Sumo’s all the rage in Japan

Popular sport relyies heavily on TV, marketing

TOKYO — For Americans, baseball and football are more than sports — they’re a cultural touchstone, as well as big businesses, with everyone from brand managers to T-shirt vendors cashing in.

In Japan, sumo, a native style of wrestling developed over two millennia, is the national pastime.

Like baseball, and for that matter Western-style wrestling, sumo relies increasingly on stars, savvy marketing and broadcast TV to keep it a cultural and financial phenom. And after something of a lull in popularity, a pair of dominant stars — from Mongolia of all places — have lifted the prospects for the sport once again.

More than just two fat guys in diapers bumping bellies, the sport boasts legions of fans who appreciate its technical rigors and traditional rituals as much as its stars. The sport airs nationwide on pubcaster NHK, whose general channel broadcasts nearly three hours of sumo daily, including all the bouts of the two top divisions (during the tournaments) as well as up to five hours daily on the BS2 satellite channel and various digest broadcasts.

Ratings are patchy, hitting highs toward the end of the tourney but falling to lows during weekdays. The first day of bouts for the most recent tournament in July garnered a rating of 8.9 on the NHK general channel; by comparison, the most watched sports show of 2006 — the FIFA World Cup match between Japan and Croatia — did a whopping 52.7 rating.

Sumo is also seen by thousands of paying fans at the six annual tournaments, each lasting 15 days. Tickets to the matches themselves bring in more money than do broadcast license fees.

Four-person boxes on the first floor of the Tokyo arena where three of the yearly tourneys are held start at ¥36,000 ($295), with seats in the back row of the balcony, where the wrestlers look like fighting ants, going for $17.20.

In 2006, the total income of the Japan Sumo Assn. (JSA) — the governing body of pro sumo — was just shy of $82 million, with $42 million coming from regular tourney ticket sales and $25 million from broadcast license fees.

Still, the popularity of sumo does fluctuate — mainly with the rise and fall of star wrestlers — and for much of the current decade, the sport has been in a down cycle.

During the reign of Takanohana, a charismatic Japanese champion from a revered sumo clan that won 22 tournaments in the 1990s and early 2000s, sumo often played to packed arenas daily. But since Takanohana’s retirement in 2003, the banners signifying a full house unfurl only on the weekends, if then.

For the past four years, sumo has been dominated by Asashoryu, a wrestler from Mongolia who has reeled off 21 titles and served as the sole holder of the grand champion, or yokozuna — sumo’s highest rank — for 21 straight tournaments, the longest such streak in sumo history.

While renowned for his speed, power and take-no-prisoners attitude in the ring, Asashoryu has been a controversial champ, notorious for flouting sumo customs and rules. His most recent, and serious, faux pas was playing in a charity soccer game in Mongolia when he was supposedly recovering from an injury — and his top-ranking colleagues were on an exhibition tour in Japan.

This angered sumo elders, who on Aug. 1 suspended Asashoryu from the September and November tournaments, while cutting his pay 30% for four months and forbidding him to return to Mongolia. Shocked, Asashoryu has fallen into depression and been visited by several doctors, including one sent by the JSA. Last week, at the recommendation of chief JSA doctor Hiroyuki Yoshida, the JSA executive committee allowed Asashoryu to return to Mongolia for treatment, accompanied by his coach, Uragoro Takasago.

Fortunately for the JSA, there is now another yokozuna to fill in while Asashoryu waits out his suspension (if he doesn’t leave the pros entirely): Hakuho is a baby-faced, easy-going Mongolian who reeled off two straight tourney victories in March and May to earn promotion to sumo’s highest rank. In the July tourney in Nagoya, his first as yokozuna, Hakuho finished with a respectable 11-4 won-loss record, losing the championship to Asashoryu.

“It’s better to have at least two yokozuna — and it would be even better if one of them were Japanese. That way more fans will come,” Takasago told Variety prior to Hakuho’s promotion.

While wrestlers from Hawaii were once prominent in the top division — two made it as high as yokozuna — no Americans are currently active in the pros. This, says Takasago, isn’t the result of anti-Americanism, but rather of the rise of international amateur sumo competitions, where many of today’s top foreigners got their start.

Sumo itself has long since gone on the global road, making jaunts to foreign climes to introduce the sport to the locals, recently in South Korea, China — and even Las Vegas.There is also a movement in the amateur ranks to make sumo an Olympic sport, but the JSA, Takasago says, is not involved.

One unstated reason: Pro sumo has no plans to let women compete. (The amateurs are more accommodating, holding women-only tournaments.) In fact, women are not even allowed to step into the pro sumo ring, since they are considered too “impure” to enter such a sacred space.

The internationalization of sumo has not been without controversy, with traditionalists arguing that, as Japan’s national sport, sumo ought to be for Japanese only, not Mongolians, Estonians and Bulgarians.

The JSA has tried to control the influx of foreign recruits, limiting each of the 53 stables to one outsider, but once a foreigner joins, the only limitations are his own desire and talent.

“On the inside, it isn’t as much about flags and passports, as many make out,” says Mark Buckton, editor-in-chief of Sumo Fan Magazine.

Ashashoru’s rebel nature hasn’t gone over all that well in a sport in which participants still adhere to a centuries-old code of conduct inside the ring and out, such as bowing to an opponent before and after a bout and bringing a higher-ranked wrestler a drink of water after a practice session.

Beginning wrestlers, some as young as 15, live and practice in sumo communes, or “stables,” under the watchful eyes of a live-in coach and higher-ranking wrestlers.

They are required to not only unquestioningly follow their seniors’ orders, but to wait on them hand and foot, as unpaid servants. No one — not even a star amateur — hires an agent, inks a contract or receives a bonus before joining the pros. In fact, no one receives a salary of any kind until he ascends to the second-highest of sumo’s six divisions.

They grow their hair long enough to tie into the traditional topknot, wear a thin cotton gown called a yukata, eat traditional stew out of a common pot and otherwise live much as their predecessors did in the Edo era (1600-1868), when sumo assumed its present-day form.

In other words, sumo is proud of its distinctiveness — and so far its stars remain firmly fixed in this rigorously ringed firmament.

While fiercely guarding its traditions (including the one about women not stepping into the ring), the JSA does allow its wrestlers to appear on TV, sign endorsement deals and otherwise earn money like other sports celebs — but only after first getting JSA approval.

“We don’t let them do anything too strange,” Takasago said. In other words, don’t look for a sumo star to appear in a Japanese version of “Big Brother.”

The JSA also promotes its tourneys with posters in trains and ads in magazines, while hawking tickets on Internet sites and even at convenience stores, but declines most TV spots, especially the flashy variety used to hype pro wrestling and other fighting sports in Japan.

“The best way to get fans to come is to give them good sumo,” Takasago says.

And that sumo, the JSA insists, is clean. In February and again in April, the JSA filed civil suits against the publisher of Shukan Gendai, a weekly tab that ran articles alleging that everyone from Asashoryu to current JSA chairman Kitanoumi — a major star in the 1970s — had fixed bouts.

Despite recent controversies and the ongoing need to ride herd on its stars, the sumo bottom line is looking brighter: The crowning of a new yokozuna and the emergence of new young talent, both Japanese and foreign, has boosted fan interest and the JSA expects revenues to rise almost 10% in 2007, to $91 million.

But whether or not the JSA’s rosy forecast comes true, one thing is certain: Sumo wrestlers won’t start sporting tattoos, performing victory dances in the ring or otherwise behaving like their Westernized pro-wrestling brethren.

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