The Kisenosato Dilemma


Kise-Arm

No Easy Way Out

With Kisenosato out for kyujo for a second straight basho, there is a growing concern among the men who run sumo. Kisenosato’s elevation to Yokozuna has been a huge boon for the sport, raising it’s profile among the broader Japanese public, and driving huge ratings for the daily broadcasts. But as it becomes clear that Kisenosato cannot “heal naturally”, the sumo world faces a set of tough choices.

Fans who have come to sumo recently may not know how far out of the public’s minds sumo had wandered earlier this decade. The Japanese are proud people, and rightfully so. The nation of Japan and Japanese culture wield an oversized influence across the globe. They consider sumo to be their national sport, and it is in fact a sacred ritual. When it became clear that the top men of sumo were Mongolian for the foreseeable future, a section of the population lost interest. Sumo still had it’s fans, but it had become a sport dominated by outsiders, making it more like football (soccer) or any other imported event.

At the new years basho in 2017, this dynamic changed. For some time, the sumo association had wanted to promote Kisenosato, but lacked the final ingredient: a Yusho. In January, there was a confluence of events that gave Kisenosato his best chance ever at a tournament championship, and he took it. With his promotion secure, suddenly sumo had a Japanese born man at the highest rank. The public went absolutely insane for sumo and all things Kisenosato. He was Babe Ruth and John Glenn rolled into one. He had broken the lock Mongolia had on sumo.

March 2017 in Osaka, and Kisenosato is a freshly minted Yokozuna. The Japanese public is glued to their televisions, as the Osaka arena sold out all 15 days in mere minutes. In his day 13 match against Yokozuna Harumafuji, Kisenosato takes a hard fall off the dohyo and ruptures his left pectoral. Kisenosato is left handed by birth, and this injury robs him of his massive strength. Like every other sumo injury, nobody wants to talk about it. But the Japanese public (even if you are not a sumo fan) knows that the hero of Sumo is wounded. Somehow, he takes the yusho by defeating Ozeki Terunofuji not just once but twice on the final day. Again Japan erupts in jubilation as not only has their champion won his first tournament as Yokozuna, he overcame a grievous injury and prevailed against all odds.

After the party that follows a yusho, there were serious decisions to be made. Kisenosato had an injury that always requires surgery to heal. This would mean that the hero of sumo would be out of commission for at least 6 months, and even then might not ever return. This would remove the key figure that was driving interest in the sport back to where it belonged from the stage, possibly forever.

For whatever reason, the decision was made to try and “heal naturally”. This mean Kisenosato was to spend weeks resting his left upper body. He did not train much, and he was to do everything he could to not use that muscle group. Anyone who has trained athletically can tell you, over a period of weeks of non use, the related and supporting muscle groups de-condition, and lose their power. By resting, Kisenosato was losing the strength and stamina that had made him Yokozuna.

For the past two basho, he has tried to compete, but he is completely out of shape now, and most likely that pectoral muscle is still damaged and generating a faction of its former power. Kisenosato cannot compete in his present physical form, and that form cannot change without medical intervention.

So the question is – what do to? All of the answers have huge down side. Here are a few

  • Continue to wait and hope – So continue to “heal naturally” knowing that every day that goes by without intense strain on the left upper body diminishes your strength. Medically, there is no way to naturally heal a pectoral tear. So Kisenosato never regains left side upper body strength. We get a sub-standard Yokozuna lingering in the shadows (like Kakuryu) but instead it’s your Japanese born hero rikishi. Eventually (probably later this year) he is pushed to retire due to lack of performance.
  • Medical intervention – You take your prize Yokozuna to the best sports medicine doctors in the world, and just tell the fans he’s gone for 6 months. Surgical repair of the pectoral and any other nagging bits that were plaguing him. Hakuho did this for the big toe on his right foot, and he had to train like a madman for months just to step on the dohyo and not embarrass himself. It took him a year to return to 90% of his former glory. For Kisenosato this would likely mean intense physical therapy and endless workouts with Takayasu to try to get back to the form that won Hatsu 2017.
  • Admit you are done – Ugly solution, but if you are not going to try surgery to fix your left upper body, may as well go intai now and save yourself further damage or the fans any further disappointment. This would be a nightmare scenario of the sumo association, as it would return them to the days of being considered a foreign dominated sport.
  • Hold the fort – The most cruel of the outcomes, Kisenosato can continue to compete as best he can until another Japanese rikishi is ready for promotion. The most likely candidate would be Takayasu, although Goeido 2.0 could get it done sooner. This would allow the sumo association to shift everyone’s affections to a new hero, and Kisenosato could quietly bow out and retire.

