07 December 2004

Sumo Adapts to Live Broadcasts

When radio broadcasting began in 1925, stations expressed an immediate interest in broadcasting sumo. The leaders of the Sumo Association, however, were leery of the new medium. Like the officials of other sport bodies around the world, they were fearful of economic catastrophe. Why should fans pay good money to crowd into the Kokugikan if they are able to sit comfortably at home and listen to the radio? Broadcasters persisted and the Sumo Association reluctantly agreed to allow radio coverage on a trial basis for the January tournament of 1928. Contrary to the association's fears, radio seemed to increase rather than decrease the desire to be present at the bouts. The stadium was packed, and radio broadcasts became a regular and popular feature.

To accommodate the new medium, however, there had to be adjustments in the traditional way that the matches were held. Before each match, the two wrestlers perform shikiri ['face-offs'], the long ritual preparation for what often prove to be very short bouts. During shikiri, they crouch in the center of the ring, glare at one another, stand, return to their corners for another handful of salt to throw upon the ground, move back to the center of the ring, and crouch again for more baleful glaring. Traditionally, shikiri continued indefinitely, until both men were ready to charge and grapple. Radio broadcasts, however, have an allotted time frame. To ensure that the day's matches finished before the end of the broadcast, wrestlers were told to limit shikiri to ten minutes, which--with a glare at the broadcaster--they did.

In fact, it took some time for the wrestlers to become accustomed to the idea of a curtailed warm-up ritual. On the first day, anxious not to exceed the ten-minute limit, most wrestlers cut short their shikiri and started their matches so quickly that the entire program moved at a furious pace. The radio broadcast, scheduled to carry only the last and most important matches, was supposed to begin at 5:20 P.M., but the horrified promoters realized that the last wrestlers were liable to have finished their match before the broadcast even began. Although five long intermissions were hurriedly introduced, the first day of broadcasts consisted of only the last match, which ended at 5:40. On the second day of the tournament, the broadcast was started earlier. This did not solve the problem. The wrestlers soon reverted to their old ways and indulged themselves in extended shikiri. By the time the top-ranked wrestlers had stepped into the ring, the station had already moved on to its next scheduled broadcast. It was some time before the wrestlers and the broadcasters were, metaphorically, on the same wavelength.

Although one might have expected that the arrival of television in the 1950s made it possible to return to longer shikiri, which are certainly more interesting to watch than to hear about, this was not the case. The time limit for the upper division has been reduced to four minutes, and the Sumo Association smoothly manages the progression of matches so that they usually end a few minutes before the 6:00 P.M. conclusion of the day's broadcast. From the fan's point ofview, however, managerial efficiency has its drawbacks. Before the time limit was imposed, each shikiri was potentially the start of the match, and tension built as one shikiri followed another. In our more programmed age, the ritual has become routine, the match begins when it is supposed to, and the shikiri tends to be, for the wrestlers and spectators alike, mere posturing.
SOURCE: Japanese Sports: A History, by Allen Guttmann and Lee Thompson (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2001), pp. 114-115

My interest in sumo began in Kyoto when I would come home from school and watch the final bouts of the day on black-and-white TV before supper. Like clockwork.

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