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Byzantine rules govern sumo’s name shares

by John Gunning

Tochinoshin’s promotion to ozeki comes with many perks. Most are connected to his life as an active wrestler, such as a boost in salary and parking privileges.

One that kicks in after retirement, though, is an automatic three-year grace period before he has to acquire a toshiyori-kabu (elder name share).

Holding that share is a must for any wrestler desiring to stay in the Japan Sumo Association after hanging up his mawashi.

And staying is something that most men would like to do. With guaranteed employment until age 65 at an average yearly salary of around ¥15 million, it’s a comfortable life.

The problem, of course, is that there are only 105 extant elder name shares in the JSA — far fewer than the number of wrestlers in the sport and about as many as retire every 18 months.

To qualify, therefore, for share ownership, a wrestler must have reached the rank of komusubi or spent at least 20 tournaments in the top division (or 30 combined in the top two divisions).

Japanese citizenship is also a prerequisite, meaning that if Georgian national Tochinoshin does intend to continue on in sumo, he will have to change nationality before retiring. The same is true of Hakuho, Kakuryu and Terunofuji.

Yokozuna get a five-year grace period but everyone ranked sekiwake and below must have a name share available to take up immediately upon retirement or else leave the association.

That leads to many acquiring a toshiyori-kabu well before retirement just to be on the safe side. In a violent sport like sumo, a career-ending injury is an ever-present possibility.

Currently, nine active wrestlers including Kisenosato, Kotoshogiku, Aminishi and Endo own name shares.

While the first three men are likely to put their shares to use soon, Endo figures to be active for quite a while yet.

Name shares not being used by their owner don’t necessarily sit inactive though. Some are out on loan to other former wrestlers, who, for whatever reason, were unable to secure ownership of one for themselves.

The Nakamura name share, for example, is currently being used by former maegashira Sadanofuji but is owned by Yoshikaze.

With the latter man being 36 years of age and a candidate to retire suddenly at any time, that puts Sadanofuji in a precarious position.

Should Yoshikaze call it quits, Sadanofuji will have to find another name share to borrow if he wants to remain in sumo.

Seeing someone jump from one borrowed share to the next for a short period before either buying his own or leaving the sport isn’t all that unusual, but no one ever played ‘musical shares’ quite like Wakajishi.

The former komusubi survived in sumo for 13 years after retirement by borrowing an incredible 11 different name shares before his luck finally ran out in 1996.

While the rules governing toshiyori-kabu seem to be straightforward, the entire sumo elder world is filled with political maneuvering, infighting and backstabbing that wouldn’t be out of place on a TV show like “The Thick of It” or “House of Cards.”

Scandals involving name shares have seen stables closed, elders forced out, a mass resignation of wrestlers and even a former yokozuna kicked out of the sport completely over giving his share to yakuza as collateral.

That last action was possible because the share and the name it represents aren’t 100 percent the same thing.

While the elder name share can only be used by someone in the JSA, the physical paper that certifies it can technically (and legally) be owned by a much wider range of people.

Though not exactly equivalent to a bearer bond, the situation in the past has been enough of a gray area for the JSA to be unable or unwilling to try and force outsiders holding a paper (roughly the same size as the one given to tournament winners) to relinquish it.

The JSA’s move to a ‘public interest corporation’ a few years ago necessitated a change in many of the rules governing name shares that both simplified things and created headaches.

The biggest change was buying and selling name shares being strictly prohibited. Upon retirement, ownership reverted to the JSA and it determined the next holder. Anyone found engaging in buying or selling shares (which was standard practice for most of the past 100 years) was to be kicked out of the association.

With most elders at the time of the change having laid out significant money to acquire their own name shares, the prospect of getting nothing back in return was difficult to accept.

All shareholders also had to bring their shares to the JSA to confirm they actually were in possession. One stablemaster was unable to do so as his predecessor held the paper in his safe and was refusing to return it until he was paid the ¥180 million a court had determined its value at.

Even had the incumbent been willing to pay, the new rules prevented him from doing so. Unable to buy the paper certifying the name he rightly owned and therefore present said paper to the JSA, he was forced to leave the sport.

The various machinations and dealings of elder share owners as well as the myriad rules and changes over the years could fill a year’s worth of columns, but there is one more important rare occurrence that is likely to be topical again soon.

For great yokozuna, a special one-generation name share is offered. That share is in the man’s active name and is non-transferable, meaning he and he alone will be the only person to hold it.

Takanohana is currently the only man in the JSA with such a status. Given his career to date it’s almost certain one more wrestler will join Takanohana, in the process creating the first ever Hakuho name share.