NHK World Consolidates Grand Sumo Coverage


NHKWorldLogo

Preview Video Available Now.

NHK World has come up with a nice, consolidated web page with links to all of the video from Grand Sumo Highlights, along with the preview.  You can check it out here

https://www3.nhk.or.jp/nhkworld/en/tv/sumo/

By extension this means that the preview video that is airing today on NHK World is available on demand now via the web site.  The preview turned out really well, and includes a great Hakuho retrospective. Note Hiro’s remarks about Yoshikaze – his mobility and how he uses his feet being a essential element of his sumo.

 

My Sumo Trip To Japan


Kokugikan Signs

Well Worth The Effort.

As many of the readers here at Tachiai know, I took the big step of taking a trip to Tokyo to watch sumo live at the Kokugikan. While I thoroughly enjoyed myself, and found the trip quite rewarding, I thought I would share some of the details of the trip to help anyone considering doing the same.

Flying To Japan – JAL 065

Although I have a large number of miles and some decent status on American Airlines, I chose to fly to Tokyo on JAL. There were a number of reasons why. Firstly, I was traveling over with a long term friend who lives in San Diego. The JAL flight left from there, and was on a Boeing 787, a composite body aircraft that operates at higher cabin pressure than the 777 alternative. This translated into less jet lag, and a more comfortable trip all around. It should also be noted that the JAL economy class seats are really very nice. Wider and with more space between them than any of the US carriers provide.

As you might expect, the Japanese flight crew were the acme of customer service, attention and all around professionals. The entire trip was a notch or two above my typical international flight on American. The food was very good, too.

JAL Meal

Living In Japan – Air BnB

Hotels in Japan cost a fortune. Space is at a premium, and accommodations for westerners, who are usually looking for more space, tend to run $300 / night more more. My friend decided to try Air BnB, and scored what in my opinion was a major coup. We rented an entire house in Sumida, just 3 blocks from the Kokugikan for about half of what we would pay for a hotel. But let’s be clear. This house was small, no, this house was tiny.

The Rabbit Hutch - Sumida
The House In Sumida

The footprint was about 12′ x 12′. When we ended up meeting the neighbors, they were surprised that two full sized Americans were living in that house. One of them said, “My house is small, but that house is too small!”. One of them referred to it as the “Rabbit Hutch”.

We found the house to be a tiny delight. Yeah, there were several adjustments we had to make to the very limited space, but it was RIGHT THERE. Sleeping was on tatami mats, and for Americans used to sleeping on beds, it took a couple of days before one could feel comfortable sleeping that way. But once used to it, I will admit my back never felt better.

Due to the preponderance of convincence stores and everything else in this neighborhood, we wanted for nothing. In fact, we were next door to a really fantastic smelling curry shop, that we kept not being able to catch open and serving food. Until the last couple of days, and then it was “Jackpot!”.

Watching Sumo – Kokugikan

Being 3 blocks away from the center of the sumo universe has many advantages. Firstly, no train rides fighting the crowds to or from the stadium. Secondly, you see rikishi going about their daily lives everywhere. Yes. there is the language barrier, but the Japanese public are kind, friendly people who never fail to go out of their way to help you or try to make you feel welcome in their country.

Center of the Sumo World

The staff at the Kokugikan include guides who speak a variety of different languages, and they will not only help you find your seat, but can help you figure out where everything is. If you catch them in the morning before it gets busy, they may even take you around and show you the stadium if you want.

