It’s the third sumo tournament of the year, the Natsu Basho, held at Ryogoku Kokugikan in Tokyo, and 13 days into the contest, the good and bad of contemporary sumo are on display. The good: both Yokozuna – Asashoryu and Hakuho – are at the top of their game, and my man, Harumafuji – formerly Ama – is kicking ass and taking names. The bad: they’ve got no competition.
Yokozuna are supposed to be dominant – you’re not allowed to assume that rank unless you’re good enough that you can win nearly every match you compete in. Hakuho is currently 13-0, having snuck past Harumafuji earlier today, and unless he loses to Asashoryu on the final day, he’s likely to complete a second consecutive zensho-yusho (perfect tournament.) The video below shows Hakuho’s last tournament, where he destroys fifteen progressively tougher opponents over the course of two weeks – it’s an excellent intro to sumo at the highest levels, practiced by a yokozuna with stunning power and technique. (Hakuho is on the right in all these bouts, dressed in black. For the several matches, he’s fighting lower-ranked rikishi – for the last half dozen, he’s fighting ozeki, and finally Asashoryu, the other yokozuna – you’ll see the matches get longer and far more difficult.)
But ozeki are supposed to be pretty dominant, too. You generally can’t be promoted to sumo’s second-highest rank without thirty wins over three consecutive tournaments, which suggests that you should be capable of ten wins in any given tournament. Ozeki who have losing records in two successive tournaments are stripped of their rank and reduced to Sekiwake – most retire from the sport rather than face this dishonor.
Chiyotaikai, who’s been ozeki for ten years, is facing demotion for the (record) 13th time in his career. He’s weak, injured, and struggling with diabetes, and it would be a good thing for him and for the sport if he retired. Of course, he’s telling the press he plans to remain fighting, even if relegated. The disturbing thing? At 6-7, he might just stave off elimination one more time – his fellow ozeki, who he fights the next two days, may be inclined to ease up in matches against him.
With the exception of Harumafuji, the other ozeki aren’t making real strong showings either. Kaio, who’s almost as decrepit as Chiyotaikai, is 8-5, as is the often impressive Bulgarian Kotooshu. Kotomitsuki hasn’t yet guaranteed himself a winning record at 7-6, and none of these four have been a serious threat throughout the tournament. And so we’ve got three strong, relatively small, Mongolian wrestlers setting the base, and a whole lot of mediocrity throughout the rest of the ranks.
It’s not news that sumo is having trouble attracting new athletes in Japan. The horrific training death of seventeen year-old Takashi Saito (who was beaten to death by training mates on the instruction of his stablemaster, to correct his “vague attitude” about sumo… which the Japan Sumo Association covered up as a death from heart failure… which was finally prosecuted as manslaughter) has certainly not helped attract new converts. In the meantime, sumo is gaining global popularity, not just in Mongolia, but in countries like Bulgaria, where Kotooshu’s success is driving young people to try the sport.
The JSA continues to restrict the number of foreigners who can compete in the sport, despite a strong pipeline of new talent from Mongolia and increasingly from Russia and eastern Europe. I can’t help reading the expulsion of Roho, Hakurozan and Wakanoho – three talented rikishi from Ossetia – for marijuana posession and positive drug tests as having a subtext: it’s another way to keep some of the gaijin off the dohyo.
In the meantime, Kotooshu, the lanky Bulgarian ozeki who’s become popular both in Japan and in his home country, announced that he’ll be marrying a Japanese woman who he’s been dating for five years. Like Kyukutenho, a Mongolian sekiwake who became a Japanese citizen and is now in line to become the head of the Oshima stable, Kotooshu is changing sumo the slow way, diversifying Japanese society and helping broaden and open one of Japan’s most traditional institutions.
I’m following this tournament via CiberSumo – yep, in the cosmopolitan world that is sumo, the best coverage at the moment is put together by Spaniards. They have a small, but excellent, video library that’s very much worth your time. And like SumoTalk, they run a virtual sumo league.