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.