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Female fans bring sumo back from the brink

TOKYO -- Sumo's popularity is on the rise again, thanks to an ascendant demographic of female fans dubbed rikijo, a portmanteau of rikishi (wrestler) and jo (girl).

A wrestler is surrounded by female fans on April 26 during the tournament at Makuhari Messe.

     These new fans, attracted by the sport itself, as well as by the wrestlers, crowded the preseason tours and events held ahead of the latest tournament opener on May 10. The sumo world, which has been rocked by a string of match-fixing and other scandals that at one point seemed to threaten its existence, is enjoying a surge in popularity not seen since the Waka-Taka boom of the 1990s, when the Hanada brothers  were at their peak.

     Three Nikkei Marketing Journal reporters -- our very own rikijo -- covered the story behind the recent sumo boom.

Large and lovable 

"He's so cool!" exclaimed a 23-year-old office worker. She was referring to Hikarugenji, a wrestler in the fifth-highest jonidan division. Weighing 77kg and standing 183cm tall, Hikarugenji is on the slender side for a sumo wrestler, but his good looks and developing maturity as a wrestler tickle the maternal instincts of many rikijo, making him a fan favorite.

     Sumo group practices held at Tokyo's Ryogoku Kokugikan Sumo Hall ahead of a tournament are generally open for viewing only to the Yokozuna deliberation council. But this year, the May 2 practice for the Nishonoseki group of stables was opened up to the public for the first time. Some 3,000 fans attended, including many groups of rikijo who snagged ringside seats.

     She was among them. She is the same age as Hikarugenji and has been a sumo fan for five years. Jonidan matches usually take place before noon, and Yamano begins watching early so as not to miss the fight. She said she will visit Ryogoku Kokugikan three or four times during the season and catch morning practice sessions as well.

     "Still looking good!" The cheers kept coming from her and one of her rikijo friends, who is also a Hikarugenji fan.

Star treatment

Rikijo are relentless in their pursuit of sumo wrestlers, even the junior ones. The makuuchi, or top division, wrestlers receive pop-star levels of adulation.

     The second annual Chokaigi tournament, held at Makuhari Messe in Chiba Prefecture on April 25-26, had a completely different atmosphere from that of the inaugural event. This year's tournament was held in conjunction with an event put on by video-sharing site niconico, which broadcast the matches live online.

     The ring set up at the exhibition hall was completely surrounded by young female fans, with Chiyomaru and Myogiryu drawing particular attention.

     Chiyomaru is known for his angelic, sleeping face, and his image adorns the cellphone screens of many rikijo. Fans of Myogiryu, meanwhile, shout out his nickname, "22," to cheer him on. The nickname comes from his body-fat percentage as mentioned in a TV commercial.

     For a 25-year-old Terunofuji fan and office worker who lives in Tokyo, it was love at first sight. She watched him fight in a championship match against Yokozuna (Grand Champion) Hakuho at the spring tournament and was taken by his strength. She formed a fan group in late March with some of her female friends from her university days. In April, they followed him on his tours twice.

     Rikijo are everywhere, not just in the capital. Okinoumi is the wrestler of choice for a 29-year-old office worker in the city of Hiroshima. She used to be an Endo fan, but last November she was unable to score a ticket for the Kyushu tournament. After looking around for a local tour, she learned of Endo's upcoming match in Seiyo, Ehime Prefecture. Wanting to catch the action up close, she headed for Seiyo, a drive of more than four hours.

     Once there, however, Endo was swarmed by fans, and she couldn't get close. She happened to glance over and saw Okinoumi standing there next to him. She hadn't realized Okinoumi was part of the tour, and after she approached him, he talked with her for close to 10 minutes. She said she instantly liked him and his good looks -- he is considered one of sumo's two best-looking wrestlers. She eventually found out that he was engaged, but not before she had purchased a ticket for the summer tournament opener to cheer him on.

New fans, new hope

A Nikkei Marketing Journal survey of 100 female fans attending the Makuhari Messe event on April 25-26 found that young wrestlers, such as Chiyomaru and Ikioi, were the favorites. Today's sumo wrestlers are not only strong, many of them display their own unique character and personality, a phenomenon that seems to be attracting a whole new fan base. Not so long ago, women who expressed an interest in sumo would be asked if they were attracted to overweight men. Now, however, many female fans say they can talk openly about sumo wrestlers without being subjected to those types of comments.

Female fans take photos of sumo wrestlers during a training session at Ryogoku Kokugikan Sumo Hall in Tokyo on May 2.

     Many female fans learned the rules and history of sumo from their parents or grandparents, or from male co-workers who are fans of the sport. Those circumstances led to a natural interest in sumo tournaments. In the wake of so many scandals, sumo suffered a loss of confidence and was in a state of crisis. Female fans are helping to save sumo from potential extinction.

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