FUKUOKA, Japan — The groupies have been here for hours. Young schoolgirls and elderly matrons alike clutch cameras, eyes darting for celebrities.
Suddenly, they shriek and lunge forward. A man of regal bearing is passing by, and hands flail for a touch. After he leaves, the women heave sighs, spent from the unbearable exhilaration of the three-second close encounter.
Takahanada has just made his stadium entrance at this seaside city's main cultural event. He is not a rock star, nor a movie idol, but his celebrity invites comparisons with both. He is a 286-pound hulk in a greased topknot who earns a living rolling in the sand with other nearly nude wrestlers--the brightest star of Japan's sumo world.
"He felt muscular," swooned Hitomi Ueno, a 22-year-old office worker who waited two hours to touch Takahanada's back. "I'm never going to wash my hand. I'm going to put a vinyl bag over it!"
Sumo is at least 2,000 years old, steeped in myth and tradition as entertainment for the gods and, until recently, considered a stodgy sport for old folks. But the emergence of Takahanada, 20, a baby-faced athlete with a relatively compact build, along with his affable brother Wakahanada, 21, has changed that image. The "Taka-Waka" duo, as they are called, have given the sport a heady shot of sex appeal, attracted legions of new young female fans and set off the hottest sumo boom in memory.
"The crowd reaction to Taka-Waka is absolutely astounding," said David Benjamin, author of "The Joy of Sumo."
"They are the reason for the sumo boom. Without them, sumo would just be another pastime."
Where stadiums used to go begging for bodies, sumo has enjoyed a string of sellout crowds going back nearly three seasons. Non-reserved tickets, once easily acquired the same day, now draw two-day waiting lines. Sports newspapers, which used to place sumo stories on their cover only a few times during each of the six tournaments a year, now rabidly promote coverage: For the first time in its history, the leading Nikkan Sports tabloid made sumo its cover story all 15 days of the grand tournament last January.
A new TV drama has been launched, centered on a young woman who quits school to join the sumo world, selling king-sized clothing to wrestlers. And sumo TV audiences are steadily growing, to an 18% share, or about 18 million viewers during the latest tournament last month, up from an 11.5% share, or 11.5 million viewers, in 1989, according to the Nippon Hoso Kyokai (NHK) network.
Riding the boom, sumo souvenirs have expanded from the traditional handprints of wrestlers to an astonishing array of stuffed dolls, calendars, erasers, stationery, towels, aprons--even jockey shorts--adorned with lovable caricatures of roly-poly, pink-cheeked, topknotted athletes.
At the Sanko gift shop in Ryogoku, the sumo center of Tokyo, Fumie Sakata's sales of stuffed sumo dolls and other toys have doubled each year for the last three years. The area, a melange of sumo training "stables," sumo specialty restaurants, gift stores and the National Sumo Stadium, is now placed on many group tours to Tokyo, she said.
The sumo furor reflects a startling shift in popular interest. In 1988, an NHK poll found sumo ranked as the public's fifth favorite sport--after high school baseball, pro baseball, the marathon and volleyball. But a similar poll in July this year found sumo had climbed to No. 1, the sport of choice for 53% of those surveyed.
And sumo mania is not confined merely to Japan. Earlier this month, the American Wrestling Assn. announced it would begin training football players in sumo and hold its first tournament in January in Los Angeles and other cities. In what will surely be perceived as blasphemy in Japan, the U.S. wrestlers will forgo much of the sport's traditional ritual, including topknots, and wear boxing trunks and sneakers.
Japanese fans have taken to the Taka-Waka pair not only because of their boyish good looks but also because of their diligence, sumo techniques--and a father who was also a popular wrestler. Beyond Taka-Waka, however, the sumo boom reflects a resurgence of interest among Japanese youth in their cultural traditions: Kabuki and Noh theater, kimonos and traditional furnishings such as tatami mats and \o7 tansu \f7 chests, said scriptwriter Makiko Uchidate.
"Young people threw away their own culture in favor of European and American culture, but now they are beginning to appreciate their culture's own goodness," she said.
To be sure, many die-hard fans look askance at the sumo boom. To them, it is fueled by star-struck neophytes with no clue about sumo's techniques nor any appreciation for the thrill of watching two behemoths collide, engage and cleanly decide a match in a matter of seconds.
"It's a nuisance," said Yasuhiro Okubo, a 23-year-old office worker who has avidly followed sumo for 11 years. "Because of the boom, all of these people who don't know anything are coming to tournaments and real fans like myself can't get tickets."