Had any self-respecting sumo writer or fan been asked to predict the final score of ozeki Kaio prior to the Kyushu Basho, few would have predicted anything more than an 8-7 or perhaps 9-6 kachikoshi winning record.
Sniggering would have been audible had it been suggested he would put together a healthy double-figure winning record for the first time in three and a half years, that he would challenge yokozuna Hakuho for the title and go into the final weekend just one win off the pace considered as likely as the national soccer team walking off with the FIFA World Cup any time soon.
But, to his credit, he did all of this and more. Despite a first-day loss to the wily old Aminishiki, in which Kaio looked decidedly lackluster, he bounced back to win the next 11 bouts straight. Defeating Kisenosato in the process — the man responsible for ending Hakuho’s bid to break Futabayama’s 69-bout unbeaten record — both sekiwake, and both komusubi, Kaio was on a roll.
The down side, if there is one, is that the five-time yusho winner failed to call it a day when the basho came to an end. As the longest serving ozeki in the history of the sport his retirement has been expected for several years, his performances since the mid-2000s less than up to par — Kyushu the exception — and when he ended on 12-3 the opportunity presented itself to bow out on a high, applauds ringing in his ears.
Kaio failed to take this opportunity for reasons only he knows. And when fans of the man, or those with a deeper link to the sport than most pondered this, they held mixed opinions.
“If success in sumo is defined as an ailing, weakening veteran sacrificing technique in a mad struggle to get (the bare minimum of) eight wins each tournament over a five-year period, then Kaio should of course continue,” said long-time sumo follower and writer Chris Gould. “However, if Kaio and the Sumo Association have higher expectations of an ozeki, then Kaio should thank the fans and his employers for their tremendous support, and step aside for the next generation.”
“No Japanese would disagree with Kaio, if he decided to retire now,” said Professor Kanshi H. Sato. “Many people would even applaud loudly. Kaio has long been considered an ada-bana, which means ‘sterile flower,’ as he has failed to be a big star, (even after) fighting for such a long time. But now, he is leading from (near) the front at the Kyushu Basho, his home town basho. So, just like cherry blossoms are said to be at their most beautiful when they fall, Kaio would be most appreciated if he quits while he is at his best. If not, he may have to retire later when people are throwing stones at him.”
Professional translator and Kaio fan Ayaka Noda from Chiba Prefecture was more encouraging in her comments. “I don’t want Kaio to retire,” said. “He’s been really popular for a long time even without (winning) a yusho. That means his character (not only as a rikishi, but also (the longevity) records he is setting) has great meaning for us. In Japanese culture, men should be kind and strong and Kaio is (a man of) exactly that image.”
Agreeing with this concept of not giving up until the very end, pro-wrestling fan Paul Purvis backed Kaio’s to continue. “I say don’t retire. Let the sport retire you,” Purvis said. “If you can still do it, then you should still do it. Give the fans more chances to see you.”
So for now, the last Japanese ozeki we are likely to see for some time remains in his rank. With his score guaranteeing he can continue as such until at least the end of the Haru Basho in Osaka in March, for now it looks like Kaio will be back come the Hatsu Basho in Tokyo in early January.
Finally, just to prove my own mettle somewhat, the two foreign rikishi bound for juryo and beyond covered in my pre-tournament article, Aoiyama and Kyokushuho finished 3-4 and 4-3 respectively.
It is often said in sumo that the difference between the unsalaried and salaried ranks — the top of makushita and the foot of juryo — is like the difference between heaven and hell. It is at this point many hit a “wall” of sorts. Aoiyama appears to have done just this, but don’t expect him — or Kyokushuho — to remain mired in makushita as long as Fujiazuma and Yoshiazuma (50/23 basho around makushita) of Tamanoi Beya did prior to their own first ascension to juryo.
Both Aoiyama and Kyokushuho will be approaching the uppermost makunouchi division next year, and in the process probably tipping the scales in favor of non-Japanese rikishi versus their domestic fellow grapplers in the top-flight for the foreseeable future.