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One large step back, a few small steps forward

by Mark Buckton

Special To The Japan Times Online

Last month the sumo association, while supposedly seeing 2012 as the year to move forward and clear their sullied name, took a massive step backward.

During the most recent reshuffle of bigwigs running the game, former chairman Kitanoumi was re-elected Rijicho. Under the latter part of his leadership that ended in 2008, the sport saw scandal after scandal push it daily into the headlines of sports newspapers and gossip like quasi-news shows.

Exactly why this bewildering re-election took place is still being debated and is likely down to nobody else wanting the job after both former Musashigawa (ex-yokozuna Mienoumi) and Hanaregoma (ex-ozeki Kaiketsu) were ousted in relatively quick succession.

Kitanoumi for his part should now be looking to focus public attention on the dohyo away from the sport’s notorious and repeated faux-pas of recent years.

In this regard at least, things are looking up for the locals.

The Japanese ozeki duo Kisenosato and Kotoshogiku performed well during the January Hatsu Basho, Kisenosato in his first at rank was particularly impressive and in the running till the last few days.

The basho was, of course, claimed by a first-timer in the shape of Baruto thereby breaking the Hakuho stranglehold on the top flight title race.

Lower down in the makunouchi division a trio of Japanese rikishi stood out with winning records at career-high positions: Myogiryu with a 9-6 at maegashira 5, Chiyonokuni with a 9-5-1 record at maegashira 13, and Tenkaiho with an 8-7 also at maegashira 13. Both Chiyonokuni and Tenkaiho were in their first tournaments in the senior division.

One division down, but not for long, Chiyotairyu at the foot of juryo won the division title race at first time of asking with a stunning 13-2 that has seen him promoted to the juryo 1 position from where he is perfectly positioned for a jump to the mid-maegashira ranks with a similarly impressive showing in Osaka. This sumo writer believes he is up to the challenge.

All of the above bode well for the second coming of Kitanoumi.

Away from the dohyo itself but still in the public eye the sumo association do look to be making a few decent decisions. The person in charge of actually running the tournament down in Osaka is Takanohana Oyakata, formerly a yokozuna of the same name. Takanohana was recently mulling over ideas that could see reduced ticket prices and fan interaction during the 15 days of action. One original idea centered on those attending in kimono getting discounts on ticket prices.

Several other fan-friendly ideas that were put into play in the January basho in Tokyo could also make an appearance in Osaka’s Prefectural Gymnasium between the 11th and 25th of March.

These include the appearance of the popular Sekitori-kun — a bright yellow bird like character who was kept busy daily catering to hug and photo requests by kids and adults alike, and perhaps the rousing rendition of Hakkeyoi Sekitori-kun by 11 self-titled Oyakata All Stars in the corridors and entrance hall.

When all the fun and frolicks have been enjoyed, however, sumo is still about the two guys going at it on the dohyo.

Few will bet against the current yokozuna — winner to date of 21 Emperor’s Cups. As reigning yokozuna, Hakuho is always a threat and the perennial favorite to take any yusho if on his game. January did see him let down his guard in week two with the main beneficiary the Estonian ozeki Baruto who claimed his first Emperor’s Cup and now has a chance at yokozuna promotion himself if he can pick up another in Osaka.

Baruto will be giving it his all, day in, day out in Osaka and has the mettle to carry off another top division trophy. If he does so he is ‘supposedly’ guaranteed automatic promotion to yokozuna. According to the “rules” back-to-back yusho is the standard benchmark — or at least it has been in recent years.

As could be predicted though, there are more than a few Japanese voices now saying the ever jovial European exhibits behavior less than becoming of a grand champion. This smacks merely as fear that we could soon be seeing our first yokozuna from the EU at a time the local populace sees ozeki promotion as a major achievement.

The ball, either way, is in Baruto’s court. Will he, won’t he? I hope he does, but I think mettle aside, the killer instinct is lacking. Another one for Hak — number 22 overall taking him level with the great Takanohana and within sight of the record of 32 set by former yokozuna.

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One silver lining for sumo fans overseas that will peek out from behind the clouds at 4 p.m. Japan time this coming Sunday will see yours truly teaming up with another sumo writer — Chris Gould of Sumo Fan Magazine — to cover the day’s events live on Internet radio.

J.V.B. (Japan Visionary Broadcasting), based in Tokyo, will be hosting the first-ever online radio broadcast of a sumo tournament at thejvb.co and those logging in may even get to see Chris and I chew the fat and explain what is going on courtesy of a Ustream link.

The show will also be fully interactive so listeners can send in messages, and if we get a chance we will answer them.