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Sumo fans around the globe are spoiled for choice these days when it comes to following their favorite sport.
Livestreams, tournament preview shows in English, ever-increasing coverage in mainstream media and a plethora of fan sites and blogs are all available.
It’s a far cry from 15 years ago, when even basho results were hard to come by, never mind in-depth analysis.
Go back a couple of decades and foreign fans’ only source of information was a bimonthly magazine put together by Japan-based sumo fans and mailed out worldwide.
Established in the early 1970s, Sumo World was a mix of tournament reports, interviews, full-length features and opinion pieces.
For thirty years it was an indispensable publication for veteran fans and newcomers to sumo alike.
The magazine though, like many others, failed to adapt to the rise of the Internet, and when subscribers started getting issues late (or not at all) in the early 2000s, Sumo World quickly faded from relevance. It still publishes an occasional issue, but that can only be found at the temporary bookstore set up inside the Kokugikan during Tokyo tournaments
An email mailing list gave people a chance to exchange views and opinions with like-minded others. When online message board Sumo Forum started in 2004, things really kicked into high gear.
The forum, which for many people remains the primary source of sumo news in English, is an eclectic mix of sumo insiders, hardcore fans, rikishi, media members and people with backgrounds in data and information processing.
The latter is important because their presence helped explode many of the old myths about the sport.
One that had been taken as fact up to that point among foreign fans and media was the idea of Konishiki being passed over for yokozuna promotion solely based on nationality.
Fans on the forum were able to show why, based on pure numbers, he hadn’t been treated differently from others at that time. Konishiki’s 12-3 record between his second and third titles wasn’t a runner-up performance and that factor was key. Given that he never again reached 11 wins in a basho, many have argued that in hindsight the decision was the correct one.
A lot of longstanding debates were solved because a German member of the forum, Alexander Nitschke, created an online searchable database called Sumo Reference containing virtually every result going back to the early part of the 20th century.
So impressive was this new source of information that several people in the Sumo Association immediately started using it instead of their own records, many of which were still only available on paper.
The sumo museum staff in particular were relieved at finally being able to quickly compare and contrast careers, records and tournaments.
So grateful were they that they regularly provided a lot of old data that couldn’t be found anywhere else to help expand and deepen the database.
Between 2008 and 2011, I would often pay a visit to the museum in the Kokugikan, only to emerge with bundles of photocopied magazines and tournament results from the 1930s and 40s.
YouTube and similar video-sharing sites have sparked a surge in foreign sumo fan numbers over the past five to 10 years. Being able to watch highlights and even full tournament days has given people a much fuller sense of what the sport is all about.
That rise in numbers has been reflected in both the increased coverage of sumo in this paper, and the increasing amount of screen time the sport gets on NHK World.
The availability of regular video coverage and a rise in social media use among the wrestlers themselves has led to a corresponding increase in the number of fan sites.
Tachiai.org is probably the foremost of those with its blog-style coverage even extending to daily reports on the regional tours.
For many people, though, just watching sumo isn’t enough. They want some kind of active participation, and so in the late 1990s fans began creating and playing sumo games online.
There are now dozens of different games available. Some ask participants to select a single lineup of wrestlers prior to a tournament with points awarded for whatever wins and achievements those wrestlers get, while others require daily picks to be made.
Unlike fantasy football in the U.S., which is an industry reportedly worth $7 billion, sumo games are purely for fun.
Gambling on sumo is of course illegal, but in a sport which has dealt with accusations of match fixing in the past, there is little appetite even among fans for betting on the outcome of bouts.
Most of the prominent sumo games have joined together to form a “Superbanzuke” which, as the name suggests, is a ranking of all the players around the world.
The yokozuna on that banzuke hail from the UK and Germany and there are about 25 other nations represented at the moment.
Each player picks a sumo-style shikona (ring name) upon signing up and uses that across all the games. There are virtual prizes awarded after each tournament and a yearly “World Champion” is crowned.
Many of the games have a simple premise but can be tricky to do well in. Back when I was young and had free time I dabbled a bit, but let’s just say I didn’t get to be a sumo writer and commentator based on my prognostication skills.
By John Gunning, The Japan Times