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EDITORIAL | Slump in Quality of Sumo Matches Cannot Go On for Long

Raising the quality of the matches will benefit the commercial value of sumo. The sport's attractiveness in turn can lead to the revitalization of Japan.

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Takakeisho (left) closes in on a victory over Shodai on the final day of the Autumn Grand Sumo Tournament on September 25 in Tokyo. (KYODO)

While the rivalry for the championship in the Autumn Grand Sumo Tournament lasted until the last day (Sunday, September 25), the yokozuna and the ozeki top-ranked players were quickly eliminated from the competition. In particular, the poor performance of the ozeki-ranked wrestlers was nothing but serious.

The single top-ranked yokozuna and two ozeki (the next rank down) lost on Days 6 and 9. Then, all three of the ozeki lost again on Day 10, when yokozuna Terunofuji announced his withdrawal from the tournament due to injuries affecting both knees.

Tamawashi (right) clashes with Takayasu on Day 15. (ⒸSANKEI)

On the final day of the tournament, 37-year-old hiramaku (rank-and-file wrestler) Tamawashi thrilled the crowd with a powerful victory at Tokyo's Ryogoku Kokugikan. And sekiwake Wakatakakage kept hopes alive for becoming an ozeki after the next tournament with 11 wins. However, the current ozeki wrestlers' performance was so poor that it overshadowed the positive news. 

Terunofuji may soon undergo surgery and take a long break from the tournament. If the plight of the ozeki continues, the hollowing out of the upper ranks will be inevitable. If this situation continues, the national sport cannot escape the slander of being merely a signboard for the sport.

The credibility of the ranking system is being shaken. By now the Japan Sumo Association should have a strong sense of crisis and be taking measures to overcome the situation.

Sadanoumi (left) grapples with Mitakeumi at the Autumn Basho on September 21. (ⒸSANKEI)

Disappointing Results for Mitakeumi, Shodai

Mitakeumi was demoted to sekiwake after his fourth tournament as ozeki. This is the fourth-shortest ozeki reign in history since the Nagoya tournament of 1969, when the current demotion system for ozeki (kadoban) was introduced. 

Shodai had already lost a majority of his bouts (makekoshi) on the ninth day of the tournament — the fastest among all ozeki since the 15-day tournament system was introduced in the summer of 1949.

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In the past, the role of ozeki wrestlers was to boost the competition for the championship in matches where yokozuna did not perform well. Now, however, those days seem to belong to a different era. 

Wakatakakage (left) outmuscles Hokutofuji en route to a Day 14 victory on September 24. (KYODO)

Training Techniques Under Scrutiny

The best way to achieve the association's goal of "enhancing the quality of sumo matches" is to re-examine the way sumo training is conducted in the era of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Currently, as a measure to prevent infection, wrestlers are prohibited from visiting a different stable and practicing with the wrestlers there (de-geiko) once the ranking announcement (banzuke) has been issued. That takes place approximately two weeks before each grand tournament. 

Even though all wrestlers are subject to the same conditions, the environment in which they must now train before the tournaments is clearly inadequate. Regardless of whether or not there is a causal relationship with the decline in the competitiveness of ozeki, there may be room for consideration of relaxing the policy in response to changes in the infection situation.

Improvement in the skill and strength of the entire sumo community will raise the quality of the matches. In turn, this will benefit the commercial value of sumo. 

Once the pandemic is settled, the number of visitors to Japan should also increase. We must not forget the perspective that "enhancing the quality of sumo matches" will help its attractiveness and lead to the revitalization of Japan.

The poor performance of ozeki has become so chronic that their losses cannot be called "unexpected events." 

Having black stars (kuroboshi) indicating losses lined up above the names of top-ranked wrestlers is far from the ideal state of sumo. The Japan Sumo Association needs to come up with a prescription to regain the trust of fans.

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(Read the editorial in Japanese at this link.)

Author: Editorial Board, The Sankei Shimbun

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