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2017: a year for sumo nostalgia

by Mark Schreiber

On Jan. 22, 30-year-old ozeki (champion) Kisenosato (real name Yutaka Hagiwara) emerged victorious in the New Year Grand Sumo Tournament with an outstanding record of 14 wins and only one loss. His promotion to history’s 72nd yokozuna (grand champion) was confirmed by the Japan Sumo Association three days later.

The announcement was greeted with jubilation in Kisenosato’s home prefecture of Ibaraki, as well as by fans across the nation.

Whatever sumo fans might have been thinking, the domestic media was careful to avoid stating that Kisenosato was the first “Japanese” to be named to the top rank since Wakanohana in 1998. Rather, Kisenosato was referred to as “Nihon-shusshin” — which in English has been rendered variously as “Japan-born,” “native-born,” “home-grown,” “made in Japan” or other such expressions. Since sumo has developed into an international sport, this steers away from the implication that a naturalized citizen should be regarded as any less “Japanese” than a person of so-called Yamato ethnicity.

It’s a distinction that’s become increasingly important, because growing numbers of wrestlers from abroad have obtained Japanese citizenship, which is required by the JSA if they want to become a toshiyori (elder) and operate their own stable of wrestlers after they retire.

One noted individual who went that route is a 72-year-old man with a bushy white beard who goes by the name Daigoro Watanabe. Born Jesse James Wailani Kuhaulua on the Hawaiian island of Maui in June 1944, he arrived in Japan in 1964 and during his sumo career competed under the name Takamiyama (“High-view Mountain”).

The special Bessatsu Takarajima “mook” (magazine-book) dated Dec. 31 and currently on sale recalls that the coming Osaka tournament in March will mark 50 years since Takamiyama made headlines when he became the first foreign-born sekitori, as salaried members of sumo’s two highest divisions are called.

At 192 centimeters and more than 200 kilograms, he was one of the tallest and heaviest competitors at the time, but his top-heavy physique made him vulnerable to quick moves. He depended mostly on sheer strength and momentum, as opposed to grabbing his opponents’ belts and downing them with throwing techniques.

Nonetheless he avoided illness and serious injury and still holds sumo’s record for most consecutive top division bouts with 1,231. The late Andy Adams, sumo columnist for The Japan Times, believed this qualified Takamiyama as the “greatest sekiwake (junior champion) of all time.”

He also deserves special recognition as a pioneer for non-Japanese entering the sport. According to Bessatsu Takarajima, out of the 186 foreign wrestlers who have attempted to enter professional sumo, 48 have reached the ranks of the top makunouchi division for at least one tournament. This puts their odds of making it at about 1 in 4, considerably better than for all competitors, which is said to be about 1 out of 10.

Within a year of his ascension, Takamiyama was competing with top-ranked wrestlers. In a bout with yokozuna Sadanoyama, he took his first kinboshi (gold star), awarded to rank-and-file wrestlers who defeat a grand champion. Later the same year he defeated a second yokozuna, Kashiwado.

In the Nagoya tournament of 1972, Takamiyama won his first and only tournament, with a record of 13 wins and two losses. He married a Japanese woman and took her surname, Watanabe, when he obtained Japanese citizenship in 1980. After retiring in 1982, he opened his own stable, Azumazeki, and his accomplishments continued, as he nurtured fellow Hawaiian Chad Rowan to become yokozuna Akebono in 1993.

The Asahi Shimbun (Jan. 7), meanwhile, featured a nostalgic portrayal of the late David M. Jones (1915-2005), a nonwrestler who enjoyed a “career” in the sumo ring. In May 1961, 11 years and two months before Takamiyama was to win a tournament, Jones began presenting the Pan American World Airways trophy — an enormous winged globe standing 115 cm high and weighing 42 kg — on the final day of each tournament. He did this six times a year for the next 30 years.

Clad in formal Japanese kimono, the diminutive Jones always began by exclaiming “Hyō-shō-JŌ!” (certificate of award) and then reading a brief presentation speech. When the tournaments were held in Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka, he would deliver his speeches in the local dialect — much to the delight of his audience.

At the January 1973 tournament Jones lifted the top-heavy trophy, stumbled and toppled over backward, pinned beneath it until the tournament winner, Kotozakura — who was trying hard not to laugh — picked it up and helped Jones back on his feet.

In addition to Japan, trophies or plaques are currently awarded at sumo tournaments by eight other countries: the Czech Republic, the United Arab Emirates, Mexico, China, Hungary, Mongolia, France and Bulgaria. While Pan American airlines is long gone, its trophy can be viewed at the sumo museum in Ryogoku.

As a historical footnote, Jones also arranged for his airline to sponsor Takamiyama, who had been scouted as a high school football player in Maui by the veterans’ club of Hawaii’s famous 442nd regimental combat team. Takamiyama’s kesshō mawashi (ceremonial apron) bore the unit’s “Go for Broke” insignia.

Returning for a moment to the subject of the newest yokozuna, Kisenosato, not all media coverage of his promotion has been rosy. Yukan Fuji (Jan. 25) cautioned sumo fans to brace themselves for the possibility of what it terms a “short-lived jinx.” It seems that since the introduction of the current system of six annual tournaments in 1958, only four ozeki (Asahifuji, Kotozakura, Mienoumi and Takanosato) achieved promotion to yokozuna after reaching age 30. Subsequently the former two only won a single tournament; the latter pair each won two tournaments. The post-promotion careers of the four turned out to be disappointingly brief, averaging less than two years.

With the men in the top ranks starting to show their age, and no clear favorites yet among the younger up-and-comers, sumo might very well be in for a turbulent year.