One of the more interesting bits of news over the past month was the announcement that Arashio stable veteran Sokokurai had acquired Japanese nationality.
By far the most successful of the 12 rikishi in sumo history to have hailed from mainland China, Sokokurai’s switch leaves the Middle Kingdom without a wrestler in Japan’s national sport for the first time since October 1990.
His change of nationality is an obvious precursor to retirement and becoming a sumo elder.
It would also appear Sokokurai is poised to take over from his current stablemaster when that man reaches the mandatory retirement age of 65 next March.
If he does become Arashio oyakata (elder), Sokokurai would become the first Chinese-born stablemaster in sumo history.
Only four foreign-born former wrestlers have ever headed up a stable in Japan’s national sport and three of those took up that role within the last six years.
If Sokokurai becomes the fifth, it will be quite a turnaround for the 35-year-old, who seven years ago was out of the sport entirely.
Sokokurai was one of 23 wrestlers and elders expelled in 2011 following a match-fixing scandal that rocked sumo and forced the cancellation of that year’s Spring Grand Sumo Tournament.
The Inner Mongolia native fought that decision in the courts, however, achieving an unprecedented victory that forced the Japan Sumo Association to reinstate him.
As the case wound its way through the legal system, Sokokurai was not allowed to live or train at Arashio stable, and was reduced to working out on his own at gyms and doing some training with a rugby team.
Neither of those are adequate preparations for a professional sumo meet, of course, so after his legal victory Sokokurai was allowed to skip a tournament while maintaining his rank in order to allow him get back up to speed.
I was present at many of those early practice sessions after his return and I had genuine fears for Sokokurai’s safety as he was clearly in no condition to face top-division opponents and lacked the stamina to even complete an hour of training without gasping for breath on the ground.
Although his first three tournaments back ended in losing records, Sokokurai got into the swing of things after a few months and reached new heights over the next few years, making it all the way to No. 2 maegashira four years after reinstatement.
One notable storyline of the whole saga was the unwavering and strident support Sokokurai received from his stablemaster.
Arashio was adamant that his charge was innocent and vehemently defended him at every turn. He even defied the JSA’s directions by allowing Sokokurai to attend training as a “consulting assistant.”
That was an unusual stance in a country where employers don’t even wait for a conviction but routinely dismiss employees as soon as they are arrested.
When one of their athletes becomes involved in a legal manner, it’s rare for any coach or team in Japan to do anything but issue a public apology and fire the person in question.
Arashio’s closeness to Sokokurai would seem to make it almost certain that the younger man will take over the stable next year. Whether he does it under the Arashio name or another one is still unclear.
Sokokurai’s reintegration into the Japan Sumo Association is complete, but he remains the only member of the aforementioned group of 23 wrestlers and elders who ever made it back.
Despite claiming innocence, many of those accused of match fixing in early 2011 saw little point in a long, drawn-out legal battle that seemed to have little chance of success, and which would likely conclude long after their peak had passed. The fact that Sokokurai went the legal route was described by many of them to me as pointless and a waste of time and money. When he succeeded and won his place back in sumo, it came as a massive shock to everyone involved, not least of all the JSA, which had put no plans in place for such an eventuality.
Most of those dismissed or forced into retirement by the JSA left sumo completely and moved on to other endeavors.
Some remained active in the amateur version of the sport. Former komusubi Kaiho coached at Nihon University and a kids club not far from the Kokugikan. His involvement with the professional game didn’t end entirely as he trained rikishi like Hidenoumi at his gym in Sumida Ward and visited Kise stable (which has many Nichidai connections) from time to time.
Others went into the sumo entertainment field. Former juryo division man Wakatenro (as detailed in this column recently) puts on sumo shows in Japan for audiences both domestic and foreign. Kiyoseumi, who like Kaiho was a graduate of Nihon University also dabbled in the field, starring in sumo themed events and appearing in commercials.
Onoe stable lost three wrestlers to the scandal, all Nihon University graduates. Two went into the regular workforce but one, Yamamotoyama, moved to Los Angeles and made a name for himself appearing in numerous films, TV shows, music videos and commercials.
Time moves on and all those involved in the scandal have created new lives. Sokokurai was the only one of the 23 who stuck fully with professional sumo. Next March will mark nine years since his dismissal. The same month, his oyakata turns 65 and if, as expected, Sokokurai becomes an elder and takes over the stable it will provide a fitting bookend for one of the most fascinating sumo stories of recent times.