Hidetora Hanada put an end to several notable droughts when he was crowned amateur yokozuna at Tokyo’s Ryogoku Kokugikan on Dec. 6.

The 19-year-old is the first student from Nippon Sport Science University (NSSU) to lift the title since Masatsugu Onishi (later known as Yoshikaze) in 2002.

Hanada is also the first college freshman to emerge victorious at the All Japan Sumo Championships since Keita Kushima in 1986 — though the latter man also took the title one year earlier while a high school student and remains the only wrestler to achieve that feat to date.

Although a fine athlete, Hanada wasn’t one of favorites heading into the competition — even being overshadowed on his own team by several more prominent names including 2020’s college yokozuna Purevsuren Delgerbayar.

With those title wins, both NSSU men are now eligible to join professional sumo near the top of the third division and just outside the salaried ranks.

Delgerbayar is almost certain to take advantage of that opportunity next year, but his younger teammate, although intending to turn pro eventually, likely won’t make the move until after he graduates in 2024.

To do so with the same starting advantage, Hanada will have to win another title as a senior: Even with an extension put in place as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the eligibility period for amateur yokozuna to use their “shortcut” is still just two years.

NSSU also took the team title in the east Japan student championships and, despite losing to Nihon University in the final of the All Japan college meet, has arguably overtaken its more illustrious rival as Japan’s preeminent university sumo program.

In addition to Hanada’s victory, four of eight quarterfinalists were wearing NSSU’s blue mawashi, while Kazuma Kawabuchi was the sole Nihon University representative to reach that stage.

It’s an incredible achievement, as Nihon University — known locally as Nichidai — has for decades churned out top level о̄zumо̄ talent. To date 59 rikishi have turned pro after attending the university, while just 10 have come from NSSU.

The former’s influence in the world of amateur sumo can be seen in the fact that almost one-third of the 108-page event program for Sunday’s tournament contained advertisements for the university or messages of encouragement from supporting companies.

Hanada will have several more opportunities to extend Nichidai’s misery, but despite his fine performance in 2020, the likelihood of him matching Seiichi Taira’s four titles is slim. If the former Junior World Championship gold medalist does manage to win the amateur yokozuna title again in 2021, he’ll be the first repeat champion in a decade.

Even that achievement wouldn’t result in anything like the amount of column inches that a winner of professional sumo’s Emperor’s Cup can expect, but while amateur sumo remains well in the shadow of its more famous cousin, the All Japan Championships aren’t just of importance to the athletes and colleges taking part.

All Japan winner Hidetora Haneda (crouching) poses for photos with the remainder of the top four. | JOHN GUNNING
All Japan winner Hidetora Haneda (crouching) poses for photos with the remainder of the top four. | JOHN GUNNING

As access to and knowledge of sumo has exploded globally over the past few years, so too has interest in the feeder system that is Japanese amateur sumo.

Just a few years ago, a sentence or two mentioning the name of the tournament winner (if they were intending to turn pro) was pretty much all that could be found online in English.

Nowadays, thanks to easier access to various documentaries and TV shows, as well the efforts of a few dedicated fans, many of the athletes competing in the All Japan Championships will have been familiar to fans abroad since they were elementary school students.

With the collegiate-to-pro route becoming more established for foreign rikishi as well, amateur sumo in this country is increasingly drawing the interest of fans hoping to spot the stars of the future.

Speaking of rising stars, giant Hokuseiho, who is on a 23-bout winning streak since his debut last March, was one of several rikishi in the arena last Sunday, along with various stablemasters and other Japan Sumo Association personnel.

While scouting talent or checking up on those that had already agreed to join о̄zumо̄ were obvious reasons for their attendance, many wrestlers were simply there to meet old college or club teammates.

Apart from the significance of title wins when it comes to university pride and professional starting points, or the value of the tournament as a spectacle in its own right to fans, the All Japan Championships this year served another very importance purpose.

It allowed athletes, coaches, supporters, journalists and various others involved in amateur sumo across the country an opportunity to meet in person.

While many professional sports have been able to operate in a bubble during the COVID-19 pandemic, amateur sports globally have been decimated. Without the resources to conduct daily tests or ensure athlete isolation, leagues have shuttered and tournaments have been cancelled. Even practice sessions — when they happen — are limited and face declining numbers.

The emotional toll of not having sport, for those to whom it is vital (in a nonfinancial sense), has been great.

For amateur athletes a tournament like the All Japan Championships lends value to all the work that they have done throughout the year. But for fans, family members, writers and others who, like myself, have isolated since the pandemic began, just being able to meet people face to masked face and chat can feel like a huge weight lifted. I’m not ashamed to admit I spent most of Sunday emotional about being back among “my people,” and I certainly wasn’t the only one that voiced such a sentiment on the day.

The 2020 All Japan Championships can therefore go into the book as a success both inside and outside the ring.

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