Le Monde du Sumo
N°16 - june 2006
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Denis Chaton
translated by Julien Griffon
proofread by Chad Edward

Wages and bonuses in professional sumo

The delicate matter of money in sumo inspires many fantasies. Novices' first and main misconception is that rikishi are extraordinarily well-paid.

It's true that the top members of superior divisions, mainly sanyaku, earn comfortable wages. However, these wages are much lower than those of top football players in Western championships, F1 pilots, or, to stay in the same country, of Japan League's baseball players. Sekitori, though, can receive a good pension with a myoseki.

Taking the kensho with right hand, after the fight

Also remember that only some rikishis in makuuchi and juryo divisions earn a regular income. Members of the lower four divisions only receive grants during honbasho along with occasional bonuses. Let's examine earnings for our favorite sport's wrestlers in detail.

Note: The following figures are from 2001, the last year from which figures are available to our knowledge.

Basic income

Yokozuna ¥2,820,000 €20,000 $24,250
Ozeki ¥2,347,000 €16,700 $20,200
Sanyaku ¥1,693,000 €12,000 $14,600
Maegashira ¥1,309,000 €9,350 $11,250
Juryo ¥1,036,000 €7,400 $8,900

These are monthly figures (NB: €1 = ¥140, $1 = ¥116). As you can see, there is no difference between komusubi and sekiwake as the Kyokai doesn't consider the difference in accomplishment significant enough to justify increased wages.

Minarai, specifically members of the four non-salaried divisions, are also paid by the NSK. At each basho they are granted money as follows:

Jonokuchi get a ¥70,000, approximately €500 (or $600), grant per basho and a ¥1,500 bonus per win, raised to ¥3,500 per win over kachi-koshi (more wins than losses at the basho's end). Therefore, a jonokuchi rikishi with a 7-0 record during a basho earns ¥16,500.

Jonidan earn a ¥75,000 grant for the basho and bonuses equal to jonokuchis’.

Sandanme earn ¥85,000 per basho with bonuses of ¥2,000 per win and ¥4,500 per win over kachi-koshi.

Makushita earn ¥120,000 per basho and ¥2,500 and ¥6,000 bonuses for wins and wins over kachi-koshi respectively.

In general, lower-division rikishis earn additional pocket money from sekitoris (particularly for tsukebito), oyakatas, and sometimes even members of the Koenkai sponsoring the heya. Additionally, the heya takes total care of them. A prudent minarai sometimes has enough money to open his own shop at the end of his career.

NSK members’ incomes range from ¥12,000,000 per year for a basic oyakata to more than ¥20,000,000 for "Riji", Kyokai's board members. Officially a non-profit organization, the Kyokai enjoys a special tax status. It generates revenue from honbasho and jungyo, TV and radio rights, and merchandising.

“Attendance bonus”

A bonus rewards the highest-ranking rikishis each basho they attend and is paid in thirds. A rikishi wrestling between one and five days earns a third, between six and 10 days earns two-thirds, and more than 10 days earns the entire bonus.

Yokozuna ¥200,000 €1,430 $1,720
Ozeki ¥150,000 €1,070 $1,290
Sanyaku ¥50,000 €360 $430

Sanyaku

The hoshokin

Now, let's examine the most interesting, but most complicated aspect of rikishis' earnings.

Prior to establishing the monthly salary system, rikishis only received direct financial reward as mochi kyuin (accumulated money), officially called hoshokin (incentive pay). It's computed for every rikishi after each tournament beginning with passage from maezumo; but, nothing is paid until the rikishi attains Juryo status.

Primarily based on the number of wins over losses the rikishi records in his career, presently it's multiplied by 4,000 to arrive at a total in yen a rikishi is paid before a basho. Beginners receive a three-point credit. For each victory over kachi-koshi the basis is raised by a half-point, though nothing is subtracted because of a makekoshi.

Every reason to be joyful

Promotion to Juryo raises the basis to 40 points, assuming the rikishi hasn't accumulated that amount. Bonus calculations also change to the difference in wins over losses divided by two.

At this level the rikishi begins to earn extra (hoshokin). A rikishi never getting over makushita never earns anything. Promotion to Makuuchi ensures a minimum basis of 60 points (respectively 100 and 150 for promotion to ozeki and yokozuna). A kinboshi (a maegashira who defeats a yokozuna) adds another 10 points to his basis, a yusho makuuchi adds 30 points, and a zensho yusho adds 50 points, which is compelling motivation for the competing yokozuna. The kinboshi bonus is one reason why the NSK strongly encourages a declining yokozuna to retire. Besides blemishing the yokozuna's "honor", losses accrue unwelcome, life-long payments for the Kyokai!

