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.