The Yokozuna Deliberation Council meets following most basho to review the performance of the top rikishi, and give guidance to the NSK and the sumo world on the state of competition. These meetings usually take place in Tokyo, regardless of where the basho might be, but this Monday, the council convened in Kyushu. The primary subject on the table was the lack of Yokozuna during the second week for the second tournament in 2018, and the failure of Kisenosato specifically to win a single match.
The YDC could take a number of positions on the topic, ranging from “encouragement” to “caution” and finally “suggestion to retire”. Given the fact that Kisenosato has sat out part or all 9 of the last 10 tournaments, and was specifically admonished by this same council to not return to the dohyo until he was ready to compete as a Yokozuna, the fans would be right to expect a stern warning or guidance towards intai.
Instead the YDC returned “Encouragement”. Chairman Kitamura remarked on Kisenosato’s performance, saying that he should be showing physical strength and ability commensurate with his position and ‘the disappointment of the fans who had earnestly hoped for his recovery at the Kyushu basho was great’. Trying to put a good spin on things, he also said “There was a lot of excitement without any Yokozunae. So much so that people may be saying ‘Maybe we don’t need any Yokozuna..”.
If you are rolling your eyes at the last part, you are not alone. Clearly the YDC wants no part in pushing the only Japanese Yokozuna out of the sport. They see there is a problem, it’s easy to identify and its hurting sumo. If the broader sumo world tracks the intensity of interest that we see in traffic numbers at the site, a “No-kazuna” basho produced about 30% less interest. This has to be eating into the NSK bottom line at some point.
(Below is opinion only)
The sumo association is in a tight spot now. One would think that Kisenosato would have figured out that he is past his ability to recover, and take a dignified way out. He has his name beside an inglorious record in the annals of sumo history, and the numbers are just getting worse. In a broader sense, the NSK has a real problem with its kanban rikishi. As we have pointed out in the past, with the exception of the absolutely fantastic Aki basho, participation of the top ranking rikishi has been below 50%, and continues to be poor.
The NSK either needs to clean up its rosters, or accept that its going to fade in popularity among the core Japanese audience. This clean up is going to be painful and difficult. Many of the rikishi who may be past their sunset date are popular and well loved. But there is a significant cohort of older athletes who are not performing with the same intensity that they did 10 or 15 years ago. This has the quiet background effect of lowering the overall intensity of each basho, and I would guess it impacts the fan base, too.
Finally, it has to be said that the sumo fan base in Japan is elderly. To appeal to new (younger) fans, they need some new faces. Yokozuna Kisenosato should show his leadership, and step down to start his life as a sumo elder. We are always going to love him, and remember fondly how he put everything he had into attaining sumo’s highest rank. But for myself, I think it’s time to encourage some long serving favorites to start working towards their exit.