Recruitment levels of sumo trainees at its lowest in half a century

Recruitment levels in Japan for new apprentice Sumo wrestlers is at its lowest for 54 years, according to the Japan Sumo Association, suggesting a decline in interest in the long-standing traditional Japanese sport. This year has seen only 56 new applicants signing up for a life as a sumo apprentice, as the sport struggles to rebuild a reputation knocked heavily by a series of scandalous tales which have given sumo a poor image over recent years.

Sumo is a sport that needs little introduction. The origins of the full-contact wrestling sport date back to 2000 years ago, where sumo was originally performed to entertain the gods. Whilst the premise of the Japanese sport is simple – one wrestler (rikishi) attempts to force another out of a circular ring (dohyo) or to touch the ground with anything other than the soles of the feet – sumo is steeped in Shinto tradition, and indeed watching just a few minutes of the sport will reveal that very little time is actually spent grappling. Rather, the rikishi spend most of their time performing ritual pre-bout ceremonies. Sumo is a strict sport, and it is customary for young Japanese apprentices to join a stable when they leave high school, and begin a disciplined life of a trainee wrestler, sleeping in dormitories and rising in the small hours to undertake a punishing and exhausting exercise regime.

But why have Japanese recruitment levels dropped so radically in the past few years? Stories of illegal gambling and match-fixing, drunken brawls and assault, as well as links to drugs and organised crime (allegations so serious that the sumo association was forced to make a formal declaration that all links with organised crime syndicates would be broken) have done little to encourage new trainees to join the world of the Japanese wrestlers. Nor have reports of trainee bullying, the most injurious of which is that of a young Japanese trainee killed in 2007 at the hands of three senior wrestlers, supposedly following orders from their stable master.

These damaging reports, coupled with a loss of interest from sponsors (including global giant McDonalds, once a strong supporter of the Japanese sport, who has not provided prize money for a sumo bout since March 2011) suggest that sumo is in decline.

One thing remains clear: that sumo is failing to incite interest in the younger generations of the Japanese community. With American sports such as basketball and baseball gaining good ground in the Pacific, sumo has come to be known as a sport for the third generation. Indeed, the life of a sumo trainee is a tough one, and one, it would appear, which has increasingly less appeal for a generation of youngsters whose options in life are far more broad-ranging than half a century ago. Added to this is the fact that since the retirement of the reigning champion Takanohana in 2003, there have been no local Japanese sumo yokozuna, or grand champions, to inspire new trainees to take up the sport. The current yokozuna, Harumafuji, and fellow reigning grand champion Hakuho, as well as former yokozuna Asashoryu, are all Mongolian.

Asashoryu in particular was known for his bad boy antics and his eschewal of centuries of tradition, as he would punch the air, pull his opponents’ topknot, and stare down referees during bouts. Whilst the increase of foreign talent may cause grumbling amongst the traditionalists, it could be suggested that the new cosmopolitan setup of the sumo world, and its move away from its pure traditional form, could in fact breathe new to a sport in decline.

Sources include The Guardian and CNN

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2 Responses to Recruitment levels of sumo trainees at its lowest in half a century

  1. Boyce Batch says:

    Since professional wrestling is centered on being a family entertainment venue, there is a considerable amount of censorship that takes place to quieting the actions that professional wrestlers take when they are in the ring on any given night. Every professional wrestler establishes a persona that is angled toward increasing public appeal in the sport and in the wrestler. All of the outrageous antics that a wrestler comes up with while training for matches from week to week to meant to gain a wider viewing audience.*

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