(Shinjinrui on Sumo)
by Chris Gould
|youngster – a waitress in the Harrods sushi-bar –
asked if my love of sumo was a mental illness). As a result, while the
Akis of this world flock towards K-1, baseball, football and
tarentos (TV “stars”) with outrageous – yellow, pink, red, blue
- hair colours, sumo appears worryingly reliant on the
grandparents of Aki, predominantly too old to attend and too frail to
champion its cause.
For sumo to continue thriving, it must somehow cultivate sizeable support among Japanese youngsters. Japan’s under-30s, termed the shinjinrui or “new race,” appear to have three key grievances with sumo, namely: that it is unattractive to watch; that sumotori are uninspiring; and that the structure of the sport is insufficiently user-friendly.
This article analyses the contention that sumo is unattractive to watch. It looks at whether shinjinrui might find sumo more appealing if sumotori lost weight, altered their style of combat, spent less time tossing salt, and proved themselves superior to K-1 athletes.
With Japan having frequently boasted the lowest obesity rate in the world, sumotori have always stuck out from the crowd. Traditionally, their bulk has still not prevented them from assuming sex symbol status – especially if under 130 kg (287 lbs.) in weight. However, Japan’s
the first of a three-part series, Chris Gould examines why so many
young Japanese are sumo-averse, and suggests ways in which sumo may
overcome the problem.
On 11th September 2003, my outlook on sumo changed profoundly. In a palatial Saitama residence, I sat and watched NHK’s live sumo broadcast with the octogenarian grandmother of a 23-year-old medical student named Atsushi (Aki). The grandmother was more chicken-like than human. Literally bent double after years of slavish labour in the rice-paddies, her miserable existence was doubtless rendered more tolerable by sumo broadcasts. But of all the people I met during that trip to Japan, she was the only one to accompany me through a full two hours of televised sumo.
The enthusiasm she harboured for Japan’s “national sport” was woefully absent from her grandson, who only bought a Kokugikan ticket after a full week’s arm-twisting. When we finally entered the Kokugikan, Aki spent most of the afternoon laughing and feeling totally vindicated in mocking my love of sumo. He believed that if ever evidence were needed to condemn sumo as “a sport for old people,” it could be gleefully gathered from the surrounding audience, the average hair-colour
|of which lay somewhere between light-grey and snow-white.
Within a year, Aki would have yet more cause to feel vindicated. Isegahama oyakata, a popular former ozeki, alleged to a Japanese daily that the Nihon Sumo Kyokai (NSK) was concerned about attendances and that he was actively advising the NSK on the issue. To anybody who had entered a half-full Kokugikan at the time, this development could hardly be described as a shock. However, this was the first instance of a senior NSK figure going public on the question of attendances, and a clear sign of ruffled feathers in sumo circles.
Sumo has indeed taken rather a battering from the changes sweeping Japan in general. The values sumo upholds – fukoku-kyohei (a strong society) and bushido (the way of the warrior) – are deemed by the vast majority of Japanese youngsters to be hopelessly at odds with the affluent, semi-westernised society surrounding them. Most youthful Japanese cannot find beauty in being fat any more than they can find sense in exhausting one’s body for moderate financial reward. They have little time for doctrinaire interpretations of the Shinto religion and for the emotional restraint which sumotori must exercise in defeat or victory. (Indeed, one