Sumo retirees play for laughs from tourists flooding back to Japan

By Reuters   July 7, 2023 | 02:45 am PT
Sumo retirees play for laughs from tourists flooding back to Japan
Nadine, a 43-year-old tourist from the U.S., wearing a sumo wrestler costume, tries to spar against former sumo wrestler Towanoyama on the sumo ring before tourists from abroad, at Yokozuna Tonkatsu Dosukoi Tanaka in Tokyo, Japan June 30, 2023. Photo by Reuters
Ohtori spent his two-decade sumo career struggling for wins so he could to move up the ranks of Japan's traditional sport, but now he is fighting to entertain a different crowd: curious tourists.

He is one of six ex-wrestlers putting on sumo demonstrations catering to overseas travellers, who are returning in droves after a two-year COVID-19 blockade as the weaker yen makes such trips cheaper than they have been in decades.

"I want foreigners and Japanese people alike to have a greater understanding of sumo," said Ohtori, 40, whose full ring name, Koto-ohtori, means "harp phoenix."

"My older brothers were always pretty rough," he said of his pro days, which he began at 15. "It's more fun now, of course, because I can interact with everyone."

His performance venue, Yokozuna Tonkatsu Dosukoi Tanaka, opened in central Tokyo in November 2022, a month after Japan restarted visa-free travel. Beneath its vaulted roof is a sumo ring and 14 tables where patrons pay 11,000 yen ($76) to eat breaded pork cutlets before watching - and joining - the action.

Another former sumo wrestler, Yasuhiro Tanaka, started the restaurant after founding a company to give ex-wrestlers a second career as actors in commercials and movies. He said he wants to recruit more wrestlers to do evening performances.

On a recent afternoon, Ohtori engaged in comedic and realistic sparring against his larger opponent, Towanoyama, called "Jumbo" by the English-speaking emcee for the sake of the all-foreign audience.

Jose Aguillar, a quality-control manager from Monterrey, Mexico, had ringside seats with his family and said he was eager to see something "iconic from Japan" on a COVID-delayed vacation for his daughter's quinceanera birthday bash.

When it came time to don a well-worn sumo costume, and face Jumbo in the ring, Aguillar was at the head of the line.

"At the beginning, I said, 'Oh, why did I choose to be the first one? I (should) wait for others," Aguillar, 46, said after pushing a compliant Jumbo out of the ring. "But no, it was really, really amazing."

Themed restaurants are part of a tourism ecosystem that Prime Minister Fumio Kishida hopes will add 5 trillion yen a year to the nation's economy. Sumo is seeing a resurgence itself after the Netflix drama "Sanctuary" about the sport became a hit in May.

The lunch performances are full of laughs, but surgery scars on Ohtori and Jumbo speak to the physical toll of sumo, which recruits teens and leaves many wrestlers with scant employment prospects when they retire in their 30s.

"As sumo wrestlers, we couldn't really play around at all," said Tanaka, 47, who admitted he wasn't a particularly strong competitor. "So now I want everyone to be able to earn a salary and live a happy, enjoyable life."

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