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March 2021 was an eventful month in the world of sumo.

Of course, with Japan’s national sport rarely found wanting when it comes to drama, the same can usually be said of any odd-numbered month and its accompanying honbasho.

The highs and lows this time out, however, were mostly confined to the ring.

Terunofuji’s championship-capped return to ozeki was the headline story for obvious reasons, with the big Mongolian achieving something unprecedented in sumo’s long history.

Incredible as that comeback was, it couldn’t quite dispel the pall that had been cast over sumo by the sight of yet another seriously hurt rikishi failing to receive timely medical attention.

The freak nature of Hibikiryu’s injury means the chances of something similar happening again are extremely low. But even before the incident in question occurred, it was well past time for a serious re-evaluation of the level of emergency care available at sumo tournaments.

With the admirable and unsavory sides of sumo both on full show last month, one other significant piece of news didn’t quite get the coverage it probably deserved.

Rikishi-turned-artist Kototsurugi passed away aged 60 at a hospital in the city of Narashino, Chiba Prefecture, on March 26th.

Anyone with even a passing interest in sumo is certain to have encountered the former Sadogatake stable man’s illustrations and drawings.

Kototsurugi illustrated countless pieces of merchandise for the Japan Sumo Association, including an Osunaarashi charm (left) and Terunofuji magnet. | JOHN GUNNING
Kototsurugi illustrated countless pieces of merchandise for the Japan Sumo Association, including an Osunaarashi charm (left) and Terunofuji magnet. | JOHN GUNNING

The Fukuoka Prefecture native’s cute, warm and cheerful pictures are ubiquitous in sumo, and over the past three decades have practically become the de facto representation of the sport both online and in print.

In fact, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Kototsurugi’s manga-esque work is the definitive image of sumo in the minds of many fans.

The jovial Kototsurugi’s caricaturish style belied an ability to cut right to the heart of sumo with just a few curved lines.

An intimate knowledge of the sport, gained from ten years living and training in a stable, allowed Kototsurugi to capture the essence of what it means to be a rikishi with his pen and ink.

Sketching and drawing from an early age, Noboru Miyata had originally wanted to become a manga artist, but was recruited into the Sadogatake stable with a promise that — as long as he trained hard in the morning — he would be free to do what he wanted in the afternoon.

That was of course a lie. Practically every waking moment of a young sumo wrestler’s life is taken up with cleaning, cooking and running chores for senior stablemates.

The harsh environment was difficult for gentle Kotokyushu (as he was first known) to deal with, but he found solace in his art. Those who bullied or hazed the youngster would secretly be given injuries in his drawings.

When his ring name was suddenly changed to Kototsurugi in 1978, the teenage Miyata didn’t understand the selection. “Koto” is a prefix common in the Sadogatake stable but tsurugi (sword) seemed arbitrary. It wasn’t until after his former stablemaster passed away that Kototsurugi learned of the man’s belief that his drawing-obsessed apprentice would eventually prove that the pen was indeed mightier than the sword.

Neither the hardships Kototsurugi faced as a rikishi, nor the post-retirement business he was forced to close caused him to become bitter.

As bubbly and welcoming in real life as the rikishi he portrayed on the page, Kototsurugi and his wife Suzuyo (who had encouraged him to follow his manga dreams when he was working as a garbage collector) were ever-present smiling fixtures at sumo events.

Sadogatake may have been his home stable but Kototsurugi was universally popular.

Beloved by foreign rikishi, he was a rare welcoming face in an often violent world.

Indeed, some of his best work was inspired by those who hailed from distant shores.

A Sphinx-like design for Osunaarashi’s decorative kesho mawashi belt in particular perfectly captured the spirit of the burly Egyptian.

Osunarashi wears a kesho mawashi belt designed by Kototsurugi during the 2013 Nagoya Basho. | JOHN GUNNING
Osunarashi wears a kesho mawashi belt designed by Kototsurugi during the 2013 Nagoya Basho. | JOHN GUNNING

It’s a measure of the respect with which Kototsurugi was held within the sumo world that he was granted the rare privilege of being allowed to produce items containing the names and likenesses of rikishi. The Japan Sumo Association’s own online store even has a section devoted entirely to his work.

Kototsurugi didn’t set the world alight as a rikishi. Although he didn’t miss a day in ten years — no small feat in itself — he never rose higher than the fourth division. As with many veterans in a similar situation, he took over the daily preparation of the food in his stable. Proving to be adept in the kitchen, Kototsurugi maintained his culinary interests post-retirement and contributed to several books and publications on the subject.

When it comes to profile size and career success, the pen version of Noboru Miyata did indeed become far mightier than the sword. His work could not only be found on every type of sumo merchandise imaginable but also in magazines and newspapers, as stickers in messaging apps, and on banners and posters for sumo events both domestic and international.

Kototsurugi’s illustrations were often uplifting and positive. An image he created depicting a rikishi defeating the coronavirus seemed to get shared practically every day on social media sites over the past year — a testament to the artist’s ability to inspire hope. It’s fitting that the last new item of Kototsurugi’s to arrive in the online sumo store was a mask holder.

In a world where pain and violence are ever present, Kototsurugi and his art were shelters from the storm.

He will be sorely missed.

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