Sumo recruitment hits 54-year low in Japan
Japan Sumo Association says 56 apprentice wrestlers have applied this year, with just one application ahead of latest contest
The Japanese sport of sumo is counting the cost of a string of scandals, attracting the smallest number of young recruits for more than half a century.
The Japan Sumo Association (JSA) said it had received an application from just one apprentice ahead of the latest contest, bringing the total number for the year to 56 – the lowest since 1958, when the current system of six 15-day annual tournaments was introduced.
Harumafuji, one of two reigning yokozuna – or grand champions – said he understood why the sport was failing to create interest among young Japanese. “Sumo is a strict sport,” he said, weeks after becoming the first wrestler to be promoted to sumo’s highest rank for five years.
“I understand that there are people who feel like they needn’t go through the pain [of life as a wrestler] in an age when convenience is everything,” he told Kyodo news agency. “But that’s why success feels so good after you have made such an effort and experienced such great hardship.”
The regimented life of a trainee sumo wrestler involves sleeping in dormitories, rising at dawn and carrying out chores in between gruelling exercises.
The decline in interest in a sumo career among teenage boys comes as the sport struggles to improve its image after a series of scandals.
Last year, sumo was rocked by allegations of bout fixing, described by the chairman of the JSA as the darkest chapter in the sport’s 1,500-year history.
In 2010, more than two-dozen wrestlers were found to have gambled illegally on baseball, golf, cards and mahjong, sometimes with the help of middlemen with links to organised crime.
The same year, the then grand champion, Asashoryu, took early retirement after allegedly assaulting a man outside a Tokyo nightclub.
Two years earlier, three Russian wrestlers were banned for life after testing positive for marijuana. But perhaps the most damaging incident occurred in 2007, when a 17-year-old recruit died following an assault by three senior wrestlers on the orders of their stable master.
Sumo authorities insist they have clamped down on hazing and bullying, and have tried to make the sport more appealing by, for example, relaxing physical requirements for new recruits.
But the measures appear to have done little to boost interest among teenagers, who are eligible to join a stable once they have completed junior high school.
Traditionalists also bemoan the absence of a homegrown yokozuna to inspire his compatriots to take up the sport. Harumafuji, and fellow reigning grand champion Hakuho, were both born in Mongolia, as was Asashoryu. The last Japanese-born yokozuna, Takanohana, retired in 2003.
But Doreen Simmons, a sumo writer and commentator who has followed the sport for 40 years, said talk of a crisis was premature. “I don’t think there is anything fundamentally wrong with sumo and I’m not particularly worried about its future,” she said.
“The authorities have cracked down on the worst cases of bullying. You have to remember that this is a contact sport and you must be able to take pain and then find something special inside you to succeed.”
Instead, Simmons blamed attitudes among the young in Japan for the decline in interest. “A sumo wrestler once told me Japanese kids were too soft,” she said.
“They also have other options, whereas their counterparts from Mongolia or the former Soviet Union have a hunger to succeed. And sumo is a very tough life. Only the very highest-ranking wrestlers make good money, and even they don’t earn much compared with professional baseball players.”
The recruitment period before the final tournament of the year traditionally attracts very few recruits, while the March tournament, held at the end of the academic year, usually draws the most. This spring, however, only 34 boys applied – the lowest number since 1973.
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