Three Japanese ozeki were in contention for promotion to yokozuna in 2016, raising hopes that a homegrown wrestler may reach sumo’s top rank for the first time in nearly two decades.
While Kotoshogiku, Kisenosato and Goeido could not manage to become the first Japan-born yokozuna since Wakanohana in 1998, the three are expected to continue chasing the title in the coming year amid Mongolian dominance in the Japanese national sport.
But they are not the only ones, as younger compatriots are also out to take up the challenge at the six grand sumo tournaments scheduled in 2017.
In 2016, Kotoshogiku, who hails from Fukuoka Prefecture, notched a 14-1 record in the New Year Grand Sumo Tournament in Tokyo in January to claim his first championship and the first title by a Japanese wrestler in 10 years since then-ozeki Tochiazuma.
But at the next 15-day meet in Osaka in March, the 32-year-old Kotoshogiku just managed a winning record at 8-7 and saw his promotion shot shattered as yokozuna Hakuho took home the Emperor’s Cup with a 14-1 record, edging Kisenosato by one win.
Goeido, 30, also got his hands on his maiden championship in September when he posted a surprise perfect run while fighting to salvage his ozeki status for the fourth time following a losing record two months earlier.
The Osaka Prefecture native’s promotion bid, however, fell short as he was 9-6 in the November tourney, which was won by yokozuna Kakuryu (14-1) for his third career title.
Kisenosato, for his part, is now the only one among four ozeki without a trophy but showed consistency in 2016, becoming the first sumo wrestler since the current six-tourneys-per-year system began in 1958 to win the most bouts (69) in a year without winning a meet in the process.
The bullish 30-year-old ozeki from Ibaraki Prefecture has been perceived as the Japanese wrestler closest to becoming yokozuna for some time, but his inability to beat a yokozuna in crucial bouts has cost him dearly.
After a solid March outing (13-2), Kisenosato looked headed for his first career title in the summer tourney in May when he won his first 12 bouts but lost his matches the next two days against Hakuho and Kakuryu. Hakuho completed the meet with a 15-0 mark for a record-extending 37th title.
At the July meet in Nagoya, yokozuna Harumafuji (13-2) beat Kisenosato on the 13th day en route to winning his eighth title, while the ozeki’s promotion bid in September never took off after early losses to lower-ranked grapplers. He ended the tourney with 10-5 record despite Hakuho being out injured.
Like Kotoshogiku and Goeido, Mongolian ozeki Terunofuji has one championship to his name but has been hampered by knee injuries.
Of the six tourneys in 2016, the three Mongolian yokozuna, all in their early 30s, won four crowns combined — two of them by Hakuho — indicating that a changing of the guard may seem unlikely for some time.
As the four most recent wrestlers promoted to yokozuna all hail from Mongolia, starting with now-retired Asashoryu in 2003, the three Japanese ozeki are on a mission to put a Japan-native grappler’s name on the list of yokozuna.
Up-and-coming wrestlers will also be eyeing to start putting pressure on their senior compatriots and the yokozuna trio.
Former student champion Shodai, the gutsy 25-year-old who joined the top flight at the 2016 New Year Basho, won 11 as a No. 3 maegashira in Fukuoka in November and could further stir things up as a new sekiwake in the January meet at Ryogoku Kokugikan.
Another one to keep an eye on is former amateur champ Mitakeumi, who made his debut in March 2015, but burst through the ranks to reach komusubi at the November tourney.
The 24-year-old has already come away with double-digit wins in three of seven meets in the makuuchi division, but edged down to top maegashira for the New Year after a lackluster 6-9 in November.
Ishiura, a diminutive yet muscular 26-year-old, got the crowd on its feet in his first top-flight meet in November, winning 10 bouts with his bold and tricky moves to share the fighting spirit award with Shodai.
Sumo has recovered significantly from the nadir of the 2011 match-fixing scandal, the crowd packing the house 88 of 90 days in 2016 to witness the rise of Japan-born wrestlers following an influx of foreigners.
After Hawaii-born Akebono became the first non-Japanese to be promoted to yokozuna in 1993, seven grapplers reached the highest echelon but only two — brothers Takanohana in 1994 and Wakanohana four years later — were Japan-born.
Samoan-born Musashimaru joined the ranks in 1999, followed by Asashoryu and Hakuho in 2007, Harumafuji in 2012 and Kakuryu in 2014.