SUMO ABC (43) / Kokugikan brightened up by the Imperial presence

The Yomiuri Shimbun

The Emperor and Empress acknowledge the audience at Tokyo’s Ryogoku Kokugikan on Jan. 8, the first day of the New Year Grand Sumo Tournament.

By Shuji Miki / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior WriterThe expression “brightening up” perfectly describes the effect the Emperor and Empress had on the first day of the New Year Grand Sumo Tournament, which they attended.

As soon as the Imperial couple appeared at the sold-out Ryogoku Kokugikan on Jan. 8, the entire audience welcomed them with a standing ovation. The gentle smiles of the couple as they acknowledged the crowd illuminated the venue’s already festive New Year atmosphere.

At 5 p.m., after the first half of the bouts by wrestlers in the makuuchi top division had ended, a group of five judges walked toward the dohyo to take charge of the second half. They remained standing by the ring, looking up toward the VIP seats.

Recognizing the significance of the judges’ actions, members of the audience began to stand up in quick succession even before the in-stadium announcement on the Imperial couple’s approach. This was a repeat of the scene on the first day of last year’s New Year tournament.

That occasion also witnessed an elegant “event,” namely the reappearance of the Emperor and Empress after the bouts, which they had watched from the VIP seats. An even greater ovation throughout the venue greeted their reappearance.

Sumo bouts in the Imperial presence, called “tenran-zumo” in Japanese, date back to April 1868, during the reign of Emperor Meiji. Emperor Showa had a particular love for sumo, and he attended 51 tournaments. The Emperor’s Cup in sumo — a trophy awarded to the top winner in the makuuchi division — was created in celebration of his birthday in 1925, when he was serving as prince regent.

The current style of tenran-zumo, whereby the Emperor watches bouts alongside members of the public, started in the Summer tournament of May 1955, the year after the kokugikan opened in the Kuramae district of Taito Ward.

Emperor Showa attended tournaments twice a year from 1980, and watched bouts in all three tournaments held in Tokyo in 1985 — the year when the current Ryogoku Kokugikan was inaugurated — and 1986. The 1987 Summer tournament was the last tenran-zumo during the reign of Emperor Showa.

The first tenran-zumo in the current Heisei era was arranged at the 1990 Summer tournament, and the latest visit to Ryogoku Kokugikan marked the 22nd tenran-zumo attended by the Emperor.

Over the course of this period, Crown Prince Naruhito, his wife Princess Masako and their daughter Princess Aiko have also attended.

I remember a truly heartwarming scene nearly a decade ago, when Princess Aiko’s face lit up with a beaming smile when she discovered that her favorite wrestler had shown up. Another sweet memory is the young princess bringing back her favorite sumo-themed sweets as a souvenir.

Japan Sumo Association Chairman Hakkaku, the former yokozuna Hokutoumi, served as a guide for the latest tenran-zumo. He recalled the kind words of the Emperor and Empress, who said, “Thank you for treating us to good bouts.”

— Miki is a sumo expert.

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