|

Hatsu Basho 2011 — time for domestic rekishi to shine

by Mark Buckton

Special To The Japan Times Online

For around a decade much has been made of the lack of domestic born talent in professional sumo. No Japanese sekitori has won a yusho now for six full years — the last local winner being then ozeki Tochiazuma back in January of 2006.

And, in truth, when push comes to shove, despite a few “oh so nearly” one-offs, no local lad has really come close in the years since. In fact, of the 32 tournament winners’ portraits that currently hang in the rafters at the Ryogoku Kokugikan, just one portraying a Japanese fighter remains, that of the aforementioned Tochiazuma. This portrait will be removed in a few days time when, following the continuous updating of the images, the winner of last year’s September and November tourneys will replace the two oldest still in place. This in effect means another pair of these huge 80 kg images of Yokozuna Hakuho are set to appear just before the makunouchi action on Day 1, Jan. 8.

As miserable as this may seem for fans of the local rikishi the sun is beginning to peek out from behind the clouds.

There was a time when the 7% or 8% of foreign-born rikishi of the total of around 700 occupied almost half of all slots in the uppermost division. Although the numbers are still high in this regard — in particular in the sanyaku ranks — the foreign population is aging and will not be replaced as easily as they once were.

The top Japanese fighters in makunouchi are aging too, of course, but they are slowly but surely being replaced by new local talent making their way up the ranks, with several exciting prospects to keep an eye on in the coming months including Takayasu from Ibaraki at maegashira 3, still 21, Chiyonokuni at maegashira 13 — also aged just 21, and for me, the slightly older Myogiryu, 25, at maegashira 5.

One fighter already well established in the top division that has a potentially career making 2012 ahead of him is the Oki Islands-born Okinoumi of Hakkaku Beya. Currently the senior sekitori in the stable, he has spent the last few years gaining experience against some of the top flight’s senior men. At one point or another, he defeated all the ozeki, bar newbie Kisenosato, although in four meetings to date with Hakuho he has yet to earn the scalp of a yokozuna.

There are still non-Japanese fighters in the lower divisions but none bar Kyokushuho who is making his debut in the top division at maegashira 15 are really showing any real noticeable potential. Kyokushuho is from Mongolia like the past two yokozuna, and has already been labeled a future grand champion by some fans. He should, at the very least, make the sanyaku ranks but as he advances up makunouchi, he will come up against a stronger cross-section of rikishi than was faced by either Asashoryu or Hakuho during their own upward journeys.
Of course, many making their way to the stadium over the course of the basho, and around the nation on TV will be watching new ozeki Kisenosato to see how he fares in his first basho at rank.

Three of his four fellow ozeki secured double figure winning records in their respective first appearances as an ozeki — only Harumafuji coming in below the expected ozeki minimum standard of 10 wins per basho with an 8-7 finish. And so to end — my own prediction for Kisenosato — and more double figures methinks; 11-4 or perhaps even 12-3 if he has not let the parties and celebrations since his promotion get the better of him. Pushing the yokozuna to the wire is not an impossibility, and hopefully the man from Ibaraki Prefecture will keep it together mentally until the final weekend to do so.

Happy New Year to Sumo Scribblings readers! We’d like to hear from you, so let us know your thoughts, feelings and overall moans and groans related to the sport, and we will try to address as many points as possible. Send your comments to markbuckton1970@gmail.com