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Wednesday, May 4, 2011

SUMO SCRIBBLINGS

Scandals offer a silver lining


Special to The Japan Times Online

Over 20 rikishi have thus far been expelled. Some have gone quietly picking up very nice severance packages on the way out the door. Others have promised legal battles ahead that will, in all likelihood, be timed to avoid a clash with a particular basho. Wherever the yaocho allegations, dismissals and court cases take the sport in the months ahead, one interesting change in the make-up of the sport could well be how it is broadcast to fans across Japan and the world.

Even though many forms of self-reproachment, in the shape of committees and self-governance, have been put in place by the Nihon Sumo Kyokai, it does appear that the association has also quietly been looking to loosen the stranglehold NHK has long enjoyed over broadcasting the sport.

NHK will not be broadcasting this upcoming basho. In its place there will be an online "feed," accessed via the official homepage of the association, which is set to be improved in terms of quality and content (commentary included). Meanwhile, the online video site Nico Nico Doga will show all the action — from the first bouts in the morning.

To date, bar several brief forays into coverage of the sport by commercial channels, NHK has enjoyed an effective monopoly, much to the chagrin of fans overseas and in Japan, looking for a better presented, more interesting offering.

Hopefully that monopoly has, or is com(ing) to an end, and one of the silver linings to emerge from the yaocho fiasco will be increased viewer-friendly methods in which to see sumo.

If the iron grip of NHK is gradually loosened, due to a combination of the Sumo Association and Nico Nico Doga, it will be time for the national broadcaster to revamp its shows — on both the Japanese main channel and the English sub channel.

The English side, for most long-term foreign watchers, has become excruciatingly monotone in recent years, with many of the same guests offering the same opinions in the same manner with the same anecdotes each time they appear. To say that several of them could talk a glass eye to sleep would not be an exaggeration, and most lack the approachability crucial to modern-day sports presentation.

Even on the domestic side, the questions posed to victors in upset matches, those achieving kachi-koshi winning record and yusho victories are painfully repetitive, clearly scripted and lacking in imagination (not that NHK has actually ever been known for improvised, non-scripted reporting.)

To this end, the eyes of the sumo-following world will be on the performances of both the Sumo Association, the rikishi and those now venturing forth in bringing sumo to the next generation to see what they can come up with broadcast wise.

Troubles aside, and the need for the NSK to focus on the "problems within" forgotten for a moment, here's hoping there will be at least a semi-decent alternative to the ways sumo has been presented in years past.

On a side note, since March 11, the 50 or so sumo stables, and association as a whole, have been making their own contributions toward those affected by the devastating earthquake and tsunami in northern Honshu.

Many rikishi have done their part, helping evacuees by cooking, entertaining and the like, and in a recent meeting of rikishi it was decided that sekitori (rikishi in the top two divisions) would contribute financially each month for the next decade.

But, in addition to all these gestures of support, perhaps now is the time for a Tohoku city to be seriously considered as the location of one of the non-Tokyo basho. It would sure bring business and revenue back to the area, and after all, Tohoku is and always has been a hotbed of sumo support and home to many famous rikishi.

Given the sweltering temperatures in Aichi Prefecture in July, moving Nagoya Basho moving north arguably makes sense, but naturally we can't expect the Nagoya authorities to give this event up so easily. Still, if NHK's dominance can be challenged, who knows?

On a side note, ticket scalpers are reportedly taking advantage of the "free tickets" being distributed by the Sumo Association for the upcoming basho. Online auction sites are reportedly playing host to hundreds of individuals trying to make a quick buck off the bizarre system that that the association has chosen to distribute tickets.

No police action or official sumo association comments have yet been heard, but dedicated fans unable to navigate the online ticket reservation procedure have been heard expressing disappointment with the problem-riddled system. The opening of the gates to all and sundry, and the subsequent accessibility to numerous tickets, is bound to attract the underworld elements that the NSK has been trying to distance itself from. Hopefully the NSK silence on this issue will not reign for too long.



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