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More multiracial wrestlers making mark in raised ring

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Sumo’s long and grueling summer regional tour came to an end last Sunday with the now yearly KITTE Basho held in the heart of Tokyo at the 38-story JP Tower. The following day, the new banzuke was released for the Autumn Grand Sumo Tournament that gets underway on Sept. 10.

Despite there being just 90 honbasho days in every 365, it seems more and more as if sumo is joining sports like soccer and football in adopting a year-round calendar. Certainly the number of special events and tour days has increased along with the sport’s popularity over the past few years.

As usual, some of the rankings, promotions and demotions on the banzuke brought bemusement to fans, but that’s unavoidable when a group of 23 men — all with their own varying allegiances and opinions — get together in secret to decide, in one day, the rankings of roughly 680 rikishi.

One consistent thread over the past few years, though, has been Tochinoshin’s lack of “banzuke luck.” The Georgian missed out again for September with the final komusubi slot going to his stablemate Tochiozan.

In my very first Japan Times column in April, I talked about a generational shift that was happening in sumo but in the intervening four months, yokozuna Hakuho has made that prediction look foolish, turning back the clock with vintage performances in the past two tournaments to bring his total number of championships to 39 and give him the all-time lead in wins as well.

Now as summer begins to wane, we are forced to wonder when Hakuho will cool off as well. It’s hard to see an obvious challenger near the top of the banzuke. Takayasu looks the most likely but he has yet to show he can beat the yokozuna on a consistent basis. Further down the rankings, young rikishi like Takakeisho and Onosho will lead the charge in the future but right now it’s probably too soon to expect that. Onosho in particular is likely to have a difficult opening week in September, as he’ll face all the top rankers for the first time.

None of those at the very top inspire much confidence, with Terunofuji and Kisenosato’s true conditions being total mysteries and yokozuna Kakuryu likely facing calls for retirement if he doesn’t bounce back with a solid double-digit win performance.

One dark horse this basho could be Mitakeumi. The Dewanoumi man hasn’t had a losing record in 2017 and has six wins against yokozuna since January. When Takayasu was promoted to ozeki, Mitakeumi sent him a message saying “I’ll be there soon too.”

The two are close partly because, like Takayasu, Mitakeumi has a Japanese father and a Filipino mother.

The fact that multiracial rikishi are making a mark recently is nothing but a reflection of Japanese society in general. While no data on ethnicity or race is collected in the census, with an estimated one in 20 marriages being to a partner of different nationality over the past decade, the number of mixed-race children has continued to increase. Of course such rikishi are nothing new to sumo. The greatest of all time, (well, at least before Hakuho came along) Taiho, had a Ukrainian father and a Japanese mother.

Chiganoura Beya’s Masunoyama, like Takayasu and Mitakeumi, also has a Filipino mother, but the Philippines isn’t the only country represented by multiracial rikishi. Mitakeumi’s stablemate, Fujinohana, who joined sumo with his twin brother in 2009, has an American father. Isenoumi Beya’s Itadaki’s father hails from Canada and fans watching the lower divisions recently may have been surprised to see a small feisty mixed-race rikishi with an afro making his way up through the divisions.

Texan Ichiro Young has been in Musashigawa Beya since November 2016. Fighting under the name Wakaichiro, (a literal translation of his name) Young, like the aforementioned rikishi, has Japanese nationality which means he doesn’t count against the stable’s foreigner quota.

Also unlike the Mongolians, Russians and Bulgarians who came to sumo with backgrounds in the amateur version of the sport or in judo or wrestling, Young, like many mixed-race rikishi, followed a path similar to those with just Japanese heritage, joining sumo on the urging of a parent.

Tsuyukusa of Otake Beya, who has a Japanese mother and a Polish father, similarly had no sumo background before joining his stable. Most of his life he played soccer — and indeed still does when he can. Wakaichiro was no different. Although he played football in school he wasn’t all that serious about sports. In fact, after graduation he thought about becoming a pilot or joining the American armed forces, but at the urging of his mother decided to give sumo a go. Musashigawa Beya is often a destination for well-known athletes visiting from around the sporting world and Ichiro has also had the chance to meet people like UFC champion Max Holloway and Michael Bennett of the Seattle Seahawks. Despite growing up a Houston Texans fan, he was also gracious and welcoming recently when two former Jacksonville Jaguars dropped in to see the rikishi train.

Tsuyukusa and Wakaichiro are at least a couple of years away from the top division so you won’t be seeing them on TV in the upcoming basho. And television is the only way you’ll be seeing any rikishi anyway, as the almost 170,000 tickets available for September sold out in 50 minutes.