What’s in the cards for the future of sumo?

September 30th, 2009 by Jason Jenkins

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One of sumo’s two present yokozuna (grand champions) may have just cemented his place in the sport’s history last weekend, but far fewer people were watching than just a decade earlier. Could playing cards help rekindle interest?

The traditional Japanese sport has been simultaneously battling two nebulous forces: controversy and apathy. Not only are popularity and new recruits dropping, but at the same time a number of scandals continue to fester. There was the hazing death of a young wrestler in 2007, the recent accusations of special treatment of yakuza bosses in Nagoya and an assault charge and civil suit filed this month by a tokoyama (sumo hair stylists). And, of course, few have forgotten the marijuana busts.

Long before these pratfalls, many of Japan’s purist (and arguably nationalist) fans were already decrying the influx of non-Japanese grapplers – including the two present yokozuna, both  Mongolians – and their lack of deference to the sport’s rigid and time-honored traditions. Asashoryu, last week’s victor and 24-time winner of the Imperial Cup, has been repeatedly criticized for his behavior, which may seem tame when compared to Western athletes but is considered barbaric by sumo’s strict standards.

Controversy generates attention, so one could argue that such scandals actually help sumo attract more eyeballs, but certainly not enough. Interest in sumo among younger generations has been waning for some time, overtaken by video games and J. League soccer, the youth’s pro sport of choice.

What to do? One proven method of garnering attention in Japan is by developing your own line of adorable character goods. Enter Sekitori-kun. The name for these chicken littles is a play on the word sekitori (関取, top-ranked wrestler) and the kanji for bird (鳥) which also has the sound “tori”. The characters are packaged as playing cards similar to the Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh! brands – with strength, endurance and other fighting characteristics mapped out – and then handed out to kids at tournaments.

Is the pre-teen demographic what they’re aiming for? That would explain the recent flirtation with fast food – I’m imagining Asashoryu-shaped Happy Meal toys at McDonald’s by 2010. If Japanese kids buy enough of them – and eat enough of those hamburgers – then sumo may form its next generation sooner than expected.

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One Response

  1. We have just witnessed the purging of the “other” in forcing Asashoryu to quit at his prime. The Japanese media and the ultra conservative Sumo kyokai have long been wanting to get rid of him because they cannot stand a foreigner who might overtake the record of championship (yuushou). He is now number 3 on the list in term of winning, and since he is relatively young, he is very likely to break the record of Taiho and Chiyonofuji to become the sumo wrestler to have the most wins historically. Japanese just cannot bear the thoughts of their national treasured sports to be taking over by a non-Japanese. It’s not a matter of real ability (which no one dispute) it is the illusive “hinkaku” (character)that he will never be able to obtain since he is not born a Japanese he could never really understand the essence of “hinkaku.” Japanese prefer a second class athlete who can stick to the rule and act deferential and humble; but not the top athlete who is arrogant, especially a foreigner. Just look at how they pamper and giving all the media time (NHK special program last night) to the skier Aiko, who participated in FOUR winter Olympic but have never win a medal. But oh we just love her so much so we would never criticize her since she is a true Japanese, always tries hard and speaks politely. To sum up, Japanese prefer second class achievement if they can control the player. No wonder this country is going down the drain.

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