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Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2009
One step at a time — sumo needs to change
By MARK BUCKTON
Special to The Japan Times Online
As 2009 draws to a close, the sport of sumo can look back on a year largely free from scandal. Pleasing perhaps for many of the conservative elements in and around the sport, but 2010, could well prove the year in which relative young bloods in the ruling stablemaster elite take steps towards advancing a more progressive agenda.
For the Sumo Association, former yokozuna Takanohana is one looking increasingly towards the future, and might well look to make a move up the rankings of the inner-sanctum next year. Known as a forward thinker, Takanohana Oyakata as is today could well be the future of the sport, at least on the public relations side — a position currently occupied by another former yokozuna — Chiyonofuji.
When Chiyonofuji took over the role of PR head from Takasago Oyakata, the man often ridiculed as being unable to control his own stable's senior man, Asashoryu, one of the first things to happen was the replacement of clear glass in his office door with the smoked variety! An action joked about at the time, it has since proven indicative of the lack of clarity in which way the association is heading as far as fan relations go.
Tours aimed at bringing the rikishi closer to the general public did at one time prove hugely popular. Sadly the past few years have seen attendances plummet — a fact not helped in 2009 by the emergence of various forms of influenza, and the man in the street being asked to fork out to see the fighters up close, even though rikishi participation at these domestic meet 'n' greets is hit and miss at best. Oftentimes the senior men stay away due to injury, and miraculously recover whenever an overseas trip was announced. With Vegas, Honolulu or perhaps L.A. calling, the sport's top dogs are so often all present and accounted for — and the Japanese fans notice this.
As forgiving as they can be, however, those essentially paying the salaries of the Nihon Sumo Kyokai more often than not raise deeper issues facing the game at home, and the so-called "kadoban" system is high on the list of grievances. As any fan will tell you, the kadoban system has enabled many ozeki to lengthen their careers at the top of the banzuke-ranking sheet — often by years as proved the case with current sekiwake Chiyotaikai — only sent down a rank after a decade at ozeki.
Referred to as a perk of the rank by some, kadoban is a system that affords ozeki with losing records in a given tourney the chance to try again and, if successful in achieving a barely passable 8-7 next time out, to remain in what is, in effect, a much revered position in sumo culture.
Two of the sport's longest serving top-flight rikishi — the aforementioned Chiyotaikai and Fukuoka native Kaio — have long used this system to their benefit whilst all but preventing the next generation from shining. With both now on their way out — despite mention earlier this month of Kaio wanting to stay in for another few years — the Sumo Association might do well to consider a modification to this rule. Perhaps raising the bar to a minimum of 10 wins per basho for ozeki given the status and respect an ozeki received would be one idea if the kadoban concept is to remain. 8-7 records are for the thirty plus other men in makunouchi to work their way towards — not those ranked just beneath the sport's pinnacle. Ozeki should be held to a higher standard. The problem in the past few years has been the lack of voice loud enough to be heard demanding this higher standard is met.
Alternately, why not simply do away with the kadoban net and let ozeki compete on an equal footing with all the other rank-and-filers? Let the respect afforded ozeki go to those winning convincingly tournament after tournament. One issue connected to ozeki demotion would of course be ozeki promotion. At present a sekiwake must put together around 32-33 (no written rules exist) wins, in the process demonstrating high quality sumo over three basho to be considered for promotion to the second rank. This alone makes the ozeki rank something special, so once there, why would a measly eight victories basho in, basho out, with interspersed losing records be enough for any man to be considered just that little bit more special than most others in the sport? (The yokozuna would be the exception, of course).
Something needs to change to give the Japanese fans their money's worth. Kadoban is as good a place as any to start.
Merry Christmas and a safe and prosperous New Year to you all, and here's to quality sumo watching in 2010!