With the release of the banzuke (rankings) for the upcoming spring meet, yokozuna Hakuho becomes just the second man in sumo history to reach 100 tournaments in the top division.
Surpassing ozeki Kaio’s record 107 tournaments in makuuchi would require staying active for another 12 months, but even if Hakuho only makes it as far as September, he’ll have spent an incredible 84 tournaments ranked at yokozuna – twice as many as Asashoryu.
Sumo has no Hall of Fame, but if it did, Hakuho has done enough in his career thus far to be worthy of inclusion three times over.
The yokozuna’s legacy also extends outside the ring and his impact on the sport, thanks to a namesake tournament, has now become a global one.
Although the most recent edition had to be canceled because of COVID-19, the Hakuho Cup has, over the last decade, grown into one of the biggest and most important tournaments in the world for primary school-age children.
Originally taking place in Osaka’s snug Ohama Sumo arena, before moving to the much larger Ariake Coliseum in Tokyo, the event currently sees close to 1,000 kids battling it out every year in the Ryogoku Kokugikan.
Top-division wrestlers Onosho and Kotonowaka, as well as rising stars such as Oho and Ryuko, are just some of the names who have taken part in the Hakuho Cup since its inception in 2011.
But while Japanese youngsters can participate in several other major domestic tournaments each year, the real value of the Hakuho Cup is the opportunity it affords kids from abroad to compete at a high level, as well as gain experience in and around the world of professional sumo.
Of course, for many if not most cash-strapped amateur sumo organizations in Europe, Asia and elsewhere, bringing a full team of kids to Japan for a week is well outside their budget.
According to Australian Sumo Federation President John Traill, that’s an obstacle Hakuho has helped overcome.
The yokozuna has not only extended a tournament invitation to a team from Down Under on several occasions, but also paid for flights and accommodation for everyone taking part.
With children from Bulgaria, Mongolia, Estonia, China, Korea and Brazil participating in the Hakuho Cup over the years, that’s no small outlay.
Internationally, there are no TV deals or major sponsorships to be had in amateur sumo either, so Hakuho clearly isn’t expecting a financial return on his investment, but simply giving back to the sport.
The yokozuna has used his influence to get many others in sumo on board as well. Rikishi such as Toyonoshima, Yoshikaze and Kotoshogiku have been actively involved over the years, with one small child on Kotoshogiku’s team going viral for his incredible efforts against a much larger opponent.
The Hakuho Cup has also fundraised for the Japanese Red Cross and other charitable causes.
As the event has grown, it has become more professional and better organized. In the early days, however, things were more haphazard. Invitations to the first few Hakuho Cups often came at short notice. A team of ssireum wrestling champions from Korea couldn’t really get to grips with sumo rules in 2012, and three years later, Traill was given just 48 hours to put a team together.
“We took an overnight flight and arrived at the airport in Tokyo early. We were waiting for Hakuho’s driver to pick us up, but he forgot, so we had to make our own way into Miyagino Beya, and it was too late for training.”
Even with the early hiccups, Traill saw the value in the tournament and said bringing kids to Japan and getting them involved in real sumo helps overcome the reluctance and embarrassment many feel because of the “fat guys and bare buttocks” focus sumo gets abroad.
A veteran of numerous World Championships, the 53-year-old has deep and longstanding connections in the sumo world and is able to ensure the children under his care get the best possible experience while in Japan.
Those connections may be part of the reason Hakuho reached out to Australia, as Traill is partly responsible for one of Hakuho’s stablemates being in sumo rather than Hollywood.
After graduation from Nihon University, Ishiura spent some time in Australia, even taking part in the Oceania Sumo Championships. He came to stay at Traill’s house after the meet, as the Australian had gotten the muscular wrestler an audition for the movie Wolverine. While there, “Hakuho kept ringing him every day” to try and get him to join his stable. “Because it was a few months before his 23rd birthday, I said, ‘If you don’t do it now, you’ll never have the opportunity again. Just go. Forget about the movie,’” Traill said.
So, despite the producers loving him so much that they “wanted to bump him up from extra to henchman,” Ishiura took Traill’s advice and returned to Japan to turn pro.
Not everyone has such personal connections to the yokozuna, of course, but Hakuho seems determined to grow and expand his tournament in the years to come and invite children from even more countries to Japan. There were even plans to include girls in the canceled 2021 meet — despite it being at the Kokugikan — and if the yokozuna could somehow make that a reality it would be a major step forward for the sport in general.
Hakuho is arguably the greatest rikishi in the history of sumo inside the ring. Thanks to the Hakuho Cup, he may become one of the most significant outside it as well.
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