Why Isn't There More Sumo Wrestling In Anime?

by Justin Sevakis,

Jake asks:

I was recently thinking about all of the sports anime that have come out over the years and it occurred to me that there is practically no anime about sumo wrestling. There are plenty of anime about western style wrestling, kickboxing, kendo and judo but not sumo. One of the only adaptations I could find was Notari Matsutarō. Even in other anime series, like Prison School, sumo referred in a very negative way or referred to as a sport for old men. Why are there so few sumo wrestling anime? Is sumo not very popular compared to other sparring sports in Japan?

UPDATE: As a few people in our forums pointed out, both our asker and I completely forgot about Rowdy Sumo Wrestler Matsutaro!!, the recent cult TV series that was, in fact, about a sumo wrestler! A few sumo series do exist. However that doesn't change the larger point of the question or the answer below...

Sumo wrestling in Japan is largely thought to be a sport in decline. Viewership has been dropping for some time, and indeed, most of its devotees are older and conservative. There is not much interest in the sport from the Youth of Japan these days. That lack of interest has carried through to anime and other pop culture.

Historically, sumo wrestling was something that would be pursued by peasant kids, often suffering from hunger. Being from a tough background and with few other options that would put food on the table, joining a sumo school was often seen as a respectable option and a chance at glory, even if it usually wasn't a path out of poverty. The highly disciplined sport has come to symbolize the strength of "yamato-damashii" or the Japanese spirit. The sumo industry, with its six annual grand tournaments, are still big business -- as are sponsorship deals, from which a few of the top wrestlers might become millionaires.

In order to become a sumo wrestler, you have to live in a training stable called a "heya" -- with which you are expected to stay affiliated throughout your career. There are currently 44 of these heya in Japan. Sumo heya are pretty austere places to live, with few creature comforts, rigorous training, years of no pay, and extremely strict discipline. There were also some pretty major scandals involving the hazing of new recruits -- one of whom actually died after a two-day long session of being hit with bottles and aluminum baseball bats. His heya-mates had caught him trying to escape.

Needless to say, this lifestyle does not appeal to many kids who grew up well fed and clutching a video game controller, and with the vast majority of Japan's kids coming from middle-class households, that means very few young men are willing to even consider a life in sumo. A lot of kids are mortified by the prospect of dressing in the traditional sumo mawashi (loincloth), and worry that wearing one would make them a target of instant ridicule. Most Japanese kids would rather play baseball, or some other sport. As a result, the local talent base has dried up substantially.

Foreigners were allowed to participate in sumo after the end of WWII, and since the 1980s foreigners have started to dominate -- especially Mongolians, who also have a very tough wrestling tradition. In 2015, only 3 of the top 7 sumo wrestlers were Japanese. A recent Mongolian champion who went by the name Asashoryu acted in a way that fans considered to be very rude and disrespectful of the sport -- counter to expectations of being stoic and polite, he would ignore tradition in order to taunt and snarl at his opponents like a boxer -- and that turned off a number of fans as well. (He's since been unseated by someone who fits the mold better.) The sport is simply not popular outside of Japan, so if Japanese people don't watch, nobody does.

Beyond all that, sumo wrestling isn't a great fit for anime. Matches can be over in seconds (it would be nearly impossible to stretch a match out for an entire episode, as anime is wont to do), and they can end in such an anticlimax as simply a wrestler stepping a foot out of the ring. Sumo wrestlers, being gigantic mountains of flesh and muscle, are pretty much the antithesis of what attractive guys in Asia look like these days. It's hard to imagine what a sumo wrestling anime would look like, and even harder to imagine one being successful.

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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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