Whatever their future results, rikishis never lose earned points, except additions earned through promotion which are lost due to demotion. However, only rikishis in the two highest divisions receive these payments, which are canceled upon demotion to makushita. Besides prestige and living-conditions, this motivates sekitoris and is why sekitoris in the twilight of their career retire soon after demotion to makushita. Their loss of prestige and wage is too drastic.

Taiho Koki

This bonus factors a mix of seniority and performance. For example, in 1970 the yokozuna Kitanofuji had accrued 324.5 points while legendary veteran Taiho had accrued 1,442 points, earning more than 1,000 points with his 32 yusho. At the time, the basis was multiplied by 1,000 and Taiho was paid nearly ¥1,500,000 for each basho he attended, a considerable sum in 1970.

Currently, dai-yokozuna Asashoryu, amazingly winning 12 of the last 15 basho he's attended, has accrued 776.5 points (compared to Taiho's 1,442 at the end of his career). He's paid a ¥3,000,000 bonus, more than €20,000 ($25,000). Also, compare with the second-most points accrued among active rikishi, ozeki Kaio with 415.5!

Yusho bonuses

Makuuchi ¥10,000,000 €71,500 $86,000
Juryo ¥2,000,000 €14,300 $17,200
Makushita ¥500,000 €3,570 $4,300
Sandanme ¥300,000 €2,150 $2,500
Jonidan ¥200,000 €1,430 $1,720
Jonokuchi ¥100,000 €715 $860

Yokozuna also receive a special ¥150,000 bonus every four months (for each basho taking place in Tokyo-Ryogoku Kokugikan) to have their tsuna made.

Sansho and kensho

¥2,000,000 (€14,300; $17,200) is awarded for each sansho (three special prizes called gino-, kanto- and shukunsho).

Sansho giving

Kensho (sponsors' banners) are bought as advertisement by prestigious companies. Ironically, as sumo's popularity has decreased in the post-"Taka-Waka" era, the number of kensho has dramatically increased to such an extent the NSK has limited bonuses to 50 per fight. Since advertising is banned from NHK but for kensho and the price of kensho is reasonable, it must be due to the "quality/price ratio" for advertising and media space.

The round of kensho

They cost the sponsor ¥60,000, a little more than €450 (or a little less than $520). The money is distributed as ¥30,000 given by the gyoji as cash in an envelope accepted by the rikishi with his right hand, ¥5,000 for creating the banner and to pay various taxes, and ¥25,000 deposited in an account for the rikishi at his intai.

Advertising income

Remember that a rikishi entering a heya is completely supported by the heya until he decides to have his intai. Therefore, a successful rikishi is considered indebted to the Kyokai and his oyakata.

Advertising Konishiki

For this reason, a rikishi who wants to supplement his income through advertising must both ask for authorization and share his compensation with his mentors. Immediately, the celebrated Takamisakari comes to mind, but also the recent celebrity Kotooshu, the dai-yokozuna Asashoryu, and the beloved Konishiki are popular among Japanese.

The same goes for other marking, public events of the rikishi's life which generate income, such as marriage (remember the disagreement among Asashoryu and his oyakata) and dampatsu-shiki (retirement ceremony, when the chonmage gets cut).

Koenkai

Koenkai are associations of supporters for a heya or a rikishi. In exchange for a koenkai's moral and financial support on certain occasions, rikishis attend business lunches, supply VIP tickets, and enjoy a special relationship with their koenkai.

Asashoryu and his koenkai

A good example is the expensive kesho-mawashi often offered by these associations. Also, they provide necessary financial support to a rikishi who wants to buy a toshiyori-kabu or myoseki, entitling him to become an oyakata. The price for these titles has increased to more than ¥150,000,000 (the figure announced in the Tatsunami beya case was ¥175,000,000) due to oyakata living longer and the number of myoseki available being fixed at 105. Less expensive alternatives include marrying the daughter of the beya's shisho or being adopted (when you are not his legitimate son) by him to become oyakata without any "succession right".

Upon becoming oyakata in the Kyokai, former rikishi earn a yearly salary ranging from ¥12,000,000 for Lin (lower-ranked oyakatas) to ¥21,000,000 for the rijicho and board members.

