These are dark days for Japan's national sport.
Plagued in recent years by bout-fixing scandals, a hazing that resulted in the beating death of a teenage trainee and illegal betting connected to gangsters, the sumo world is not in a happy place.
And if that's not bad enough, stablemasters and those in the industry are fearing for the future of the sport given the dearth of apprentices.
Fewer Japanese boys are knocking on the doors of sumo stables because of the sport's image problems and an increasing preference among youths to play baseball or soccer.
“I’d like to take in more talented apprentices,” said one stablemaster, who had reached one of the three highest ranks below yokozuna while he was an active wrestler.
The stablemaster said when he was wrestling, kids with superior athletic abilities were eager to join sumo stables. But now, he said, it has become difficult to attract any apprentice, let alone athletically superior ones. Some new apprentices reportedly cannot even do push-ups.
In a bid to keep their stables going, many stablemasters are accepting any apprentice as long as the candidate has a large frame.
Twenty years ago, the number of new apprentices exceeded 220 a year. But that number has dropped to 60 nowadays.
The aforementioned stablemaster said the difference in salaries is also a big factor in the decline. The 731 professional baseball players in Japan this season receive an average annual salary of 38.16 million yen. Seventy-eight of the professional ballplayers make more than 100 million yen a year.
Sumo wrestlers, on the other hand, make less. There are a total of 641 sumo wrestlers, but wrestlers who are in the makushita rank or below get no pay, while only one wrestler--lone yokozuna Hakuho--boasts an annual income of more than 100 million yen.
If a wrestler devotes his life to sumo and becomes a stablemaster after his fighting days are over, he can effectively make as much as a baseball player in lifetime income if he retires at 65. But that is difficult for outsiders to the sport to understand.
However, not all sumo stables are down on their luck. The Sadogatake stable, which has seen three of its apprentices get promoted to ozeki (Kotooshu, Kotomitsuki, and Kotoshogiku) in a span of seven years, is the largest sumo stable, training more than 30 apprentices at any given time.
Stablemaster Hakkaku, 49, who currently trains 27 apprentices, travels all over the nation when he hears about a promising young candidate.
“Training young men into strong wrestlers is my mission and a big appeal of my job,” said Hakkaku, who retired as yokozuna Hokutoumi.
But many are still concerned that the decline in apprentices will affect the future of sumo.
“There is a saying that we train wrestlers with an eye to three years down the road," said a stablemaster approaching the mandatory retirement age. "That means it takes three years for today’s training to bear fruit."
He added that in reality it takes about 10 years to develop a raw apprentice to a top-ranked makuuchi division wrestler.
Most of the current yokozuna and ozeki joined their stables roughly 10 years ago.
“Some stablemasters are working hard (to attract apprentices), but overall, there are fewer Japanese-born apprentices," added the stablemaster nearing retirement. "That means that 10 years from now, the sumo rankings will adversely reflect this decline even more than it does now.”
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The two-week Fall Grand Sumo Tournament gets under way Sept. 9 at Tokyo's Ryogoku Kokugikan. No Japanese-born wrestler has won a grand sumo tournament in six years. Ozeki Tochiazuma (currently stablemaster Tamanoi) was the last at the 2006 New Year Grand Sumo Tournament.
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