Asashoryu Akinori, to call him by his full Japanese name, remains as divisive as ever in the world of Japanese sumo.
A brilliant yokozuna at his peak, quite likely capable of beating anyone on his day — past or present — Asashoryu now stands alone in third place on the all-time yusho winners’ list having picked up his 25th championship to date despite a final day flop against fellow Mongolian and yokozuna Hakyho Sho. Despite this incredible achievement, which must surely be put down to a solid period of pre-basho practice and a degree of focus throughout that has been missing in recent months, his inability to keep his head down 24/7 and focus solely on things sumo has already come back to give him a blow where it hurts most — to his pride.
Sadly, it is unlikely that his self-destructive streak will ever satisfy Japanese desires for an increased awareness and respect for that aspect of the sport so difficult to put into words — hinkaku. Perhaps best termed by the English words “honor and/or respect,” it has often been argued that the level of hinkaku expected of a non-Japanese rikishi is actually higher than that expected of a local-born fighter.
While this is an argument that could be argued until the cows come home, over the years Asashoryu has never really helped his own cause, what with his infamous breakdown and disappearance two years ago, numerous minor transgressions before and after, and just last week, his reported punching of a former top-division rikishi after a mid-basho drinking session.
The fallout from this latest case will not be fully known for some time. Although wrists have been slapped in the meantime, this has not stopped certain voices in the respected Yokozuna Deliberation Council from criticizing the man for whom “third on the all-time list” will now precede talk of his basho count — unless he can squeeze out another half-dozen Emperor’s Cups in his time left and challenge the record of 32 held by Taiho.
At least two members of the council — Messrs. Sawamura and Yaku — had been heard making disparaging remarks about Asashoryu’s late-night frolics, with Sawamura going so far as to blame the Mongolian not being Japanese as the reason his hinkaku is apparently so deficient. Little has been heard from either regarding performances on the dohyo though — from Asashoryu or anyone else.
Meanwhile, the other half of the yokozuna duo, Hakuho, left many bemused with back-to-back losses against Harumafuji on Day 12 and then ozeki Kaio. Earlier in the week he had slipped up against sekiwake Baruto from Estonia. Ironically the fight most would now view as the biggest surprise of the three would be his oshidashi defeat at the hand of warhorse Kaio, a man he has defeated 21 times in 25 face-to-face meetings. Numerically Hatsu 2010 has thus served a potentially fatal blow to his stated desire to improve upon an 86-4 record over 90 fights last year. Given that in 2009, it took him 56 bouts over five basho to lose three, the remainder of 2010 will require superhuman ability from the man from Ulan Bator!
Hakuho, however, did manage to save some face on Day 15 when he defeated Asashoryu, who was most likely groggy from basho-victory celebrations the previous night.
One man they will both have to keep an eye on in the immediate future is Baruto. Going 12-3 this time out in the sport’s third rank, on the back of a 9-6 in November and a 12-3 before that as komusubi, the ozeki ranks look to be beckoning for the huge Baltic warrior. There is indeed space available following Chiyotaikai’s recent demotion to sekiwake after a decade as ozeki.
As was discussed pre-basho, Taikai did opt to retire when it became apparent he wasn’t in fit condition to return automatically to ozeki. He’ll now spend a year or so preparing for his ceremonial hairsnip which will formally separate him from active sumo. This was certainly the biggest news of the tourney’s first week. After failing to avoid the inevitable and opting to call it a day, the Oita man has perhaps led the way for fellow Japanese ozeki Kotomitsuki and Kaio, who no doubt are thinking about the years ahead and when enough is enough. It shouldn’t be long before they both join him in the oyakata pasture. When when that happens, regardless of whether or not Baruto makes ozeki, we could be facing a supposed national sport with no national presence in the top three ranks.