Numbers break records, character creates legends

by Mark Buckton

At exactly 5:43 p.m. on Sunday afternoon, Jan. 21, 2007, yokozuna Asashoryu Akinori was presented with the Emperor’s Cup for the 20th time in his sumo career; a feat achieved only four times prior, by former yokozuna Taiho (32 total yusho), Chiyonofuji (31), Kitanoumi (24) and Takanohana (22). These were all men whose character, combined with win/loss ratios, went on to guarantee them a place not only in sumo record books but also in the pages of Japanese history.

News photo26-year-old yokozuna Asashoryu (right) and compatriot Asasekiryu raise their hands aloft to signal the
big 20, on the ocassion of the Mongolian’s 20th sumo basho victory.

Is Asashoryu worthy of inclusion in the same history books? Some would say that the Mongolian still lacks a certain something — that humble, respectful side that makes a regular yokozuna a great yokozuna. Early rumblings after his 20th victory are not too favorable: The current Sumo Association chairman, Toshimits Kitanoumi, openly questioned the quality of Asashoryu’s opponents, and even the great Taiho is said to have referred to the need for the current incumbent to consider the responsibilities of a yokozuna. Nothing too direct, but the food for thought is there.

It appears too often that Asashoryu needs a lower-ranked sekitori to “pick on” — an outlet for his aggression. For a while, Takamisakari, the man nicknamed Robo Cop by foreign fans, was the victim. Both Roho and Kotomitsuki have come in for “special treatment” over the past year or so, especially during training sessions and in recent basho Kisenosato, the 20-year-old komusubi, seems to have been targeted. The extra and wholly unnecessary slap-cum-push of an already beaten man on Day 8 was the latest indication of a yokozuna lacking the all-important hinkaku — dignity plus strength of character deemed so vital to the post.

Away from the main spotlight, though, the ozeki didn’t fare too badly during the Hatsu Basho, given that all five were carrying, or at least still recovering, from injury. Of the quintet, only Tochiazuma (5-10) failed to secure a winning record, Hakuho (10-5) showed little variation on his now routine left-handed grab for the mawashi and, at times, Bulgarian Kotooshu (9-6) looked like the only move he was content with was henka.

When the proverbial push came to shove, however, it was again left to the rank-and-file maegashira — Toyonoshima (12-3) this time — to give the yokozuna cause for concern. Sadly for Day 15 ticket-holders, when the Tokitsukaze Beya man lost on the penultimate day of action and Asashoryu forced out Tochiazuma in the musubi-no-ichiban final bout, the yusho was (again) settled early.

Several other maegashira men posted double figures or otherwise healthy records come senshuraku (the final day) and will receive decent promotions in March, most notably Tamanoshima (10-5), Asasekiryu (10-5) and Ama (another 10-5). Media darlings, Homasho and Kisenosato both suffered defeats on the final Sunday to finish with identical 7-8 records and will drop a rank or two on the next banzuke.

The Juryo division ended up going to a three-way play-off with Toyohibiki (10-5) of Sakaigawa Beya finally winning two consecutive bouts against first Tochiozan and then former Makunouchi man Shimotori; a jump to the side at the start of his yusho-winning bout tarnishing the achievement somewhat.

Elsewhere, most of those destined for future sekitori-hood did not disappoint. Sakaizawa took the Makushita third division title with a perfect 7-0 as Musashigawa man Musashiryu in the upper echelons went 6-1. Former Juryo man Mokonami went 5-2 to potentially secure promotion back to the second division after a terrible 2006 and one-time college rikishi Ichihara also chalked up five wins and looks set for a second division debut in the coming months.

The three divisions beneath Makushita all went to play-offs on the final day, with each eventually claimed by Japanese nationals — a fact only made possible due to Jonokuchi returnee and Tongan-born Hisanoumi changing his nationality at the end of 2006 to allow another Tongan to enter the same stable under the one foreigner per heya rule.

Off the dohyo, attendance was up. While the number of sell-out days could be seen as an indication that the sport is “on the way back,” foreign fans could take much of the credit as the numbers of those alien to Japanese shores attending honbasho has risen sharply in the past three or four years. English-speaking guides are now a regular sight at the main sumo stadium, as are simple English-language brochures aimed at introducing the sport and stadium. Couple this with the increasing numbers of younger Japanese showing an interest, the line for day tickets starting as early as 5:30 a.m. on weekends, and things are indeed looking up.

Whether Asashoryu’s unrivaled dominance over an injured, aging — or sometimes both — set of ozeki serves to dampen such enthusiasm remains to be seen, but fingers crossed he’ll be made to work harder next time out.