It really is just about the best sumo one can find in this prefecture. It beats the dubious calls and lack of technique at the annual International Sumo Tournament. It beats the high prices and half-hearted hanazumo bouts when the occasional summer Ozumo Exhibition comes to town. Indeed, the enthusiasm, desire, and competitive nature of the boys in Akita high school sumo is something rarely matched on the raised ring, and that includes most bouts at Ryogoku. But that is not to say it was perfect.
The 56th Annual All-Akita High School Sumo Competition was a two day event. Day One featured the competition for the most coveted prize; overall individual champion. Day Two was competitions for team champions and weigh-class champions.
On Day One, boys were arranged into six pools of four or five boys. Each pool had a round-robin to determine who would be the one boy to continue on to the second round. Boys were seeded based on previous performances, so most of the preliminary pools progressed quite nicely usually with a clear-cut winner who’d move on to the second round. The second round was made of up the one boy who advanced from the opening rounds in each of the six pools. In the end, there was a two-way tie for 1st place and a two-way tie for 3rd place. Tie-breaker bouts were conducted, and the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place boys were determined.
On Day Two, action opened with team competition. Five boys from each team would take on five boys of another team, one-by-one. Only four schools competed, with one school only having three boys (they had to forfeit the remaining two bouts against other schools, yet still finished with 3rd place). In the end, the school with the most total wins was 1st. Next was weight classes; below 80kg, 80kg to 99kg, and 100kg and above, conducted much like the system on Day One.
The event was exciting, and as I already proclaimed some of the best sumo you’ll see in rural Japan. Nevertheless, it needed some changes and I don’t for once request these changes for the sake of entertainment. Rather, changes are needed for fairness and development. Here’s my list.
1. Flip the schedule. Weight-class, then team, then next day overall champion. The schedule was bass-ackwards, with the most coveted prize determined on Day One, then the lesser prizes on Day Two. Give the boys something big to look forward to until the end.
2. Enforce sportsmanship. There’s never any trash talk; it’s just not in the Japanese to do so, but what I considered less than sportsmanlike was victors never offering a hand to a fallen opponent after a bout, dameoshi in false-start tachiais without any apology, and…wait for it…display of the guts pose after winning bouts (wait, I thought that was an Asashoryu problem?). These are not big deals, right? I mean, if you’re still at that state of mind where you equate sumo with fat-man pro-wrestling, you don’t know what the hell I’m talking about and go back to enjoying cheap Milwaukee beer with your buffalo wings, okay? I, as well as many of us at Sumo & Stogies don’t mind a bit of emotional expression from sumo rikishi. A guts pose? So what?! But precedence has been set in sumo, and it’s precedence unlike many other sports…one of respect and honor to the opponent. When you take your opponent down, you offer a hand for him to get up. When you cause a false-start tachiai with or without dameoshi, you apologize to your opponent and the head judge. You think we don’t follow this protocol, watch our bouts from the 2009 International Sumo Competition on youtube and I dare you to find a Sumo & Stogies member who didn’t offer the hand to a fallen opponent or even congratulate another for a great win. This is a hell of a lot more important with high school boys, and I for one was disappointed in the lack of sportsmanship displayed or enforced.
3. Ban the henka. From Day One, bouts got quite nasty. Henka, after henka, after henka. Henka in irrelevant bouts; henka in championship bouts! Henka on rivals; henka on teammates! Sometimes they worked; sometimes they didn’t. They were disgraceful and pitiful.
The number one purpose of high school sumo is developmental as an athlete physically and mentally. Mentally, I know a lot of nerves were rattling these boys and henkas were last minute resorts. Ban it. Judges should call henka as a hansoku and disqualify boys for attempting it. This is for fairness in amateur competition, but more so for mental development of young boys into responsible athletes. Also is the physical aspect. Henkas can cause unnecessary injury and doesn’t benefit the physical development of high school boys in any way.
4. No teammate bouts unless tie-breaking. Put it in the schedule and see to it. The boys train together. Their parents travelled from the sticks together to see them. They’re coached together, and they have their hierarchy in their club which is never violated. Are you trying to train them for yaocho? We don’t need hanazumo bouts in high school competition. Just take it out of the equation where applicable.
5. Either loosen up on false-start tachiais, or penalize for excessive false-starts. There were several false-start tachiais, many of them used intentionally by particular boys (this qualifies as less than sportsmanlike when done intentionally). In fact, there were so many I’d bet Aminishiki would scowl. Time constraints were an issue. If you want to stick to the clock, loosen up on the tachiai timing, or penalize. This is also important for the boys’ development. They need to know how to be ready at the tachiai in the appropriate amount of time, and how to commence the initial charge properly.
Sumo is not popular in Japan, especially with the young people, yet everyone laments that there are no strong Japanese rikishi in professional sumo today. Rural prefectures like Akita are where the lot of home-grown sumo rikishi come from. There is no telling if any of the boys in this year’s event will ever make it to professional sumo, but in the program archive records at this high school sumo event, there was one former champion who went on to a makuuchi career (young Akira Narita, 1997 All-Akita high school champion is now know at Takekaze). If these five changes were implemented, I guaran-damn-tee you we’d see some stronger rikishi in the whole shingitai sense coming from the Japanese countryside and even donning the sacred white ropes. Nevertheless, outside of dilapidated Soviet-era gymnasiums in Eastern Europe or the windswept steppes of Mongolia, high school sumo in rural Japan is just about as good as it gets for now.