This is the ninth in a series on influential figures in the Heisei Era, which began in 1989 and will end when Emperor Akihito abdicates on April 30. In Heisei, Japan was roiled by economic excess and stagnation, as well as a struggle for political and social reform. This series explores those who left their imprint along the way.
In sumo’s 2,000-year history, few men have been as steeped in the sport’s traditions as Koji Hanada.
Born into sumo royalty, the man better known as Takanohana ended up rejecting those conventions and rituals, publicly and emphatically.
Given that he was part of a dynasty that had dominated tabloid headlines over the decades, to an even greater extent than it did his opponents in the ring, Takanohana’s turn from golden boy to rebellious antihero still came as a shock to many.
However, when one considers the upbringing he had, as well as the constant pressure and expectations he endured, all while living in the spotlight from early childhood, the transformation seems almost inevitable in retrospect.
Koji was groomed from a young age to follow in the footsteps of his ozeki father, but by the time the 19-year-old Takahanada (his initial ring name) won his first title, the comparisons had switched to those of his uncle — former yokozuna Wakanohana.
Indeed it was the latter man, in his role as chairman of the Japan Sumo Association, who handed over the Emperor’s Cup that very day — an action filled with “passing the baton” symbolism.
As Koji was downing Misugisato to win the championship, his elder brother, Masaru was sitting ringside awaiting his own bout — one from which he would emerge victorious, giving him double digit wins and the technique prize.
With Masaru (Wakahanada) just days past his 21st birthday and having already reached the rank of komusubi, and Koji newly minted as the youngest-ever champion in sumo’s history, the brothers seemed set, like their father and uncle before them, for successful careers in the ring followed by long and influential turns as stablemasters.
Little attention was paid to the fact that Takahanada’s title-winning interview was terse even by sumo standards. Virtually every photo of him from that day shows an unsmiling young man looking like he’d rather be anywhere else. A thread running through the Heisei Icons series has been the struggle to break free of moribund and rigid systems, and no system exemplifies the old adage “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down” better than sumo.
When Masaru Hanada later tried to start a second career as a professional football player in Japan’s X League and the Arena Football League in the U.S., he told The Japan Times’ Hiroshi Ikezawa that, “Sumo is a very traditional and restricted world. I learned patience and self-control through sumo before I retired at the age of 29. Now it’s time to do what I really want to do.”
That last sentence sticks out more than any nail.
His younger brother was rarely as candid, but Takanohana’s own postretirement actions spoke volumes about just how much he had chafed against sumo’s way of doing things and the forced stifling of his individuality.
Even his retirement ceremony broke with tradition. Rather than have the normal parade of 300 to 400 people each cutting a single strand of his hair, Takanohana limited it to 50. He also sold the broadcast rights to the event, which was shown live on Fuji TV, for a reported ¥200 million. Other activities normally seen at such ceremonies were either reduced or cut entirely and the whole thing was released on DVD.
His later attempts to gain power and influence within the JSA would be stymied by that same individualism and determination to do things his own way.
Takanohana’s career as a sumo elder was given the best possible start. He had the rare honor of receiving a one-generation elder name, got his own stable and was brought into the judging department far earlier than normal.
The personal fiefdom of his own stable allowed Takanohana to do things his way. But when he tried to enact changes on an association-wide level, his inflexibility and inability to play the political game saw his efforts come to naught, eventually leading to his complete separation from the sport.
Takanohana’s unrestrained postretirement embracing of individualism after being released from the constant pressure of rikishi life is hardly unique.
Like livestock jumping and running with wild abandon when released to pasture after wintering indoors, many former wrestlers get tattoos, dye their hair or take up the most “undignified” activity they can, almost as soon as the topknot is cut.
And while most of them only endured sumo’s strictness for eight or 10 years, Takanohana had, almost like a member of a royal family, been expected to conform to a certain code of conduct since childhood.
After joining sumo, the level of attention focused on the teenager and his brother reached ridiculous proportions, especially when Takanohana became engaged to actress Rie Miyazawa.
According to The Independent journalist Terry McCarthy in February 1993, “Ever since they announced their engagement three months ago, the sumo wrestler … and the actress Rie Miyazawa have been the number one news item in papers, magazines and television chat shows.”
Indeed, when the couple went their separate ways, the media frenzy was so great that both parties were compelled to hold news conferences explaining the reasons for the split.
Miyazawa, according to McCarthy, told the 200 journalists present at her announcement that “there was a time when I truly cared for him — it was a very powerful feeling. … But now my feelings have changed.”
Crucially, however, she added that she had not been allowed by the stable to meet Takanohana for a month prior to that morning, when she returned the engagement ring: “I felt as if I was seeing a different person. If we had had enough time to talk to each other, we could have resolved the problems. We couldn’t do so because it was not on his mind.”
The man himself gave a much shorter explanation, simply saying that his “love had died,” but few bought those stories and the media were rife with speculation about the engagement having been brought to an end by those in Takanohana’s stable and family unhappy with Miyazawa’s celebrity lifestyle and desire to continue her career rather than retire and focus on her husband and future life as an okamisan (female stable manager).
Regardless of who made the final decision, there is no doubt that pressure was brought to bear on the young Takanohana to end the engagement, focus on sumo and find someone more “suitable.”
The debacle clearly had a major impact on Takanohana, and later squabbles with his family were almost certainly at least partly influenced by the fact that major decisions about his life were being made by others.
As Takanohana grew older, he started displaying signs that he was rejecting the old ways. He began to look outside sumo for help and treatment.
After severely injuring his knee late in his career, Takanohana choose to receive treatment from a knee specialist in France rather than one in Japan normally used by wrestlers.
His closeness to a therapist in Japan was also seen as a major influence on his growing separation from his family and others in sumo.
After a series of clashes with the entrenched powers, Takanohana left the sumo association last year.
Masaru Hanada, who remains estranged from his younger brother, best summed up Takanohana’s relationship with the JSA in a 2001 interview with Salon magazine.
“(The Sumo Association) lost the Waka-Taka opportunity out of sheer stubbornness,” the former Wakahanada said. “Really it came down to this: Our popularity could not translate into a better future for sumo because of them. Now I am free, and this feels much better.”
Takanohana spent most of his life avoiding that kind of direct and open criticism, but on a TV show discussing the end of the Heisei Era, when asked to chose one character that represented the period for him, he chose 治, which can mean “manage” or “subdue.” Elaborating, the former yokozuna said that for him, Heisei was a time when he had to subdue both his personality and true feelings.
For many in Japan, Koji Hanada symbolized a kind of youthful freedom in the Heisei Era, as Generation Z came of age and globalization and internationalization took root.
The reality, however, is that he gave the best years of his life to a system ruled by entrenched interests, but when he tried to exert his own individuality he was crushed by those same powers.