February is real beginning of New Year for giants of raised ring

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Yokozuna Hakuho (now stablemaster Miyagino) pounds rice at his then stable on Dec. 30, 2012.

In Japan, there is a saying that “New Year’s Day is the key to the rest of the year.” However, in the sumo world, it is often said that “sumo’s New Year starts in February.”

With the first three days of the year over and the festive mood still lingering, the January New Year Grand Sumo Tournament started at Ryogoku Koku-gikan in Tokyo on Sunday.

Usually, the banzuke rankings for this tournament are announced at the end of the year, close to Christmas Day, and sumo stables start full-fledged training for the competition.

As New Year’s Eve approaches, the stables wrap up the year with cleaning and mochitsuki rice cake pounding. On New Year’s Day, they celebrate with a small banquet. But otherwise, there is little time to indulge in the festive mood.

Some stables resume training on Jan. 2 and wrestlers quickly get into shape for the upcoming tourney, which starts in no time at all.

When the 15-day New Year basho draws to a close and February approaches, wrestlers begin to feel much more relaxed. In the months when there are no grand tournaments, they often go on regional tours. In February, however, there are generally no tours, and there are only a few events such as topknot-cutting retirement ceremonies and one-day knockout competitions. For that reason, many stables offer wrestlers the chance to refresh themselves through travel and other means.

Some wrestlers return to their respective hometowns during this time. For fighters who have performed well in the New Year tourney, the sentiment associated with a triumphant hometown return likely makes this an attractive prospect.

Unfortunately, in recent years, many wrestlers’ movements have been restricted because of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Being unable to return home, many have instead killed time at their stables.

Little by little, the effects of the coronavirus have faded, and the Japan Sumo Association has begun to ease restrictions on social activities, but only during periods when there are no grand tournaments.

Hoping that infections will not spread again in February, wrestlers are keen to battle with all their strength in the New Year January basho in the run-up to their own “New Year” season.

Wrestlers destined to stand in the Kokugikan dohyo ring with these thoughts in mind are presently working hard in their daily bouts. It will be fun to watch the New Year basho in light of this fact.

— Kamimura is a sumo expert.