Retirement

Retiring rikishis don't receive an official pension, but a special bonus is given to retiring sekitoris. Minarai aren't entitled to anything, but may receive a small grant from the Kyokai, no official amount being defined.

Chiyonofuji's intai

Members of the salaried divisions are paid their retirement bonus at their intai based on their years of service and ranks throughout their career. To be eligible for the basic bonus, a rikishi must have attended 20 consecutive basho in makuuchi or 25 total basho in makuuchi. The bonus is calculated as follows:

Yokozuna ¥15,000,000 plus ¥500,000 per basho fought as a sekitori
Ozeki ¥10,000,000 plus ¥400,000 per basho
Sanyaku ¥7,630,000 plus ¥250,000 per basho
Makuuchi ¥7,630,000 plus ¥200,000 per basho

For sekitoris ineligible according to the above conditions:

Makuuchi ¥4,730,000 + (number of basho) × ¥150,000
Juryo ¥1,150,000 + (number of basho) × ¥150,000

Exceptional yokozuna (Taiho, Kitanoumi, Chiyonofuji, Takanohana, and maybe Asashoryu?) can also be awarded a distinguished career bonus. In 2005, yokozuna Asashoryu earned more than ¥150,000,000 in gross income (more than €1,100,000 , or $1,250,000, excluding advertising), calculated as follows:

Salary ¥2,820,000 × 12 ¥33,840,000
Hoshokin ¥14,066,000
Yusho ¥10,000,000 × 6 ¥60,000,000
Kensho 1,525 × ¥30,000 ¥45,750,000
Presence bonus ¥1,200,000
Total ¥154,856,000

Yaocho

Yaocho also deserves mentioning when examining money in sumo wrestling. This term refers to a payoff to an opponent to lose the fight. The practice isn't unimaginable in a sport involving large sums of money and where a wrestler's status and lifestyle are affected dramatically by daily results during each basho.

Rumors about such practices have been heard about rikishis. Even the legendary Chiyonofuji was accused of taking advantage of the practice; but, before giving credence to the rumor, consider how ethical and traditionalist he was and the amount of money it'd cost to buy off his many wins.

The most publicized yaocho scandal was triggered by retired rikishi Keisuke Itai's 2000 book admitting participation in a practice he claimed is widespread. He apologized and claimed he's on a "mission" to end a system abused by half of rikishi, including legends like Akebono (who allegedly paid him ¥400,000) and Chiyotaikai.

The scandal turned tragic when informants Onaruto oyakata and Sieji Hashimoto died mysteriously of the same cause and within a few hours of each other. Their connections with the yakuza were later established. Itai was suspected of making outrageous claims to drum-up publicity for his struggling chanko restaurant.

Though no further claims have been made, we can't reasonably deny rikishis being men with faults, like all men. However, it's unlikely a widespread practice, though the number of kachi-koshi earned on the senshuraku may leave doubts. If tempted, competing rikishi are sobered by their close ranks and the dramatic practical and financial effects of a loss. A price high enough to cover their losses can't be paid.

Conclusion

There are fewer conflicts over money in sumo than in other sports, primarily because the system's longevity prevents privilege outweighing the merit of results and perseverance. Also, there are no taboos associated with financial rewards. It's a part of the ritual, like the payment of kensho by the gyoji being received by the right hand (except for a few forgetful yokozuna).

Wages quickly became an important matter to rikishi. If initially rikishi were happy with room and board, profits were abundant and lack of profit-sharing was a primary reason for the Great Rikishi Revolt of 1932 lead by Sekiwake Tenryu Saburo, resulting in the only canceled basho in history.

Kotooshu, the European idol

Although tradition continues to be primarily important, income lures many to join a professional heya even though wages are lower compared to other sports. Gaijin, often from Ulan-Bator or Eastern Europe, are often running away from poverty in their home countries where they couldn't make a living wrestling. Consider average incomes from their home countries:

Estonia (Baruto) €350 $435
Georgia (Kokkai) €50 $60
Ossetia (Roho) €50 $60
Mongolia (Asashoryu) €35 $45
Bulgaria (Kotooshu) €150 $185

These rikishis usually arrive older and more technically experienced than their Japanese colleagues, who often only need to meet physical criteria to enter their heya. However, let's not forget the many out-of-rank rikishis who, like Ichinoya, enjoy 25-year careers without ever reaching salaried ranks. They're even more admirable because of their passion for a sport encompassing a fantastic way of life, with its moments of sadness and happiness, sacrifices and difficulties.