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By Brian Bremner Back in the late 1980s, when sumo still mattered greatly to Japanese sports fans, Uragoro Takasago was a highly-regarded, 375-pound (175 kg.) wrestler. Sumo pulled in tons of corporate sponsors, regularly sold out its six grand championships, and delivered strong television ratings. It was good to be a sumo star back then. Guys like Takasago, who wrestled under the name of Asashio, had a following.
These days, Takasago is retired, tips the scales at just shy of 300 pounds, and serves as a director at the Japan Sumo Assn., the governing body of this 2,000-year-plus sport. On a sweltering afternoon, I made my way over to the Kokugikan, Tokyo's sumo stadium, over in the Ryogoku district of the city. Sumo circa 2002 is in a state of crisis. And I wanted to find out why.
Much of the Japanese public seems to be turning its back on the sport. Average television ratings are about half of what they were in the mid-1990s. Only five days of the last two-week sumo tournament in July were sold out. And corporate sponsors are a fraction of what they were a decade ago. What gives?
NO RESPECT. Takasago thinks that sumo is just one of the Japanese institutions that aren't getting the respect they once did in the broader society. There's a general disillusionment toward the old Japan, and sumo, like Japanese politics or big business, is paying the price. It's true that Japan has been on something of a losing streak for more than a decade now.
Obviously, Japan's economic doldrums have something to do with it. First-floor box seats that accommodate four fans run about $379. Takasago, though, thinks there's more to it than that. In past downturns, such as the 1973 oil shock, there was always a set of sumo stars or running rivalries that kept things interesting. "Right now, we don't have a savior."
He has a point: Back in the mid-1990s, you had these beautiful, ongoing sumo narratives that kept things interesting. There was the Japanese heartthrob Yokuzuna Takanohana and his brother Wakanohana. The sibling-rivalry story was pretty rich. You also had the Hawaiian-born Akebono. And Musashimaru, who challenged, but hasn't yet topped, Takanohana as the undisputed power in sumo.
NOT JUST A JOB. Trouble is, Takanohana has missed the last seven tournaments due to a troublesome knee injury. His brother has retired and dreams of playing in the National Football League. Akebono called it quits, too. There's still Musashimaru, but there are few other wrestlers interesting or accomplished enough to carry the sport.
Takasago thinks today's generation of wrestlers view sumo merely as a job -- top sumo stars earn about $280,000 in salary, not including product endorsements -- and less as an expression of the best values in Japanese culture, such as hard work, humility, and discipline. "In my day, we thought sumo was a philosophy and a way of life," he says.
My fascination with sumo started out more than a decade ago, when I used to frequent a sushi restaurant in Midtown Manhattan that showed videotaped matches from one of Japan's six annual grand tournaments. At first, I though sumo was kind of a freak show. Huge men in funny belly bands (they're called mawashi) slamming into each other? I just didn't get it.
RITUAL GLOWER. Over the years, though, I've become quite fond of sumo. First, there's the sheer theatre of the sport. The judge in the ring, or dohyo, is dressed in the court costume of a 14th century noblemen. The sound of clashing wooden blocks is used to signal the start of lengthy series of matches, starting out with more junior wrestlers and then culminating with the grand champions.
While the actual wrestling usually runs less than a minute, there is a whole series of rituals that involve stamping, glowering, and tossing salt up into the air. Some of the wrestlers really ham it up, much to the delight of the crowd. Sumo springs from a very deep level of Japanese culture, and has something very evocative about it.
Today, the sumo world is still a male-dominated society. Two years ago, sumo officialdom kicked itself in the shins by not allowing the first female governor of Osaka, Fusae Ota, to step into the ring to present a trophy to the winner of the Osaka tournament, as any number of male governors and prime ministers have over the years.
WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE. Another problem is that sumo lacks any weight divisions. So in some cases, you have a 450-pound monolith facing off against a much smaller competitor. Upsets do happen, and I live for them. But usually, the bigger guy predictably wins.
Finally, the JSA has never done a credible job of refuting rumors of bout rigging, particularly involving cases in which a wrestler on a losing streak faces demotion if he flubs a critical match. A bit of housecleaning, or at least some credible investigation, would do wonders.
Maybe there's some untapped opportunity there. First, sumo is doing a great job of bringing in foreign talent. There are, for instance, some very interesting Mongolian wrestlers that are jazzing things up. So keep it up, the more diversity, the better. That would also increase the likelihood of discovering a new breed of superstars to capture the nation's attention.
Second, sell the sport to women, with special promotional and marketing campaigns. And next time, just let a female governor or whomever into the ring. But finally and more broadly, drive home the point that sumo represents the very best qualities of this remarkable culture. These guys quietly suck it up and get the job done. And for a country as unsure of itself as Japan is these days, that's not a bad selling point. Bremner, Tokyo bureau chief for BusinessWeek, offers his views every week in Eye on Japan, only for BusinessWeek Online