Kotozakura — a sumo ring name unused for half a century — reappeared on the latest banzuke (rankings), which were released this week.

The tenure of ozeki Kotonowaka lasted just one tournament, with the Sadogatake stable wrestler changing from his father’s shikona (ring name) to that of his late grandfather.

With the switch, the new Kotozakura fulfills a promise he famously made as a small child to the former yokozuna, who died in 2007.

Despite the family connection, assuming the shikona of a previous grand champion is a brave move for a young wrestler who has yet to lift the Emperor’s Cup.

The weight of history and expectation, however, has never been an issue for the 26-year-old, and in a Tuesday news conference he indicated that’s not about to change.

“Regardless of shikona, I’ve aimed for the top since entering the sumo world. Regardless of shikona I want to catch up to (yokozuna Kotozakura) and I think I’ve put myself in position to do so,” he said.

The rising star taking over the moniker of his grandfather upon reaching ozeki is a move that has long been expected. The only surprising aspect of the change is that it didn't happen immediately upon promotion in January, but to anyone who has been following the young man’s career, that, too, was not unexpected.

Kotozakura chose to compete in his first tournament as an ozeki under his original shikona (Kotonowaka) in order to honor his father, a former sekiwake, and have the latter man’s name listed at sumo’s second-highest rank.

Sumo’s newest ozeki and his father — who is also his stablemaster — have a very close relationship.

The love and affection that the former sekiwake, now known as Sadogatake, has for his son has been on public display for more than 20 years. Despite the demands of life as a sumo wrestler, the elder Kotonowaka ensured he spent as much time as possible with his son while an active rikishi.

Despite a reputation for having some of the most fearsome and intense training sessions ever seen in the sport, former yokozuna Kotozakura, pictured in 2005 at a training session, was never short of new recruits.
Despite a reputation for having some of the most fearsome and intense training sessions ever seen in the sport, former yokozuna Kotozakura, pictured in 2005 at a training session, was never short of new recruits. | Jiji

The future ozeki was ever-present at tournaments, regional tours and media events throughout the 2000s.

Now though, as eyes turn toward greater heights, the Kotozakura shikona is deemed by many to be a more fitting choice.

Although his grandfather may not be among the most decorated yokozuna of all time, the original Kotozakura was part of some of the most significant sumo moments of the latter half of the 20th century, and is a man whose influence on the sport still resonates.

He was also a prominent figure in many of sumo’s international forays during that era.

In fact, one of the first sumo bouts ever to reach a global audience involved Kotozakura.

That came via the 1967 James Bond movie “You Only Live Twice” in a scene where the titular spy attends a tournament at the Kuramae Kokugikan in Tokyo.

As Sean Connery and Akiko Wakabayashi exchanged codewords and furtive glances, Kotozakura was using his trademark bullrush on Fujinishiki in the ring.

Six years later, sumo’s 53rd yokozuna was a star attraction during a Japan Sumo Association tour of China — arguably the most publicized overseas event in sumo history — which was held soon after the two countries had normalized relations.

The veteran did his best to ensure things went smoothly, declaring in a pre-departure speech at the Chinese Embassy in Tokyo that, “I will do my best to put on a display of good sportsmanship in China” and “I want to help promote friendly relations between Japan and China through sumo.” Upon arrival, Kotozakura further endeared himself to his hosts by wearing a Chinese-style tunic suit rather than formal Japanese clothing during pre-tournament festivities.

As Sadogatake stablemaster, the former yokozuna further expanded sumo’s international reach, recruiting the first Canadian (Kototenta) and first Bulgarian (Kotooshu) into Japan’s national sport.

Yokozuna Kotozakura (left) enters the ring at a tournament in Tokyo in 1973.
Yokozuna Kotozakura (left) enters the ring at a tournament in Tokyo in 1973. | Jiji

While Kototenta’s brief time in sumo was merely a prelude to a long and successful career in professional wrestling, Kotooshu reached ozeki, won the Emperor’s Cup and now heads up a stable of his own.

Recruiting was a strength of the former Kotozakura and under his stewardship Sadogatake grew in size and power, producing a host of top-division wrestlers and several ozeki.

Despite a reputation for having some of the most fearsome and intense training sessions ever seen in the sport, Sadogatake was never short of new recruits.

That’s due in large part to how much the former yokozuna cared about his charges and how seriously he took the concept of a stable as being a family.

In fact, Kotozakura’s own family was responsible for him reaching yokozuna.

Five years into his ozeki tenure, the then-32-year-old seemed past his peak and on the verge of retirement. The birth of his daughter, however, filled him with renewed purpose.

“I was determined that when she grew up people would not be able to say to her that her father had been a rather weak ozeki in his time,” he said. “I simply couldn’t bear the thought of that ever happening to my daughter. I decided to keep fighting and do better than I ever had before.” The importance of family is a tenet that has remained strong through two subsequent generations, with the new Kotozakura repaying the love and respect he received from his father and grandfather.

While a family bond is the reason behind sumo’s newest ozeki changing his ring name, for sumo fans in general, the return of the Kotozakura shikona is an opportunity to revisit the life and career of one of 20th-century sumo’s greatest competitors.