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Dear Santa, one new nose, a couple of knees and a lower back, please

by Mark Buckton

In the next couple of weeks, expect the media to start talking of yokozuna Asashoryu and his latest bout with the sniffles, being bunged up or perhaps having fallen victim to a mystery allergy — again!

Kaio will, of course, be quoted again as saying how hard it is for him to move — what with his dodgy 34-year-old back and all. You may get Kotooshu bemoaning the leg injury that contributed to him looking only a tad above average during 2006 and you will — the weeks between basho just wouldn’t be the same without it — have ozeki Tochiazuma in consultation with his dad, his oyakata, over how to deal with his own latest knocked knee — again!

In the case of Tochi, as he is set to go under the knife this week we know at present that at least he is a definite down and out. Meanwhile, with the yokozuna, sumo’s top dog since late 2003, who really, uh, nose? He has these nasal calamities so often now that the words “attention” and “seeking” come to mind.

Flood of new faces

Injuries aside, at 6 a.m. on Dec. 21 the Hatsu Basho banzuke will be released to the public with a handful of hardy-cum-daft fellows, yours truly among them, braving the pre-dawn cold to pick up the still slightly damp ranking sheet at the Kokugikan in Sumida Ward, Tokyo. In the top right-hand corner Asashoryu will sit alone, unchallenged as the sport’s only yokozuna — a spot he’s had all his own since yokozuna Musashimaru retired in 2003.

In among the ever-shuffling names ranked just below yokozuna will be 17 names representing non-Japanese born sekitori. Only makunouchi and juryo names are written in bold kanji, as only the men in these two divisions receive any regular salary; the 600 or so others making up the remainder of the banzuke go without a pay packet come month’s end. It is truly phenomenal that almost a third of approximately 60 active foreign-born rikishi to have made it to the top. However, in some Japanese circles, this just adds weight to the “quite right to limit the foreigners” (to one per stable) argument. More on that one next time out.

One new foreign name to look out for on the 21st will be Wakanoho Toshinori. Aged just 18, the Russian from Magaki Beya will appear in the lower reaches of the second-ranked juryo division for the first time and will be hoping to make his way up to makunouchi sometime in 2007 to join compatriots, home-town buddies and former wrestling seniors Roho (Otake Beya) and Hakurozan (Kitanoumi Beya). The sports media will no doubt take the standard pics of the youngster standing outside his stable door and holding a banzuke, pointing at his own name. Or maybe they’ll opt for the “seated beside oyakata” set-up, given that it is December and chilly out. Wouldn’t want him to catch a sniffle.

Gearing up

Either way, the serious training will start the day after the banzuke is released and will run until around the 29th or the 30th. Different stables approach the end-of-year festivities in different ways, but while the majority of people in Japan enjoy a week away from the grindstone (and try to avoid choking on pounded mochi rice), rikishi are traditionally back on the dohyo come Jan. 2 or Jan. 3 — again, different stables, different systems.

As the opening day of 2007′s first tournament falls on Jan. 7, don’t be too surprised to hear of some upper rankers working through the holidays as they strive to make 2007 the year to make that push up the rankings. If you have any sympathy to spare, send it the way of sekitori tsukebito; the aides assigned to a salaried rikishi to take care of his daily needs, for where the sekitori decides to be, his aides will never be far away.

Going places

It was finally announced that Kyokushuzan’s danpatsushiki (the ceremonial removing of his traditional mage hairstyle to symbolize his retirement from active competition) will take place on June 2 in the Ryogoku Kokugikan. The event will come just a week before the Hawaiian tour so pencil it in your diaries. You can be guaranteed that a full quota of rikishi will turn up for the bouts that form part of the ceremony as no one will dare feign injury or illness before the big trip to Honolulu.

Another overseas jaunt, which is still in the rumor stages, might be to Taiwan later in 2007. If it’s confirmed, Taiwan will become the first overseas location to host the massed ranks of the Nihon Sumo Kyokai in successive years, although individual stables are believed to have gone on similar jaunts on the Asian mainland pre-war — discrepancies on “ownership” of a given bit of land at specific times notwithstanding.

Happy tachiai to you all in 2007.