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Hakuho notches another, while Kaio once again raises eyebrows

by Mark Buckton

With the presentation of the Emperor’s Cup to yokozuna Hakuho on Sunday evening Nov. 29, the first decade of sumo in the 21st century came to a thundering close. Hakuho (15-0) had just dispatched fellow yokozuna Asashoryu with a wonderful uwatenage throwing technique to claim his 12th top-flight trophy to date, and excellent performances over the fortnight by maegashira men Tochinoshin (12-3), Miyabiyama (12-3) and Yoshikaze (10-5) will all be rewarded with impressive promotions next basho.

However, what promised to be a great record-breaking basho all but fizzled out once yokozuna Asashoryu went on a four-day losing streak toward the end, leaving his final day face-off with Hakuho as more of a bonus bout than anything upon which reputations years from now will rest.

In so many ways, the Mongolians dominated the world of sumo in the years of 2000-2009. Between them, Hakuho and Asashoryu took an incredible 36 of 60 possible Emperor’s Cups. Ten individuals shared the remaining 24, with former yokozuna Musashimaru top of the non-Mongol pile with nine. Unfortunately, without the rose-colored glasses historians so frequently like to don, those living in the here and now were witnesses to one of the worst overall makunouchi basho in recent memory.

Before the action kicked off on Nov. 15, all the talk was about Chiyotaikai and Kaio — both ozeki now fighting more for the sake of pride than anything else. Chiyotaikai was kadoban, meaning that he would lose his rank if he failed to win more than he lost, and despite a positive 2-0 start, he went on to record eight consecutive losses before pulling out on Day 11 and thus guaranteeing a demotion to sekiwake, a rank he last saw way back in January 1999. Before Kyushu, though, he did say he would compete in the next basho even as a sekiwake. Given the fact that this affords him the opportunity of automatic promotion back to the ozeki rank should he win 10, January may see the Oita man call time on his own career should he lose one or two in the first week.

One individual many were predicting, even hoping, would hang it up was Kaio. Yet again Tomozuna Beya’s top man secured his kachi-koshi on the final day, with victory over fellow ozeki Kotomitsuki for the second consecutive basho. That this was Kaio’s sixth consecutive 8-7 record featured prominently in his post-tourney comments to the press. The Fukuoka native expressed his thanks for his fans support but his regret at a mediocre 12 months of sumo.

From the sidelines though, eyebrows were raised once again after the hometown favorite defeated Kotomitsuki minutes before the final jaw-dropping battle between the two yokozuna. From the moment when he sat down after the bout until when he left the main arena, Kaio looked decidedly unhappy. Not many fans of the sport are happy admitting that one rikishi “gives one up” for an opponent in need, but the performances of those filling the ozeki ranks this past year has catapulted this possibility into open, public discussion. The days of whispering about such an issue are long gone, at least as far as foreign fans are concerned. The grumbling about the legitimacy of Kaio’s victory over Kotomitsuki — a man who had earlier in the week defeated yokozuna Asashoryu — is already audible.

When it comes to Kaio and Chiyotaikai, even Japanese fans are starting to say enough is enough. “I really can’t make a neutral comment about whether they should retire or not,” said Kaori Ishii, a 25-year observer of the sport. “I have checked their records, and the numbers are suspicious. How can they continue (to maintain their) ozeki status? Both should have demoted much earlier. Admittedly, it is a rikishi who decides the time he should retire. However, regrettably, I don’t see them having the ability to (maintain) the rank of ozeki anymore. The Sumo Association should change the ‘kadoban’ rules and only let ozeki benefit from this system a limited number of times.” (This was an view that was also echoed in part on the English-language version of the NHK broadcast during the final day of action.)

“In my opinion, even if they don’t get 10 wins each basho (an unwritten expectation of ozeki), it doesn’t directly disgrace the ozeki rank,” said company employee Masayo Iizuka from Ota Ward, Tokyo. “They should have their own criteria for being an ozeki, so when they judge themselves not worthy of holding the title, then it is the time to retire. If they know (this time has come) but still continue to perform sumo, then this does disgrace the ozeki rank.”

“If Chiyotaikai really hopes to return to the rank of ozeki, his efforts will be seen and much respected (if successful),” said English-language sumo writer Michiko Kodama. “When it comes to Kaio, though, I feel it is important for him to think and decide for himself which matters most: the record (he stands to win in January) of most victories ever in makunouchi or securing 10 or more wins each basho” (10 wins is the minimum required for those in the sport’s second rank).

Kaio’s future is now in his own hands. His presence on the dohyo is an embarrassment, with little more than injury updates expected from the once-feared ozeki. For the sake of sumo and his own legacy, it is time that he retired from the sport and took his much earned position as an oyakata. A fourth decade in active sumo is beyond even his abilities.