Kisenosato becomes first Japanese-born yokozuna in almost two decades

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Staff Writer

Unlike during tournaments, an occasional smile crept across Kisenosato’s face.

But the 30-year-old mostly maintained his signature stern expression, perhaps anticipating the responsibility about to be bestowed upon him as he ascends to highest rank in the world of sumo.

Kisenosato was told by messengers from the Japan Sumo Association at a Tokyo hotel that he had been unanimously approved as the 72nd yokozuna by the sport’s governing body at its executive committee meeting Wednesday.

“I would like to respectfully accept it. I will devote myself to not disgrace the name of yokozuna,” Kisenosato said.

Speaking to a large crowd of reporters who had assembled for the promotion of the first Japanese-born yokozuna since Wakanohana in 1998 (Hawaiian-born Musashimaru was promoted to yokozuna in 1999 after he became a Japanese citizen), Kisenosato said with a relieved expression that he was “extremely nervous” when he responded to the messengers.

“I came here to express my appreciation for those who have supported me,” said Kisenosato, who captured his first Emperor’s Cup in the New Year Grand Sumo Tournament, which wrapped up Sunday, with a 14-1 record. “I am fortunate to have received help from so many people. I wouldn’t have been able to achieve this by myself.”

While he was clearly pleased with his promotion, Kisenosato acknowledged that he would have to be more accountable as a yokozuna and get used to greater scrutiny both inside and outside the ring.

“I still have a lot of weaknesses,” said Kisenosato, who posted the most wins of any wrestler in 2016. “But I’ve been chosen (to be yokozuna) and know I’ve got to do my best.

“A yokozuna is considered to be the strongest man. I will certainly be in the spotlight when I’m in the ring and my attitude will be under scrutiny when I’m not in the ring as well. So I would like to grow more as a human, so I will earn respect.”

Kisenosato added that a yokozuna “is not supposed to lose” and has to be able to “compete for the championship at any time.”

Kisenosato’s stable master, Tagonoura, who inherited the stable after his predecessor, Naruto, died in 2011, said that he had witnessed Kisenosato’s hard work up close and was glad it had paid off.

“He was competing under massive pressure,” Tagonoura said of the last year, when Kisenosato had the chance to become yokozuna. “Though a tournament lasts 15 days, he quickly gets back into training after each tournament.”

Kisenosato is the only Japanese-born wrestler of the four current yokozuna (Hakuho, Harumafuji and Kakuryu are Mongolians) — a designation that will carry enormous expectations.

“I am in no position to assess other wrestlers’ sumo, but I’ve always been told that I had to polish my skills to go forward,” Kisenosato said when asked about what areas he thinks he has an edge over the other yokozuna. “I’ve been told that since I entered sumo when I was 15 and I’ve tried to develop that. Whether I was a juryo wrestler or I was ozeki, I’ve come all the way here believing it.”

JSA chief director Hakkaku, who was formerly known as yokozuna Hokutoumi, said that he expected the latest yokozuna to be a salesman for the sport.

“I understand that it’s part of the job of a yokozuna,” said Kisenosato, a native of Ushiku, Ibaraki Prefecture. “Including at (unofficial) tour tournaments, I am going to do my best to promote sumo.”

Kisenosato’s father, Sadahiko Hagiwara, said that he would like his son to be a role model and be a better person.

“You can’t just wrestle any way you want (as yokozuna) because you are representing sumo and in a sense you are also representing the country of Japan,” he said. “The responsibility is certainly heavier.”

Kisenosato is scheduled to perform a dohyo-iri ring-entering ceremony at Tokyo’s Meiji Jingu shrine on Friday as one of his first duties as yokozuna.