Japan’s national sport of sumo would seem to have little in common with high-performance cars, not least because its athletes tend to be too big to fit into the seats. But McLaren Automotive sees much in common with sumo’s most compact star, Masakatsu Ishiura.
On 7 January at its industrial showroom in Tokyo’s Ariake, the British carmaker presented Ishiura with a branded keshō-mawashi, the ceremonial belt worn by upper-level wrestlers as they enter the competition ring. Ishiuara’s first bout of the season was on 8 January and McLaren’s sponsorship of the belt will last for an indefinite period, according to the company’s chief executive, Kinichi Kawamoto. The agreement is McLaren’s first venture into the world of sumo.
What’s the connection? At 115 kilos, 26-year-old Ishiura is the sport’s lightest practitioner. He has a driving licence but does not currently use it, using a bicycle as his main mode of transport. This does not seem to be a major issue. Kawamoto said Ishiura demonstrated “all the characteristics of McLaren”, being light, fast and powerful. His good looks and gentlemanly challenger spirit are also important factors. McLaren’s target customers are wealthy, mature people “with a young heart and the manners of a gentleman,” Kawamoto said.
Ishiura’s 42 victories to date have been against the odds. After training as a sumo wrestler, Ishiura nearly gave up on the sport and moved to Australia for a brief stint, but decided to return to Japan and re-enter the competitive arena after being inspired by friends’ success. His unconventional style is likely to help broaden the appeal of sumo itself.
McLaren’s agreement comes ahead of the launch of a new model at the Geneva Motor Show in March. Kawamoto said McLaren saw good potential in sumo as a platform to expand awareness of the brand in Japan, given that it’s the national sport and an unobvious place to find automotive sponsors.
“Everyone in Japan knows Ferrari, but we’re not very well known in Japan as a supercar maker,” said Kawamoto. “Sumo is the national sport, and shown around the world on NHK, so we wanted to use that opportunity. We found it to be a meaningful way to promote the brand.”
McLaren has been in Japan since 2012. Last year, it sold 98 units in the country.