The Sumo Scene / Unique Combination of Sport, Culture Helps Serve as Major Draw for Overseas Visitors

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Foreign visitors watch sumo from second-floor seating at Ryogoku Kokugikan in Tokyo in May 2019.

We’re on the verge of the Autumn Grand Sumo Tournament at Ryogoku Kokugikan in Tokyo, and the performance of brand-new ozeki Hoshoryu will be part of a plethora of stories to keep an eye on during the 15-day tournament, which begins Sunday.

Partly because it’s the final tournament in Tokyo this year, tickets have already sold out. The “Sellout Appreciation” banner will be on display inside the venue every day, just as it was at the previous basho.

Since various COVID-19 restrictions have been relaxed, many overseas tourists have returned to Kokugikan. At times, foreign visitors are more noticeable in the stadium-style seating on the second floor. Those seats enable them to stretch out their legs and view the matches in comfort, unlike the cramped quarters in the masu-seki box seats on the first floor where fans are required to remove their shoes.

Of all the sporting events held in Japan, sumo is probably exclusive in terms of attracting such a large number of foreign spectators. This is largely because it’s a sport with unique aspects that combine competition and traditional Japanese culture.

For instance, the hair of the sport’s competitors is styled in topknots, which evoke the image of samurai from the Edo period (1603-1867), and the large men also wear decorative colorful aprons, while the gyoji referees are also clad in traditional attire.

Wearing a rope similar to a sacred rope from the Shinto religion, yokozuna perform their solemn ring-entrance ceremonies. Many foreign visitors turn their cameras on such cultural aspects of sumo, a sport that goes far beyond the simple notion of wins and losses.

“Once you step inside Kokugikan, you feel like you’re back in the Edo period. We want to create that kind of atmosphere,” said Japan Sumo Association Chairman Hakkaku (former yokozuna Hokutoumi). “Foreign visitors are interested in this unique culture because this is the only place in the world it can be found.”

The association has an English-language website, making it easier for foreign visitors to purchase tickets online. According to an association official, many travelers from overseas add attending a basho to their itineraries for sightseeing visits to the Asakusa area and Tokyo Skytree, which are both close to Ryogoku Kokugikan.

A higher percentage of visitors from the United States and Europe over China, South Korea and other Asian countries might indicate a stronger interest there in Japanese culture and the Far East, the official also said.

If the intensity and vigor of sumo matches are added to this, foreign visitors’ interest is sure to grow. The hope is that the autumn basho becomes one that excites the world.

— Kamimura is a sumo expert.