Kyokutenho: the first Japanese yusho in six-plus years . . . sort of

Special To The Japan Times Online

In recent years it has been possible to start the regular post-basho article several days before a tournament wraps up.

This story, however, has taken a few days post-basho to get together because what happened on the final day of the Natsu Basho is still sinking in with many, slowly but surely, and continues to reverberate around the sport.

Oldest, slowest and several other superlatives aside in terms of how long in the top flight, and at what age Kyokutenho managed to win his first championship aside, one fact ignored by many in the media thus far that will have to be addressed one day soon is his nationality.

Several years ago Kyokutenho relinquished his Mongolian passport and became a Japanese citizen. His tournament victory earlier this month therefore makes him the first Japanese winner of the Emperor’s Cup since January of 2006, when then ozeki Tochiazuma won his third and final yusho before retiring the following year.

This means that come the first day of the Aki Basho in September and the unveiling of the yusho portraits for the Natsu Basho, and July’s tournament in Nagoya, reporters, commentators and all those in the Japanese media covering the sport will be faced with a conundrum so often avoided in the world of sumo: nationality.

The sport of sumo is known for limiting access to the professional ranks to fixed numbers of non-Japanese. But those of mixed parentage or those with ancestors in Japan, regardless of having been born and raised overseas, and not being too hot at speaking the language, are never questioned.

Any connection to the Land of the Rising Sun will do . . . until now, it seems.

Kyokutenho is the first yusho winner in the modern era to win his first yusho under a Japanese passport, having entered the sport as a non-Japanese.

Leaving aside the fact that a deeper investigation of yusho winners past could open a interesting but overflowing can of worms when it comes to non-Japanese winning yusho but being claimed as Japanese, the case with Kyokutenho is in the here and now and needs addressing.

Off the dohyo, Japanese television has repeatedly called a Japanese entertainer on a mission to appear in the Olympics a Cambodian, after he switched passports and became a marathon runner for the Southeast Asian nation. Born to Japanese parents, the individual in question is now Cambodian. Should he win a medal it will count as a medal won by a Cambodian athlete and not a Japanese.

Several politicians in the Japanese government were born overseas of foreign parents, naturalized, and now hold public office. Would the Sumo Association not recognize their status as Japanese were they to ever head the Education Ministry the association is officially a part of?

Times, attitudes and perceptions are changing. Kyokutenho is as Japanese in legal terms as the current Prime Minister.

Another question many fans are asking after the victory of a rank-and-filer in the mid-maegashira ranks surrounds the effectiveness and potential over-protection of those at the ozeki rank. Of the six incumbents, just two managed to secure the traditional minimum requirement of 10 wins following the final day’s bouts.

Since they are statistically protected from being demoted unless they score makekoshi (losing records or 7-8 or lower) twice in successive tournaments, the introduction of a higher bar for ozeki is one idea that’s being bandied around in some circles. Fingers crossed that member of the Sumo Association are listening.

Few would argue that the mid-late 2000s saw sumo stagnate at the top due to the likes of the then ozeki pair of Kaio and Chiyotaikai doing little more than work toward their 8 wins each tournament to avoid the potential for the drop to sekiwake in the following tourney.

With so many ozeki currently in the favored position of having to go makekoshi back-to-back before losing the rank but offering so little in terms of challenging Hakuho for the title, an upping of the ante to double figures could increase spectator interest for the long term with a resulting increased turnover at ozeki. If only …