Retirement ceremonies often full of emotion
BY JOHN GUNNING
It’s no secret that difficulty in procuring tickets is one of the main hurdles preventing overseas visitors from being able to watch sumo in person.
In recent years, third-party agents, some catering almost exclusively to foreign tourists, have provided fans with an alternative means of getting seats for the six annual tournaments.
How many of those services will remain active in the wake of recently enacted anti-scalping legislation, however, remains to be seen.
Penalties of up to a year in jail and/or a fine of ¥1 million ($9,200) for anyone caught reselling tickets at prices higher than face value, or taking possession of the same for the purpose of scalping, are sure to cool the market.
With sumo’s popularity showing few signs of abating, it will likely become even more difficult for those based outside of Japan to get seats for regular tournaments.
As previously detailed in this column, regional tours and amateur events are good alternatives for anyone unable to secure tickets for honbasho(official tournaments).
As the former’s name implies, jungyo tours tend to take place mostly outside major urban centers and have no centralized ticketing system. Each location has its own specific sales method, with many requiring reservations to be made by phone or mail in Japanese.
While it is possible to get tickets at the door for most if not all of the regional tour events, few people are willing to travel to remote venues without securing tickets in advance.
Amateur sumo events, while featuring many future stars, lack the pageantry that is often a major reason for overseas visitors’ initial interest in sumo. The level of competition is high, but without the costumes and rituals it doesn’t have the drawing power of professional sumo.
Another option for those unable to get tickets for regular tournaments is to attend a retirement ceremony.
Mostly taking place on weekends following the conclusion of Tokyo tournaments, danpatsu-shiki (hair-cutting ceremonies) offer a chance to see sumo bouts and various other related activities at the Kokugikan.
Depending on the wrestler’s popularity it can also be easy enough to secure ringside seats for the day’s proceedings — a virtual impossibility at regular tournaments.
Former makuuchi division wrestler Satoyama will have his ceremony on Sept. 28 this year. The event’s dedicated site has information on how to order tickets online or by fax, as well as links to a major ticket agent where they can also be purchased.
The schedule for the day includes drumming, comedy sumo and traditional sumo folk singing as well as ring-entering ceremonies and bouts involving wrestlers from the top two divisions.
The centerpiece event though is the danpatsu-shiki itself.
A rikishi’s topknot is one of his most identifiable features and something that is currently unique to sumo. Cutting it off is a symbolic severing of the man from his life as a wrestler.
The process takes time as dozens, if not hundreds, of supporters, friends and family members step up on the ring one-by-one to cut a single strand of hair with a golden scissors. The final cut is made by the rikishi’s stablemaster and it’s rare that the occasion doesn’t prompt a flood of tears.
Even if you have no connection to the wrestler in question, it is sometimes possible to be part of the hair cutting procession, but that normally requires a sizeable donation. For many long-time fans though it’s a price they are willing to pay, as the profits from the ceremony go directly to the wrestler who is retiring.
In a real sense, danpatsu-shiki are retirement fundraisers that set wrestlers up as they begin the next stage of their lives.
Large crowds are a given for yokozuna or popular wrestlers, but for those like Satoyama, who only spent a few tournaments in the maegashira ranks, extra work is needed to ensure a decent turnout.
Part of that process involves the man himself wandering the halls of regular tournaments, pressing the flesh and handing out flyers.
If you are considering doing some hair-cutting, one thing to bear in mind is that women still aren’t allowed to set foot in the Kokugikan ring, so only men can participate.
Former ozeki Baruto got around this restriction by stepping down off the dohyo to allow his wife and mother to cut his hair next to the ring. That’s only something that happens on a rare occasion for close family members.
Danpatsu-shiki are also an excellent opportunity to get your hands on rare sumo merchandise.
Programs produced for the events are normally filled with previously unseen photos and information about the wrestler that isn’t widely known.
Towels, mugs, DVDs and various other souvenirs are produced just for the event and commonly sold at the venue and nowhere else, making a lot of the products instant collector’s items.
American trading card company Upper Deck produced a six-card set for the retirement ceremony of former yokozuna Akebono as well as an extremely limited number of bonus autographed cards that contained a piece of his yukata.
Despite his status, Akebono’s retirement ceremony almost ended up losing him money. As the first ever foreign yokozuna and an American, the U.S. military stationed in Japan had purchased roughly 5,000 tickets for service members, friends and family to come and celebrate his career. But the September 11 attacks took place less than three weeks before the event, resulting in almost all of those tickets being returned with virtually no time left to resell them.