The number of stables in sumo continuously ebbs and flows.
Keeping track of, and deciphering the motives behind, the endless elder stock-related openings, closings and mergers, is akin to following the shifting allegiances in the TV series “Game of Thrones.”
Some heya of course, like Dewanoumi and Takasago, have been in operation uninterrupted since the 1800s, but many others are either newer incarnations of previously shuttered stables, or recent additions to the list.
Such constant but unpredictable movement can result in a 24-year-old ozeki (Takakeisho) already being on his fourth different stable location (and third heya name) while a 36-year-old veteran (Tamawashi) remains in the same stable and building he entered when turning pro in 2004.
Although elder names perpetuate, every stable closure brings sadness, especially as the buildings that house them are often demolished within days of the last rikishi walking out the door.
The pain was particularly acute this week with confirmation that after the ongoing tournament the curtain will fall on a stable that holds a unique and significant place in sumo history.
Azumazeki Beya will cease to exist at the end of March, and its wrestlers and staff will move to the Hakkaku stable.
The closure comes as a result of the sudden passing of the previous stablemaster in December 2019, and a subsequent failure to find a suitable long-term successor.
Former komusubi Takamisakari stepped in and took charge of Azumazeki Beya, but being unmarried and lacking help and support, he felt unable to manage the stable on a permanent basis.
Established in 1986 by former sekiwake Takamiyama, Azumazeki was the first heya in history to be run by a foreign-born stablemaster.
The Hawaiian native had long been a trailblazer, and when active was the first ever non-Japanese rikishi to both win the Emperor’s Cup and reach sumo’s third-highest rank.
Takamiyama had arguably just as important an impact as a recruiter and coach. Having previously brought Konishiki, the man who would become the first ever foreign ozeki, into the sport, the raspy-voiced stablemaster finally broke sumo’s ultimate glass ceiling when he helped Akebono reach the rank of yokozuna.
As an oyakata, Jesse Kuhaulua continued his work of kicking open the doors to the party that we are all currently enjoying.
It’s arguable that had Azumazeki Beya not come into existence under his leadership, men like Hakuho, Asashoryu or Kotooshu might never have made it to Japan, and that sumo would still be like ssireum, schwingen, or bökh — a domestically popular style of wrestling lacking the international recognition and global fanbase that Japan’s national sport currently boasts.
Akebono, of course, wasn’t the only Hawaiian who passed through the doors of Azumazeki beya.
While they may not have achieved the same level of success in the ring as the yokozuna, men like Taylor Wily, Percy Kipapa and Wayne Vierra all had fascinating stories (with sometimes tragic endings).
Long after they retired, TV shows, books and documentaries that featured the former rikishi such as “Hawaii Five-0,” “Big Happiness,” and “Sumo East and West,” ensured that sumo stayed in the public eye.
Azumazeki’s role in creating generations of sumo fans wasn’t limited to the Pacific islands either.
When Nathan Strange, a young Englishman decided one day that he wanted to move to Japan and become a rikishi, Azumazeki gave him a shot. The 18-year-old soon discovered what a terrible idea that had been and fled back home battered and bruised after just a couple of tournaments. Although his time in sumo was limited, Strange’s adventure helped sumo gain a kind of cult following in the U.K. in the late 80s and early 90s.
With an English-speaking stablemaster and wrestlers, Azumazeki stable was also one of the most popular destinations for visiting foreign celebrities and athletes. Sometimes things went further than just watching training. Shelton Quarles of the Tamapa Bay Buccaneers and Marvin Jones of the New York Jets put on mawashi and got into the ring with Takamisakari to promote their respective teams’ appearance in the 2003 American Bowl at Tokyo Dome.
Azumazeki beya’s popularizing of sumo wasn’t just limited to foreign-based fans and visitors.
In recent years as more and more stables closed their doors and limited access to just the media or official supporters’ groups, Azumazeki kept things open to the general public. While the stable was located in Tokyo’s Sumida Ward, it was still possible to just show up unannounced and be allowed to watch training.
Even the 2018 move to Katsushika Ward was made in conjunction with that city’s local government as part of efforts to boost tourism in the region.
Azumazeki’s new stable building was located in Shibamata — an out-of-the-way destination that isn’t on the itinerary of many visitors to the capital but one that certainly should be. Best known as the home of the legendary Tora San film series “Otoko wa Tsurai yo” (“It’s Tough Being a Man”), Shibamata also boasts a temple and shopping street that are the closest one can get to that old Edo Period feeling in Tokyo.
Losing a sumo stable that was open and welcoming to all visitors is a blow to Katsushika’s efforts to promote their area as a tourist destination.
For sumo’s wider fanbase, however, losing the stable that did more than any other to break down boundaries and popularize sumo both locally and globally is nothing short of a tragedy.
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