Sumo | INSIDE SUMO

Sumo's unique kanreki ceremonies provide windows into past

by John Gunning

CONTRIBUTING WRITER

What if I told you that the yokozuna trio of Hakuho, Asashoryu, and Harumafuji might one day all be back in the ring together wearing their ceremonial tsuna (lightning bolt-adorned ropes)? Unlikely as that sounds, thanks to one of sumo’s numerous traditional and ceremonial aspects, it could come to pass sometime around 2045.

That’s the year when Hakuho will turn 60 and have his kanreki ring-entering ceremony.

Celebrated in several Asian countries, kanreki marks the end of one complete lunar calendar cycle and in Japan is closely associated with the color red.

In sumo a special red tsuna is created, and former yokozuna turning 60 normally perform a ring-entering ceremony flanked by two other yokozuna.

The ritual has been in the news this week, as the Isegahama stablemaster (former yokozuna Asahifuji) has turned 60 but, because of the ongoing pandemic, it is still uncertain when his ceremony can be held.

Originally scheduled for May 30th at Ryogoku Kokugikan, the event was postponed, but expected to be held in August. However, with no end to COVID-19 in sight, it’s looking increasingly likely that it could be December (or even 2021) before Isegahama will be able to don the red rope.

No mention of who will accompany the former yokozuna into the ring has been made, but contemporaries Hokutoumi and Onokuni hold prominent position in the Japan Sumo Association and would seem to be the most likely candidates.

Isegahama of course raised Harumafuji, but whether enough time has passed since the Mongolian’s forced retirement from the sport for him to take part in a ceremony of this sort is hard to say.

The two men had a very close relationship, and kanreki ring entering ceremonies are private events, so in theory there is nothing to stop Isegahama from asking his former apprentice to join him.

If Hokutoumi and Onokuni are the attendants, then the winners of a combined 14 Emperor’s Cups will be in the ring at the same time. While that’s an impressive lineup and figure in general terms, it pales in comparison to some past kanreki dohyō-iri trios.

Hokutoumi was also present when his former stablemaster, and current NHK commentator, Kitanofuji performed the ceremony in 2002. The third member that day was another former Kokonoe stable yokozuna — Chiyonofuji.

The three men accounted for 49 titles between 1967 and 1991.

The most impressive kanreki dohyo-iri in terms of titles, however, belongs to Taiho.

With Kitanoumi as his sword-bearer and Chiyonofuji as dew-sweeper, three men who won an astounding 87 top division championships over the course of their careers were in the ring at the same time.

The only way that record could be broken is if Hakuho (with his 44 titles and counting) managed to have both Asashoryu and Takanohana as the attendants at his kanreki ring-entering ceremony. With the latter pairing both having left sumo under a cloud, and neither particularly close to Hakuho, it seems like Taiho’s record will stand for a long time to come.

Although all three men who took part in that record-breaking ring-entering ceremony have passed away, sumo fans can still see Taiho’s red tsuna to this day, if they visit Otake stable. Displayed in a glass case, it is right behind chairs set up for visitors who find sitting cross-legged on the floor too difficult.

Being able to see great yokozuna of the past perform a ring-entering ceremony is of course a treat, especially for those who weren’t around when such legends were active.

For the men themselves, though, it can be intimidating. No one at age 60 is going to be in anything like the same physical condition as at 25 or 30, and several former yokozuna have spoken about the pressure to get in shape for the ceremony. Isegahama, it seems, will have little trouble, with the ex-yokozuna telling reporters this week that he is still able to bench press 100 kgs. Former yokozuna Mienoumi, who was not in the same kind of condition as Isegahama, indicated ahead of his kanreki dohyo-iri that he was just concerned with not embarrassing himself.

Interestingly Mienoumi chose former ozeki pair Dejima and Miyabiyama to be his attendants, despite the fact that yokozuna Musashimaru had also been one of his disciples.

Mienoumi also choose to hold his ceremony at an hotel rather than at the Ryogoku Kokugikan. The privilege of using the latter venue is normally reserved for men who are still part of the JSA.

Kitanofuji likewise held his kanreki dohyo-iri away from the sumo arena. In his case he did it twice, first performing it in Hakkaku stable, and then once more at a hotel in Tokyo.

Were Hakuho to remain in sumo after retirement (as seems likely) and have either Asashoryu or Harumafuji as his attendants it would be interesting to see whether or not the greatest rikishi of all time would be allowed to use the spiritual home of sumo for his ceremony.

Kanreki ring-entering ceremonies are, apart from the rarely performed sandan-gamae ritual, one of sumo’s most unique and limited events.

With sumo having experienced an explosion in popularity abroad over the past couple of years, there is a significant portion of the foreign fanbase that has never seen any yokozuna live apart from Hakuho or Kakuryu. If restrictions on travel are lifted ahead of Isegahama’s ceremony, I highly recommend making it to Japan to catch a slice of sumo history.

Coronavirus banner