Twenty-year-old Yusei Nakanishi has a new shikona (ring name).
Going by Asonishiki since January 2019, the Sakaigawa stable man, who at first used his own name as a shikona, will henceforth be known as Asonoyama.
Although no explanation was given, the new name is almost certainly derived from Mount Aso (Japan’s largest active volcano) located in his native Kumamoto Prefecture.
Nakanishi’s new moniker is also very similar to that of a another rikishi, one recently promoted to ozeki, but, given the younger man’s progress to date, the chances of an Asonoyama–Asanoyama matchup in the future seem slim.
Shikona changes are of course not unusual, and regularly happen upon significant promotions, or as a way of changing luck after a string of bad results. Some wrestlers keep the same name throughout their career, while others go through multiple changes.
Whether going with what they had at birth or using something entirely different, all sumo wrestlers are considered to have a shikona. It’s a tradition that dates back to the Edo Period, and has been used both as a means of attracting paying customers, and to hide the true identities of wrestlers.
Ring names aren’t unique to sumo with many if not most wrestling or combat sports employing them, but you won’t see the likes of “The Undertaker” or “El Santo” in Japan’s national sport, as rikishi traditionally go with nature based themes, or use shikona that have geographical or historical significance.
Stablemasters normally have the final say on what name will be used but often they will listen to input from the man himself or others.
Verena Hopp, a student from Germany, was the one who originally came up with sunaarashi (sandstorm) for sumo’s first-ever Egyptian rikishi. The Otake stablemaster liked the idea, but added "O" (Great) as a prefix, both to give it more heft, and also as a way of connecting his new apprentice to Taiho — the stable’s legendary founder.
The part of the shikona most fans are familiar with is the family part, but all sumo names also have a first name element. For example, Hakuho, Asanoyama and Kakuryu are named Sho, Hideki and Rikisaburo respectively.
Sometimes only the given name part of a shikona is changed. When Terunofuji was in Magaki stable and still known as Wakamisho, his name went from Yoshiaki to Noriaki and back again within the space of six months. When asked why, he told me he hadn’t even been aware of the change, and that it was all the stablemaster’s doing.
Although Wakami was a common prefix in that stable and came from the Magaki stablemaster’s pre-yokozuna shikona of Wakamisugi, Terunofuji never liked his old name. The “shō” part used the kanji character for “win,” was fine in and of itself, but when combined with the prefix, it's literally translated as Young Three Wins — a losing record in sumo.
While generally eschewing the over the top nature of other sport’s ring names, humor is sometimes a component in shikona decisions.
In 2009, after five years in the sport, Hiroyasu Yoshino suddenly found himself with a new shikona – Migikataagari, which literally translates as “right shoulder going up” and is a phrase used to denote a graph trending upward. The stablemaster’s exhortation didn’t have the desired effect, however, as the change was followed by consecutive losing records.
Yuki Morikawa, a wrestler in the same stable, had a losing record in his first 39 tournaments. His shikona was also changed in 2009, and the young man was saddled with Moriurara, a name connecting him to Haruurara, a famous horse that went 113 races without a single win.
The jab worked in that case, as Moriurara achieved his first winning record in the very next tournament.
As with Wakami, shikona or their constituent elements are often closely associated with particular stables. If a name starts with Tochi it probably means the man is fighting out of Kasugano Beya, while anyone with Koto likely hails from Sadogatake Beya.
Hometowns and native lands are often reflected in a wrestler’s name. Bulgarian Kotooshu’s shikona translated as Koto-Europe, while Baruto’s used characters that were homonyms for The Baltic. Former ozeki Chiyotaikai combined the Chiyo prefix of Kokonoe stable with characters from Hokkaido, his birthplace, and Oita, where he grew up.
Most wrestlers stop using their original name as a shikona early on in their careers but some, like Takayasu and Endo, don’t make the change even after reaching a high rank. To date, Hiroshi Wajima is the only rikishi to continue using his birth name after promotion to yokozuna.
Within stables themselves shikona aren’t used as much and when attending practice it’s common to hear stablemasters addressing wrestlers by their given name when dispensing advice.
The same is true for people who are close to the rikishi, or who have known them since before they joined the sport. I’ve only ever called Terunofuji “Gana” for example, while Osunaarashi and Wakanoho were always “Boody” and “Soslan” to me.
Shikona are a traditional and historical part of sumo, but normally not something those inside the sport use all that much in daily life.
Not that it really matters — at the end of the day, because of the bintsuke hair oil, a rikishi by any other name would smell as sweet.