The winner of a record 45 grand tournament championships, Mongolian-born former yokozuna Hakuho has retired with unparalleled results inside the ring, while remaining a lightning rod for controversy within the sumo establishment.
A popular and dominant champion, Hakuho’s rough technique and deportment — deemed by some to be self-righteous — drew frequent criticism. When he finally said he would retire, the Japan Sumo Association racked its brains right up until the last moment in its effort to deal with him as a former wrestler.
Having continuously attracted both positive and negative attention, the star rikishi made waves once more with his exit from the ring, leaving the tradition-bound world of sumo in a predicament.
At Wednesday’s meeting of the JSA’s six-man panel that examines wrestlers’ qualifications to assume the professional name of a sumo elder, one of the members said of Hakuho, “He might repeat the kind of things he did during his career. Is this really going to be OK?”
Under normal circumstances there would be no questions about a former yokozuna remaining with the JSA and taking on a coaching role. The panel’s final recommendation to the board of directors on Thursday included the opinion that Hakuho not be permitted to operate his own stable for 10 years.
During Thursday’s meeting, the specter of retired stablemaster Takanohana was raised. The former yokozuna finally left the JSA in 2018 following years of publicly criticizing the association. At least one director said that a situation where Hakuho attacks the JSA must be avoided.
The directors settled on the extraordinary measure of requiring Hakuho sign a document pledging to obey the rules, upon which one attendee uttered the sentiment that the former yokozuna was “reaping what he sowed.”
Criticism of Hakuho began to intensify six years ago.
In January 2015, Hakuho broke the record for career championships but needed to fight the decisive bout to clinch the championship twice. The ringside judges ordered the first bout to be re-fought because of a rarely applied rule, even though Hakuho had touched down outside the ring after his Japanese opponent.
Angered by what he perceived as favoritism within the sumo world, Hakuho blasted the judges the following day in his post-championship news conference, saying of their decision, “Even a child could look at that and understand (who won).”
In November 2017, as the sumo world was being rocked by the news that then-yokozuna Harumafuji had assaulted and injured a fellow wrestler prior to the Kyushu tourney while in Hakuho’s presence, the grand champion once more failed to predict how his deeds would be received.
After winning the tournament, Hakuho, oblivious to the larger picture, wrapped up his championship interview by calling for three cheers, a banzai sansho, in order to share his celebration with the fans in the arena.
It must have seemed to the association that this kind of questionable behavior would be a never-ending headache, and when word broke in April 2019 that Hakuho had applied for Japanese citizenship — a prerequisite to becoming a sumo elder — the siege lines began to appear around the yokozuna in anticipation of his retirement.
Another prerequisite is owning one of the finite shares of elder stock controlled by the JSA. Hakuho, however, sought to receive a share through a convention called ichidai toshiyori that the JSA had employed in the past to confer an automatic share to a few of its greatest champions.
But a month after the news of Hakuho’s citizenship pursuit broke, a meeting titled “experts to consider succession within sumo and its development” discussed Hakuho’s desire to make use of the ichidai toshiyori system and essentially closed that avenue to him.
This past April, the meeting’s chairman, Masayuki Yamauchi, a professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo, declared to a news conference that “no such system exists,” while the meeting’s final report included language condemning Hakuhos’s past behavior.
The meeting’s report was, according to one insider, a transparent attack on Hakuho. The former yokozuna has strong ties with the master of the Tomozuna stable, former sekiwake Kyokutenho, and other Mongolian-born elders, and it is possible that between them they could construct a future power bloc.
One senior elder called the meeting’s recommendation, “completely a Hakuho countermeasure,” warning him that he cannot do as he likes.
But regardless of how the battle over Hakuho’s future in sumo shapes up, his absence exacerbates issues for the sport within the ring.
A dominant yokozuna is the biggest drawing card the JSA can possess, and according to a source within the association, people began asking to cancel their tickets for last month’s tournament after Hakuho’s Miyagino stable was banned from competing due to coronavirus infections.
The newest yokozuna, Mongolian-born Terunofuji, has had surgeries on both knees that nearly ended his career. He turns 30 in November, so the chances are slim that he can be a long-term fan magnet like Hakuho, who reached yokozuna as a 22-year-old.
So while some within the JSA see Hakuho — now officially known as elder Magaki — as a danger within their ranks, one Yokozuna Deliberation Council member offered a gloomy forecast for the sport following the departure of its greatest-ever grand champion.
“In consideration of this, the association has to feel a real sense of crisis,” he said. “Sumo is approaching a winter era in which interest in the sport will disappear.”
Hironori Yano, the head of the council, said the question is who will be the next face of sumo.
“We don’t see (a next yokozuna hopeful). If there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s our wish for a new hero.”
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