By Jack Gallagher
TOKYO -- Japan is known as a place where change comes slowly, if at all.
While nostalgia can be quaint at times, the reality is that the world we are living in is changing at warped speed. Failure to evolve and adapt can be fatal in any endeavor these days, regardless of where you are located around the globe.
But in Japan's ancient and traditional sport of sumo, time continues to stand still, much to the detriment of what was once a compelling show that provided a unique glimpse into the culture that still to this day remains a mystery to many. Sumo in Japan dates back nearly 500 years and since 1958 has been contested at the top level with six annual tournaments (three in Tokyo, with one each in Nagoya, Osaka and Fukuoka) featuring professional rikishi (wrestlers).
In the early 1990s, foreign rikishi began to become more prominent in the sport. Hawaiian-born Chad Rowan, who was a massive figure at 6-foot-8 and more than 500 pounds, was the first foreigner to be promoted to sumo's highest rank of yokozuna (grand champion) in 1993. He was later joined at the top rank by Musashimaru (who was born in Samoa) in 1999.
With brothers Takanohana and Wakanohana also rising to yokozuna in the 1990s, the sport enjoyed a strong following and always seemed to feature an interesting storyline. Each tournament was eagerly anticipated by fans.
Fast forward to the present day and you will find the halcyon days long gone, much like the Japanese economic bubble of the 1980s. Sumo has become dominated by foreigners, rife with scandals -- that included admissions of fixing bouts and the beating death of an aspiring young rikishi by his stablemaster -- and generally stale. The triple whammy has combined to turn off many loyal fans and the general public. What was once called "Japan's national sport" is nowhere near that status now, and many doubt it will ever regain the luster it once held.
How far has sumo declined in popularity? Every year the Japanese advertising agency Hakuhodo conducts a survey of Tokyo residents and asks the question: "Which sports do you like watching and reading about?" For the past two years sumo has not even made the top 10. Soccer, baseball and figure skating have been the top three each year.
Though the fixing scandal of 2011, which resulted in the first cancellation of tournament since 1946, rocked the public's trust in the product, and the death of 17-year-old rikishi Takashi Saito in 2007 shone a shocking light on the brutality that young wrestlers endure, the core issues troubling the sport seem to be the continuing foreign influence and the Japan Sumo Association's reticence to change.
"I think the decline in sumo's popularity has been gradual with the advent of alternative pastimes -- including soccer and other big-time sports available real-time and worldwide -- until recent years when a series of scandals erupted," says veteran sportswriter Shigemi Sato, now in his late 50s. "Mixed martial arts, K-1, PRIDE, etc., might have also lured away fans from the largely ritualistic sumo."
Sato notes how once upon a time, sumo was one of the staples of sports viewing.
"I am part of Japan's post-World War II baby-boom generation who grew up watching sumo, baseball and pro wrestling on television in its formative years," he said. "Those were the three pillars of spectators' sports at that time when soccer was more or less a minor game here."
In recent years Mongolians have ruled sumo. Both of the current yokozuna (Hakuho and Harumafuji) hail from the nation. Hakuho has captured 26 titles and, at the age of 28, it seems inevitable that he will establish a new record for tournament victories. It has now been more than 10 years since a Japanese sumo wrestler held the rank of yokozuna and seven years since the last victory by a Japanese in a top tournament -- pretty shocking statistics in a homogenous society like Japan and a key factor in the decline of interest in sumo. Though some may find it distasteful to say, the reality is that trying to market a sport full of foreigners to a Japanese audience is a very tough sell.
Best-selling author Robert Whiting, who penned the classic "You Gotta Have Wa" and first arrived in Japan in 1962, recalls a time when sumo had its own matinee idols.
"When I first came to Japan, yokozuna Taiho and Kashiwado were ruling sumo," Whiting said "Taiho (who still holds the record with 32 tournament titles) was a tall, well-proportioned white Russian (whose mother was Japanese) who put teenage girls in a swoon. He got thousands of marriage proposals from young women around the country in his prime before he finally settled down."
Whiting cited a famous phrase from the 1960's about what Japanese once considered cool.
