Sumo in Heisei Era defined by dominant foreign yokozuna

by John Gunning

The upcoming Spring Grand Sumo Tournament marks the end of an era.


While that phrase has been used recently to describe a changing of the guard, as Hakuho’s career winds down, the impending abdication of Emperor Akihito means that the March Basho will actually be the final tournament of the current Heisei Era.

The January 1989 meet started just one day after Heisei began and there have been 180 tournaments in the 30 years since.

Sumo has existed in one form or another since before the advent of written history in Japan, but it can be argued that the Heisei Era has perhaps seen more significant change than any other period in the past 2,000 years.

The sport has, in that time, experienced two massive booms, anointed its first-ever foreign yokozuna, dealt with hugely damaging scandals, visited numerous countries and seen its popularity abroad increase exponentially.

Akebono’s ascension to sumo’s highest rank 25 years ago may have been the Heisei Era’s most significant sporting moment. Few at the time could have realized that sumo was on the verge of historical change.

The sport transitioned from hand-wringing over whether a foreigner could ever possess the dignity required of a grand champion, to being led by a Mongolian yokozuna who displayed more hinkaku (dignity) and understanding of the role and his place in sumo history than almost every one of his predecessors.

The Heisei Era was in essence sumo’s “Black Ships” period.

Foreign dominance became so overwhelming that Kotoshogiku’s championship in January 2016 made him the first native-born tournament winner in 10 years.

Kisenosato’s promotion to yokozuna came almost two full decades after the last Japan-born wrestler to achieve that honor.

Sumo fandom struggled to adjust to that new reality and attendances suffered for a while. The utter dominance of the silverware first by Asashoryu and later Hakuho didn’t help matters. Sumo, like any other sport, thrives when competition is highest. If the eventual tournament champion seems like a forgone conclusion on day one, as it often did over most of the past 15 years, people lose interest.

A series of scandals also took a toll. While the private lives and extracurricular activities of stars had long provided fodder for the tabloid press, the Heisei Era saw the true dark underbelly of sumo increasingly get dragged out into the light.

The nadir, of course, was the beating to death of 17-year-old Takashi Saito in 2007. Yet even in the wake of arrests and jail time for the perpetrators, as well as efforts by the Sumo Association to stamp out hazing, violence continues to plague the sport.

Bullying and beatings are nothing new, but the information revolution and the proliferation of social media makes it far harder for such activities to go undetected.

There is still a long way to go, of course, but the Heisei Era saw a sport that has barely changed since the 1700s take the initial steps towards aligning itself with modern-day expectations and standards.

Inside the dohyo, the past 30 years have belonged to three men. Takanohana owned the 1990s, Asashoryu controlled things from 2003-2007, and Hakuho has been the king of the ring ever since.

At this stage, with almost every single sumo record of note under his belt, Hakuho is clearly the top wrestler of the Heisei Era. That’s an incredible achievement when you consider the fact that when he began his rise, Asashoryu and Takanohana were both in the top five on the all-time championship lists.

The 33-year-old’s place in sumo history is assured, and it’s increasingly difficult to argue against him being the greatest wrestler of all time. Hakuho’s only rivals to that crown are legends like Futabayama, Taiho, Tanikaze and Raiden.

Comparing across eras is even more of a fool’s errand in sumo than in other sports as the time frame spans centuries.

However, given that the talent pool in modern sumo now stretches not only to all of Japan but more than 20 other countries, it’s safe to say that Hakuho has achieved what he did against a far deeper field than any of the aforementioned claimants to the throne.

Hakuho has engaged in some memorable bouts over his career, especially against fellow Mongolians Asashoryu and Harumafuji, but the Heisei Era’s standout fight belongs to Takanohana.

The win, which clinched the yokozuna’s 22nd and final title after a playoff against Musashimaru in May 2001, is almost as memorable for the demon-like expression on the normally unflappable Takanohana’s face as it is for the incredible effort to get the win despite a massive knee injury suffered the previous day.

My own personal favorite bout of the Heisei Era, though, was the famous July 11, 2004, “bridge” match between Asashoryu and Kotonowaka, in which the yokozuna pulled off the most athletic move ever seen by someone at sumo’s highest rank, maintaining his balance despite being flipped 180 degrees, arching his back and pushing his opponent to the clay.

So mind-blowing was the move and win that even the ringside judges couldn’t process what had happened and egregiously decided on a rematch. That Asashoryu won that subsequent bout doesn’t compensate for the fact that he was robbed of a win that wouldn’t undoubtedly have required a whole new winning technique to be invented just to describe what had happened.

Asashoryu’s fire and passion lit up the Heisei Era and served as a counterpoint to the stoicism of Takanohana and effortless mastery of Hakuho.

All three men contributed to sumo reaching new heights over the past 30 years. Just as we don’t yet know what the next era will be called, it’s hard to see who its preeminent wrestlers will be.

The Heisei Era in sumo had the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, but as it draws to a close it’s fair to say that sumo is in a healthy state and steadily improving. There is a lot to look forward to in the next era.