual stable master.
Isegahama himself (former Yokozuna Asahifuji) has proven more than adept at scouting and developing waves of successful rikishi. We’re about to see yet another makuuchi debutant from the stable next basho, as Midorifuji prepares to make his bow. And yet, despite the incredible work he’s done over the years, as he enters his final act as an oyakata it would be some achievement to see him also develop a champion of yet another style. One that in contrast to Harumafuji’s energy and chaos, and Terunofuji’s power, simply displayed unbeatable fundamentals.
Now that I’ve said it, he’ll probably lose today and lose out. But for once, I’m cheering for Takarafuji.