By Shuji Miki / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior WriterOne of the distinctive features of professional sumo is the kenshokin, or prize money offered as an incentive for wrestlers who win matches in the uppermost makuuchi division.
Making a chopping motion of the hand, the winner of a bout might receive one or more envelopes, each containing ¥30,000 in cash, from the referee.
After the final bout of each tournament day, most often fought by a yokozuna wrestler, the bounty offered is close to 50 such envelopes. This means the winner could walk away with around ¥1.5 million as a special bonus. This grand incentive tends to arouse the fighting spirit, which can lead to an exciting bout.
A ritual that precedes each bout shows who has offered prize money. The names of both wrestlers are called out, and then yobidashi callers bearing colorful banners make a circuit of the ring, a common sight for sumo enthusiasts. Each banner bears the name of a corporation or organization that has offered prize money, or the name of a product marketed by the company. Prize money offers are not accepted from individuals.
This comes with a brief commercial broadcast for the prize provider. One of the best-known commercials features the Nagatanien Co., which manufactures such products as Ochazuke Nori, which is seaweed mixed with crispy rice crackers and green-tea-flavored powder to be added to boiled rice in hot water. The commercial advertises Nagatanien with the slogan “Aji-Hitosuji” (Naturally Excellent Taste). Regulations limit such commercials to 15 characters in Japanese.
Each kenshokin prize envelope actually represents an outlay of ¥62,000, but to be among the prize-givers, sponsors must be ready to pay for 15 or more prizes per tournament. Thus, a single 15-day tournament costs at least ¥930,000.
Out of each ¥62,000 prize, the Japan Sumo Association takes ¥26,700 as its charge, excluding commissions, leaving the winner ¥30,000 in cash on the spot. There was a time when winning wrestlers were paid the whole amount of the prize money. Some used up all the money in one night, so they were unable to pay taxes. Today, the association keeps nearly half of the prize money to make sure wrestlers can have their taxes duly paid.
Enho, a wrestler of small stature who has been newly promoted to the makuuchi division and enjoys tremendous popularity, won his first prize money on the first day of the last tournament, which coincided with Mother’s Day. He gave the money to his mother.