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Saturday, Oct. 14, 2006

Haircuts, sumo stars and amateurs in Osaka


Special to The Japan Times

Autumn is a time of change for the Japanese. Summer clothes are put away and sightings of thicker, woollier garments become increasingly common. The mercury encounters a daily struggle to stay first above 20 degrees then above 10, and the country collectively takes its foot off the pedal.

Sumo largely follows suit as the sumotori, fans and general atmosphere surrounding the national sport seem to slip down a gear or two. Even the upcoming Kyushu Basho is seen by some fans as no more than an end-of-year wind-down, carrying little weight or importance (although let's not forget that it was the yokozuna's 2005 victory in Fukuoka that gave him a "six in one calendar year" run of yusho and assured him of a place in the history books).

So, before everyone's mind turns to plastic Christmas trees, strawberry-topped sponge cakes and KFC's very best fried chicken pretending to be turkey, on with the sumo -- or at least what there is of it right now.

The weekend after the Aki Basho a couple of former sekitori -- Wakanoyama on Saturday and Hayateumi on Sunday -- underwent the ritual hair-lopping ceremony that officially ended their active sumo careers. A week later it was the turn of the only known rikishi to date capable of conversing in sign language -- Takanotsuru of Naruto Beya. Both Wakanoyama (Musashigawa Beya) and Takanotsuru will be staying in sumo to help break in the next generation. Hayateumi, on the other hand, opted for the get-out clauseand has already departed the Japan Sumo Association.

Meanwhile, to the northeast of sumo's Ryogoku heartland, the rikishi of Shikoroyama Beya, senior man Homashoincluded, are getting ready to up sticks and move south to Kiyosumi in Tokyo's Koto-ku. Presumably they aren't too keen on spending another winter in the makeshift keikoba-cum-cow-shed they currently train in and rumor has it a few local cows are now looking forward to getting their shed back!

Baruto -- and the progress on his recovery following an Akibasho knee injury -- has been of concern to some, as has the shoulder injury Mokonami of Tatsunami Beya picked up almost as soon as I'd predicted that he'd not be long for Juryo.Ironically I may (technically) be spot on, as another bad basho could see him back in Makushita.

Away from the dohyo, Ozumo has been pulling in more and more fans over the last couple of years, and it appears that its popularity is set to increase stateside. As diplomats of the sport, no one has really filled the slippers of former okozuna Akebono and his one-time tsuna-wearing counterpart Musashimaru since 2003. Recently,though, both men took part in the filming of the latest "Ocean's" movie according to one fan of the sport, who happened to be an extra in the movie who was only too keen to share the experience online. Hardly the fighters they once were, they still know the moves and will once again be taking a slice of the sport into millions of American homes-- even if only as bit players this time.

In addition to sumo on the big screen, Tongan rikishi Minaminoshima of Musashigawa Beya has been starring on a reality-TV type show on MTV. Minaminoshima is a five-year veteran of the sport but likely won't ever make it beyond the Makushita rankings so he can at least enjoy his 15 minutes of fame this way.

In amateur sumo, southern Osaka and the city of Sakai will, on Sunday, host the 14th Sumo World Championships and the 5th Shinsumo World Championships, and these bouts are definitely worth more than a casual gander. The event launched the careers of several of today's top professionals: Dejima, Kotomitsuki, Takamisakari and Kakizoe to name but a few on the Japanese side; Russianrikishi Roho in the foreign ranks. Numerous other Japanese and foreign rikishi have taken part in the Junior Sumo World Championships over the years, but Sunday's event is essentially the creme de la creme of adult amateur sumo ona global scale.

China (four competitors), Ireland (one) and Israel (two) will all be participating for the first time at this level but those in the amateur sumo "know" will be looking to the eastern European nations, Russia or even Mongolia to break Japanese dominance of the event and give the hosts a run for their money. As ever, only time will tell.

Interested? Head to Ohama Sumojo in Sakai City; not farfrom Sakai Station on the Nankai Line, anytime after 9 a.m.on Oct 15.



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