07/13/2007, 00.00
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Sumo “wrestling” for survival

Young Japanese are losing interest in sumo, Japan’s rational national sport, choosing instead soccer and baseball.

Tokyo (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Sumo wrestling, Japan’s traditional national sport, is losing out to soccer (football) and baseball. Despite a history stretching back more than two millennia and ardent fans among emperors and feudal lords, sumo is losing ground among younger Japanese.

This became evident recently; just as the 700 members of Japan's sumo fraternity prepare for 15 days of bouts tomorrow in Nagoya (Chūbu region on Honshu Island), the national sport failed to attract a single new recruit for the first time in its history, forcing the Japan Sumo Association to cancel the recruitment tests planned for last week.

Although the tests ahead of the Nagoya tournament routinely fail to attract many applicants, trials held before the Osaka tournament in March traditionally attract most of the new recruits because they come at the end of the academic year when many school-leavers are considering careers, sumo elders admitted that the sport is struggling in an era against other sports. For the past seven years even the March intake failed to exceed 100.

Sumo offers potential rikishi (wrestlers) a chance of becoming a yokozuma (grand champion) and earn a basic salary of about US$ 24,000 a month—and much more in prize money. But the rise of a generation of foreign wrestlers has deprived the sport of its mystique. Even more damaging was the suspicious death last week of a 17-year-old wrestler, Takashi Saito aka Tokitaizan, from a heart attack after a rigorous training session. Doubts about his death appeared after it was revealed that his body had sustained unexplained injuries, including cigarette burns.

Experts agree there's a thin line between discipline and abuse. Trainers “have all been through it themselves and only they know how to teach someone to reach inside himself and find that extra strength,” says Doreen Simmons, a sumo broadcaster for NHK television.

Never the less, today's children aren't simply cut out for life in a sumo stable, where apprentices must live in Spartan conditions and submit themselves to the daily grind of training.

“Nothing can truly prepare you,” said Asashoryu, a grand champion from Mongolia. “It's really tough. It's a communal life that hasn't changed all that much, I believe. In a sumo stable you have to obey your seniors. Nowadays, there are all these computer games that children play alone and which exercise only their thumbs.”

Sumo's reputation has also taken a pounding in recent years by allegations of match-fixing

According to Simmons, Japanese children lack the motivation required to tough out a few years in the lower ranks. “They have more options in life,” she says.  And “their parents want them to go on to further education instead, or at least get an easier job.”

Besides “in sumo you have to get right to the top to get the rewards,” Simmons said. “It's not like football, where you can be transferred and your value rises.”

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