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Takanohana vs. Wakanohana: The final faceoff

by Philip Brasor

The battle between former sumo grand champion siblings Wakanohana and Takanohana over the legacy of their father, sumo elder Futagoyama, started well before his death from mouth cancer on May 30 at the age of 55. The press, however, didn’t dive into the melee until after Futogayama’s body was placed in a box with his beloved — and obviously lethal — Mild Sevens, which the former ozeki will presumably chain-smoke on that big dohyo in the sky.

It’s not clear if the media’s previous restraint was due to tact or ignorance, but once the funeral was over it was every reporter for himself. The surviving sons, whose real names are Masaru and Koji Hanada, openly admitted that they are, in fact, not speaking to each other and haven’t for years. During the pair’s dominant period in the 90s, when they were the stars of their father’s almost invincible stable, the press loved to portray the Hanadas as the ideal Japanese family, though one could hardly call them examples. Rich, imperious, and completely removed from the everyday lives of most Japanese, the Hanada clan was about as average a family as Michael Jackson’s.

The media’s sudden and overwhelming obsession with the story is thus self-generating, since it was the media who placed the Hanadas on a pedestal from which their fall was much farther than it should have been. However, the real reason the saga has had huge coverage in the tabloid press is that none of the principals are acting the way they were portrayed 10 years ago.

The most startling change is Takanohana’s volubility. He’s been pouring his heart out in exclusive interviews on every morning news show for the past week. As a rikishi, he was almost pathologically reticent. Grand champions are supposed to be men of few words, but Takanohana was a man of no words. His older brother was considered a lesser grand champion, mainly because he didn’t win as many tournaments, but also because he didn’t embody the image as completely. Wakanohana wasn’t as solemn as his brother. He was even known to smile.

It was no surprise when, following his retirement from competition, Wakanohana opted out of the sumo world, thus leaving the professional aspects of his father’s legacy to his younger brother, who eventually took over Futagoyama stable. Wakanohana, reverting back to Masaru Hanada, attempted to become an American football player and then a television tarento.

The bad blood goes back a long way, it seems, and runs deep. But the immediate conflict over Futagoyama’s legacy is material in nature, and isn’t necessarily a matter of greed or filial responsibility. Each brother is fighting for his own survival.

Sifting through the coverage in the weeklies and on the wide shows, one gets the impression that, while he is as dedicated to sumo as his father was, Takanohana did not get along with him. Encouraged by his wife, Keiko, a former TV announcer eight years his senior, Takanohana has tried to set a path for himself in the sumo world that is independent not only from Futagoyama but also from the accepted sumo conventions. He took over his father’s stable and with it deshi (students), but he has also renamed it and, more significantly, cut himself off from his father’s patrons and koenkai (supporters).

Takanohana’s purpose is to create a new type of support system, but his father apparently resented his son’s iconoclasm, since it was a tacit insult to his supporters and, by extension, tradition. But Futagoyama was also beholden to his son. In the mid-90s, when he consolidated his own Fujishima stable with the Futagoyama stable, he had to purchase the Futagoyama kabu (stock) and, according to Shukan Bunshun, was given 300 million yen to do so by his koenkai. Because money flows like sake in sumo, he neglected to inform the tax authorities, who later forced him to cough up 100 million yen in back taxes and penalties. Takanohana paid at least part of it with his own money.

Consequently, Takanohana believes he is entitled to his father’s sumo-related legacy, which, according to Shukan Bunshun, includes 400 million yen worth of sumo stock. Prior to Futagoyama’s death, it is said that a representative of Masaru called his brother and asked him to sell some of the stock so that they could split the proceeds, and Takanohana refused.

Masaru needs the money, what with a wife and four kids and few TV tarento job offers. And though he left the sumo world of his own accord, insiders say that Futagoyama wanted Masaru to take over. There’re also whispers that Futagoyama’s ex-wife, Noriko, is egging Masaru on so that she can get a cut herself. She is closer to Masaru than she is to her other son, who seems to hate her guts.

The problem is that sumo stock has no value outside of sumo, since it can only be sold to other members of the Sumo Association. Futagoyama’s stock certificate is missing , which may mean that Masaru is holding it ransom, but he can’t do anything with it himself because he’s no longer in the sumo world. Only Takanohana can sell it, and he needs it as leverage for his own plans, since the more stock he owns the more influence he has in gaining votes within the association.

There’s more to the tale, including Futagoyama’s mistress (“M-san”), who took care of him during his final days and may feel she deserves something. And if you google the story you find lots of related theories about who is really whose father and who is really whose brother, some intriguing and others quite shocking. As the sage of a powerful and famous family living behind masks, the Hanada epic offers limitless dramatic possibilities. Mark my word, 20 years from now NHK will serialize it as a yearlong, Sunday night historical drama. It sure beats “Yoshitsune.”