I purchased my tickets through buysumotickets.com. They were not cheap, but they did an excellent job, and we had some fantastic seat. One day we were sitting on the 2nd floor, in the “chair” seats, but I was 6 seats away from the Imperial box. The view was frankly unparalleled. But if you go for the early matches, you will find the Kokugikan largely empty until Juryo. So feel free to go downstairs and check out the view of the zabuton. But do take your shoes off. In fact, you may want to consider taking slip on / off shoes with you to Japan, as you will be out of your shoes and into house sandals or slippers all the time.

Endo Cutout

There were an impressive amount of non-Japanese folks at the basho. It gave me a renewed appreciation of the potential for Sumo to be a global sport. The other thing that surprised me is that large blocks of tickets seem to go daily to groups. One day it seems to have been the little old ladies club, the next day it was the Salaryman’s Drinking Union or something like that. Around the start of Makuuchi, big groups (200+) would stream into the Kokugikan and all sit together in the same section. The other group we could always count on were the high school groups. It seemed each day 3-6 groups of highschoolers would take up several sections.

The other thing of note. Between 1:30 and 2:30, the sekitori show up at the Kokugikan. Usually this is a public affair, and they walk right down the side alley between the train station and the stadium, with their retainers in tow.

Takayasu Arrives
Takayasu Arrives

Also, as they arrive, they stop by both he guard booth, where they check in, and this tent. At the tent, the drop off their mobile phone, which is placed in a ziplock baggie, and placed in a metal box. I am going to guess this is a rule that was put in place after the betting scandals from a few years ago.

I happened to be very lucky, and I encountered Wakaichiro in the Kokugikan on day 2 after his match. In person he is the nicest fellow you could ever meet, and I am quite delighted he took the time to say hello to one of his fans and talk for a few minutes. I am sure the he had many chores waiting for him back at the stable.

Wakaichiro
Wakaichiro – Talking To A Fan

Living In Japan – Food

You can eat yourself to death in Japan. There is so much good food everywhere that you can’t really go wrong. The biggest challenge once again is the language barrier. I used two applications to help me augment my somewhat shaky Japanese skills:

VoiceTra – this is a voice to voice translator. Say something in English into it, it spits out a guess of what you said in Japanese. It also shows you a round trip transaction – it passes the Japanese back re-translated to English. This helps you figure out if it guessed wrong on what you meant. It also shows you the phrase it spoke in Japanese in Kana, which is even more useful. When I got stuck, I pulled this thing out and it really helped.

Yomiwa – This is your Kanji cracker. You can take a picture of something in Kanji (say a menu) and use Yomiwa to tell you what it says. You can use a live feed from your camera, or snap a still and detect the text a few glyphs at a time. Using this tool, I was able to figure out the menus of a few of local eateries. Very helpful

Takoyaki and Beer
Takoyaki and Guinness!

Some places to eat, you get a menu. Some places you have a vending kiosk that allows you to select your food and some options. You put in your money and it spits out a printed receipt that you give to the cook and they prepare you food. Actually very fast, easy and works well if you are not quite up to stumbling through some spoke Japanese to order.

Ordering Kiosk
I recommend #4!

Oh, and that curry place next to the tiny house? We finally caught them open. It’s an older couple who seem to only serve the lunch crowd. Their little place can seat no more than 15 at a time. We were treated to Katsu Curry of a most remarkable flavor that it’s worthless to try and describe it. It was well worth the effort to catch them open

Katsu Curry

In summary, the entire Tokyo trip was somewhat out of the ordinary, even for folks who want to go see sumo. But I will confess that my appreciation for the sport and it’s place in the culture has been greatly expanded by my visit. I encourage our readers here at Tachiai to consider doing the same, as it is a worthy aspiration.

Back From Japan – Thoughts On Sumo


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Why Can’t It Be A Global Hit?

