Female fans bring sumo back from the brink

Female fans bring sumo back from the brink
A wrestler is surrounded by female fans on April 26 during the tournament at Makuhari Messe.

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).

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 favourite.

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.

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