"There was the saying that went the three most popular things in Japan were Taiho, Kyojin (Yomiuri Giants) and Tamagoyaki (grilled egg)."
Over the past decade fewer young Japanese boys have taken the test to try and enter the sumo ranks, reflecting a troubling trend. Where once the sport captivated youth, it now seems to bore them.
"Teenage boys these days don't want to subject themselves to the misery of life in the sumo stable," Whiting said. "They want to enjoy their youth instead of being subjected to beatings by senior wrestlers every day and then having to clean them up in the toilet."
Though sumo is still televised live daily by national broadcaster NHK during each tournament, the top wrestlers enter the dohyo (ring) between 4:30-6 p.m., making it a challenge for many to see the bouts. That time period is when people are either at or on the way home from work and students are often participating in after-school activities. If the JSA was serious about promoting the sport, it would move the bouts into prime time when they would have a better chance at garnering a captive audience.
A June survey by the online pollster Research Panel of nearly 150,000 people showed that 28.7 percent liked sumo, 6.1 percent did not like it, and 65.2 percent had no interest in it. Staggering evidence that sumo's future is in real jeopardy.
Sports columnist Dave Wiggins, who was a sumo analyst for 17 years for NHK, believes the lack of outreach by the JSA has been a real oversight.
"When people stopped coming to sumo, sumo should have gone out to the people, made wrestlers more accessible -- personal appearances, school visits, clinics for youngsters to get them interested either as fans or performers," he said. "If a rikishi comes to your locale or school for a meet and greet or demonstration, he becomes your favorite and gives you a reason to watch and follow the sport, maybe even enter it.
"For too long sumo existed with a 'Here we are for your adoration' attitude. When times changed and people were looking elsewhere for their entertainment, sumo failed to modernize its product push."
One problem plaguing sumo is the fact that the top tournaments are located in the same place, at the same time every year, depriving fans in other areas the chance to see the real action. There are several regional tournaments held over a few days in between the big events, but these are really nothing more than glorified exhibitions.
While others sports have branched out and changed over time -- like soccer with goal-line technology, Major League Baseball with interleague play, the NBA with the three-point shot and the NFL with the two-point conversion -- sumo seems trapped in a time capsule it cannot get out of.
A defining moment for sumo occurred in January 2003 when the highly popular Takanohana was forced to retire prematurely at the age of 30 after suffering a devastating knee injury during a bout in May 2001. Takanohana's departure dealt a massive blow, as he possessed the good looks, skill and charisma that attracted fans.
Wiggins cites the absence of a native star as a major issue for sumo.
"The lack of a 'hometown hero,' i.e. a top Japanese performer, is a key problem," he said. "Since Takanohana left, foreigners have ruled. Sumo desperately needs a Japanese meal ticket. No matter how much one likes the sport itself, it always makes things more enjoyable if a local favorite does well. It jacks up attendance and popularity."
Takanohana, who was once engaged to starlet Rie Miyazawa back when sumo was in vogue, has led calls for reform and promotion of the sport in the years since his retirement, but has gone up against tradition in his efforts to bring about true change.
The 40-year-old Tokyo native, who hails from a family with a long history in sumo, is now on the Board of Directors of the JSA and runs his own Takanohana Stable. Though he still cuts an impressive figure after 10 years out of the ring, the former star has learned first-hand that it is tough for one man to effect change in a land where consensus still rules.
"I would like to listen to young stable masters as much as possible and take their opinions to board meetings," Takanohana said upon his election to the Board in 2010.
There are nine other members on the JSA Board, and not all maintain the vision that Takanohana has for the future of sumo. The reality is that Takanohana and others hoping for change face a monumental battle in going against tradition and history. There is a saying that foreigners learn quickly after a short time in Japan: "Yes means maybe. Maybe means difficult. Difficult means impossible." To say it will be "difficult" for sumo to alter its present course is to acknowledge that it is on a path to oblivion, and that is a damn shame.
The sport deserves a better fate.
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Jack Gallagher is the executive sports editor of The Japan Times in Tokyo. He has been a sports journalist in Japan for 18 years and has been honored for his writing both domestically and internationally. He was previously an executive in public relations for the NBA and NFL Europe.