As many of our readers know, I was fortunate to have an opportunity to travel to Japan for the first week of the Natsu basho this year. It was my first time back in Japan for 30 years, and it was quite a wonderful trip to make. I have promised Andy and others a recount of my adventures there, with tips for other sumo fans wishing to go. That should be posted soon.

But the first thing that hits me is the Japanese nature of sumo, and how it interlocks with the Japanese culture. Those of us who are not in Japan can get our sumo through both official and unofficial means. Official being the 25 minute daily highlight show on NHK World and the unofficial being the wonderful content on youtube.com from Jason’s All Sumo Channel, Kintamayama and One and Only.

Why is it the rest of the world only gets a subset of the bouts in Makuuchi? A hint came to me watching sumo live in the Kokugikan. The pacing is a tough sell to world sports fans that insist on rapid, continuous action. Most people who follow sports find things like baseball too slow, where nothing much might happen for minutes at a time. When the NFL recently started inserting more commercials into football broadcasts, it helped induce their catastrophic drop in ratings. When fans watch football (soccer) in Europe or rugby, the periods are non stop, no commercial festival of people running crazy on a big grassy field. Even then fans sometimes think it’s too slow and awkward – just give us the part where they try for a goal.

Sumo is a few seconds of combat surrounded by minutes of ceremony. Fans like those who read this blog are into the entire package, we dig the ceremony, we dig the build up to battle. We like that each day the intensity and stakes of the matches increase until we end our day watching the top men of sumo slugging it out for the championship.

Sitting in the Kokugikan, there were no announcers in Japanese or English. There is just you and sumo. No overlay graphics showing history, winning moves or the kanji if each rikishi’s shikona at giant size. This is what I would call “Actual” or “Organic” Sumo. Even watching the telecast on NHk with either english or japanese audio subtracts quite a bit from the organic experience.

I submit that this experience, either live or broadcast, does not translate well, and does not offer much appeal to average human beings or even average sports fans. If you “get” the ceremony, and feel the connection it has to the sport, you can and usually do become a sumo fan, and you chafe that these elements are removed from what is packaged and fed to us. It would be as if a great Western had cut out the story behind the gunfight, and just showed two men drawing their weapons in the middle of the street.

It is clear that sumo, as it is constituted right now, is made in Japan for Japanese people living in Japan. It’s not really exported in a form that would make it a world product. In fact, when discussing this with Japanese fans at the Kokugikan, they are completely baffled why foreigners want to watch sumo at all.

It was clear from the stands at the Kokugikan that Sumo has a global appeal, as the second floor chair seats were well populated with fans of European, African and Indian ancestry. But the men who run and control both sumo and the media spectacle that is packaged around sumo are only now starting to realize that there is a significant income and licensing stream possible outside of Japan.

Japan as a culture is very slow to change any traditional institution, and sumo is a very traditional institution. But the time has come for the NSK and the NHK to embrace sumo for the world. I would suggest the following steps

  1. The NSK should appoint/hire foreign language/culture liaisons. These people would ensure that education, outreach and licensing for sumo and sumo merchandise are set up in foreign countries. This could and should open the door for fandom to grow and flourish outside of Japan
  2. The NHK needs to package and make available an expanded sumo feed. I would suggest everything from the Juryo dohyo-iri to the end of Makuuchi. As NHK is now turning more to streaming for global content delivery, this could and should be a value add subscription delivered over streaming content systems. This would allow both NHK and NSK to judge if there is a market for sumo, and it would also make Jason and Kintamayama’s hard work to bring us expanded sumo coverage redundant. And let’s be clear, both NHK and NSK are working to find ways to limit and eliminate Jason and Kintamayama.
  3. I urge them to take a page from the American playbook. If someone is beating you at what should be your own game, put them on the payroll, and let them teach you how to improve your product. Those world sumo liaisons? Jason is already in Japan, Kintamayama is fairly fluent in Japanese, and would be a great resource for advocating broader following of sumo world wide.

Are we likely to see any of this come to pass? Only if us fans urge NHK and NSK to start thinking bigger.

Female Sumo


どすこい、京の相撲ガール 全国初の創部から丸2年

Because of today’s headline, I will unveil the Tachiai Hiragana Guide. One could think of hiragana as the Japanese alphabet, except that it’s not an alphabet. It’s easier than an alphabet because it’s purely phonetic. No letters that sounds like other letters and nothing changes when combined with others. No diphthongs.
These are the only sounds in the Japanese syllabary. Everything comes from these sounds. There are a few tricks which I will point out but hiragana is covered in Japanese 101 and it should just take a week. Take two columns per day and you’re golden. I’ll talk briefly about the “dots” below. They change the pronunciation to the appropriate hard sound: so k becomes g, s becomes z, t becomes d, and h becomes b. H becomes P if there’s a little circle like degrees (°).

 

どすこい、

Today’s article starts with sumo related hiragana. Dosukoi is a sumo word and is also the name of the French blog run by Yohann. It’s one of those things that doesn’t have a translation; it’s just a sumo-related exclamation. I wanted to draw particular attention to this article because it shines a light on a topic close to me: sumo and women. We also see “dots,” kind of look like double-quotation marks, that changes TO into DO.
April is when the new school year starts in Japan. For these students in Kyoto, they’re starting another year as the female sumo club at their high school in Kyoto.
My daughter loves sumo. She’s four, wrestles her older brother (8), and she is brilliant. She’s super aggressive so sometimes I feel sorry for my son because he has to hold back since he’s about 1.5 times her size. So, naturally, I’d love to encourage her. Right now, the only real option around here will be judo, if I can find a good dojo around here. Another option is MMA and getting her into an octagon…but no. I’m not going to let either of my kids go that route. If they want to try physical sports, fine, but I don’t want them developing CTE or eating tons of creative like a former roommate of mine.

京の相撲ガール

Anyway, back to the article. The first kanji is the first character of Kyoto and you should quickly recognize “sumo.” The next little bit will introduce us to katakana which is an alternative writing system for the same sounds that you get in hiragana. It’s just that if you see something written in katakana, it usually means it’s a foreign loan word. In this case, we’ve got ga-ru (ガール) or Japanese pronunciation of “gal.” Again, we see “dots” next to the katakana KA that turns it into GA.
The katakana KA looks like the hiragana KA but unfortunately not all of the katakana are so similar to their hiragana counterparts, as we see with RU (ル) which bears little resemblance to the hiragana version (る). Don’t try to learn both at the same time. Get hiragana down cold, then move on to katakana. I’m a little surprised that they would use the term ga-ru in the headline. It’s quite informal.

全国初の創部から丸2年

Nationwide, this is the first division of its kind and they are starting their third year of the program. The first two kanji, zenkoku (全国), means nationwide. You should recognize the third kanji by now from several of our lessons, hatsu, “begin/start”. The circle looking thing afterward is the hiragana “no.” You also saw it in the first part: 京の. I’m not going to get into the meaning of these particles much, yet, I really just want people to recognize the hiragana first. Next is the kanji for when they established the club. Don’t worry about this kanji: (創). But, remember this kanji: (部). It’s pronounced BU and it’s used in this case as club but it can also be used in an office setting as a division or section. It’s pretty common. In this case, SOBU refers to the group that started this club. (丸) Maru means circle, but when used with a time frame like two years, ni nen, 丸2年 means two complete years. The two years were able to go through the entire cycle. Hiragana (から) “kara” means from, so “from the club’s establishment, two complete years.”

Sumo Wardrobe Malfunctions


When people find out I am a sumo fan, almost always the first question is – what happens when those big men lose their loincloths?

Japan is a very modest society, and the matches are broadcast live over NHK, so any wardrobe malfunction would be relayed in moments to millions of HD sets across Japan and the world.

Now thanks to two of my favorite rikishi, Ura and Amakaze, we can see first hand what happens when someone (in this case the XXXL Amakaze) has a critical mawashi (廻し) failure.  By 2 minutes in, the situation is evident. The corrective action – very sumo.