Akemashite-omedetou-gozaimasu is the phrase Japanese use to ring in the new year. It’s a mouthful so many of us foreigners just say, “Akeome.” While I just woke up in DC — and am technically about 40 minutes late with this post — it is already 2018 there.
謹賀新年 kinga shin’nen is a more formal, sophisticated phrase for the same thing. 四字熟語 (yoji jyuku-go) are four-character stock phrases and kinga shin’nen means welcome the new year. After 2017, hell yeah. Welcome 2018!
今年宜しくお願い致します。Kotoshi yoroshiku onegaitashimasu. (Roughly: “We will appreciate your support in the New Year.”)
I am welcoming in the year of the dog with this Tosa Ken, The Yokozuna dog. In Kochi, close to the sea shore and a few minutes from the memorial to Sakamoto Ryoma, there’s a little tourist spot where they have a little dog dohyo.
If you check out my Twitter account, my avatar is a cartoon-styled version from a Mos-Burger calendar from a few years back. Another Japanese tradition is to hand out calendars. Just about every company floods you with calendars, and the Japanese Sumo Association is no different. However, it is bitter-sweet to look at last year’s NSK calendar. The year opened with three yokozuna and four ozeki. The pictures reflect the ranks from Aki 2016, so Takayasu was front and center for the picture featuring the east side of the lower sanyaku ranks and upper maegashira, Takanoiwa on the far right of the front row. I haven’t gotten the calendar for 2018, yet.
I especially want to thank Bruce, Herouth, Josh, Leonid, Liam, Thomas and Nicola! In 2017, you all – Team Tachiai – turned this little blog into a real sumo community by engaging hundreds of readers and it’s reflected in the amazing comments. Thank you readers (commenters and lurkers alike)! You keep me engaged in this sport and I really appreciate it. I am excited to see what happens this year!
Birth Name: Toshiki Sawada
Home Town: Iga, Japan
Highest Rank: Maegashira 1
Chiyonokuni Toshiki was born the son of a Buddhist priest in the city of Iga, Mie Prefecture, Japan. As a child, he had a keen interest in martial arts and dreamed of becoming a professional rikishi. After graduating high school, Chiyonokuni entered Kokonoe Beya and began learning the art of sumo from former Dai Yokozuna turned Oyakata, Chiyonofuji. His first official tournament was the 2006 Nagoya Basho, where he recorded an impressive 6-1 record and secured a promotion to the Jonidan division. His Jonidan debut would have to wait, however, as an injury sidelined the young rikishi right before the Aki Basho, costing him his promotion. Returning to action in time for the 2006 Kyushu Basho, Chiyokuni won back his spot in Jonidan with another kachi-koshi and was well on his way to the Makushita division in mid-2007 when he was injured again and missed the Nagoya Basho. This would become something of a pattern for Chiyonokuni; getting ever so close to a promotion only to get hurt and have to start over again.
His fortunes changed in March of 2009 when Chiyonokuni returned from injury for the fourth time in his young career and took the Jonidan yusho. This victory marked the beginning of a hot streak for Chiyo, who quickly rose up through the ranks and established himself as a Makushita mainstay by March 2010. Following the match-fixing scandal, Chiyonokuni was elevated to the upper ranks of Makushita and eventually the Juryo division in early 2011, despite not posting spectacular records. Like many rikishi in his generation, he had become a benefactor of several top spots being vacated by rikishi involved in the scandal. One such disgraced rikishi was his fellow stablemate, Chiyohakuho. When asked about Chiyohakuho’s expulsion from the sport and his subsequent promotion as a result of the scandal, Chiyonokuni remarked that he didn’t know how to feel about the situation. Taking full advantage of the circumstances, the young man from Iga put together an impressive string of winning records that saw him break into the top Makuuchi division at the 2012 Hatsu Basho. His stay in the top division was short-lived, as a dislocated shoulder forced him to miss parts of Hatsu and Haru and all of the Natsu tournament. Chiyo returned to Juryo for the 2012 Nagoya Basho, where he took the yusho and soon won his way back to Makuuchi by November. Chiyonokuni spent the next two years in and out of the top division, until an injury at the 2014 Aki basho saw him withdraw from competition on day 8. This injury caused him to miss the following two tournaments, plummeting Chiyonokuni all the way back to the Sandanme division.
Unperturbed by this massive demotion, Chiyonokuni began his treck back to Makuuchi by taking the Sandanme division yusho with a perfect 7-0 record at the 2015 Haru Basho. This marked the beginning of an impressive comeback for the young rikishi, which culminated in his second Juryo championship in May of 2016 and a return to the Makuuchi division, where he has remained to this day. At the 2017 Natsu Basho, Choyonokuni debuted at a career-high rank of Maegashira 1. Despite picking up his first kinboshi victory over Yokozuna Kakuryu, the rest of the tournament was a disaster for Chiyo, and he finished with a dreadful 2-13 record. He bounced back from this poor performance with two consecutive kachi-koshi in July and September but failed to secure eight wins November. 2017 also marked a significant milestone in the life of Chiyonokuni, who married his longtime girlfriend Ai Hayashi, whom he met seven years prior. Chiyonokuni is primarily an oshi-zumo or “pusher-thruster” practitioner. Because of his relatively small size, he employs tsukiotoshi thrust downs and hatakikomi slap downs to take his larger opponents off their feet.
Chiyonokuni (left) vs. Kaisei (right), Aki basho, 2017.
There have been a number of times in history when four Yokozuna reigned together. The NSK is always proud to show pictures of four Yokozuna in full regalia standing in a row. But when looking closely, those idyllic pictures may reveal the cracks of impending doom.
On senshuraku of the Nagoya basho, 1990, Ozeki Asahifuji faced Dai-Yokozuna Chiyonofuji. Chiyonofuji was 12-2. Asahifuji was 13-1. There was no one else in the yusho run. This was a decisive bout.
The Yusho went to Asahifuji. There is nothing unusual in an Ozeki beating a Yokozuna on senshuraku. But for Asahifuji, this was an extra special bout. It was his second consecutive yusho.
And though I don’t have access to press and media from the 1990s, you can all imagine what followed. The next day, the YDC convenes, and decides to recommend promoting the Ozeki to Yokozuna. Representatives of the NSK visit Oshima-beya, with the stablemaster and the okami-san (stablemaster’s wife) flanking the Ozeki, all dressed in the most formal mon-tsuki kimono, and the Ozeki accepting the new rank and vowing not to shame it. The whole heya gathers together to braid a rope. The shin-yokozuna spending the night learning his dance from a predecessor in his chosen style, and performs it for the first time at Meiji Jingu.
We have seen all of this following Hatsu 2017. The only difference is that Asahifuji’s rope and dance were Shiranui-style, whereas Kisenosato’s are in Unryu-style.
And so, a new Yokozuna was born. 63rd Yokozuna Asahifuji was joining Dai-yokozuna Chiyonofuji, Yokozuna Hokutoumi, and Yokozuna Onokuni. A new four-Yokozuna era was celebrated.
It may come as no surprise to anybody here that this deciding yusho came with one of the three Yokozuna being kyujo. It’s pretty hard to win a yusho, let alone two consecutive ones, when you have three Yokozuna at peak performance. A fourth Yokozuna almost always comes on the back of injuries at the top of the banzuke. Onokuni, in this case, was absent from the tournament.
The Shin-Yokozuna made his debut in Aki 1990. For a new Yokozuna, it was a pretty solid performance, but this came with Onokuni still absent, joined by the dai-Yokozuna. With only two Yokozuna presiding, Yokozuna Hokutoumi grabbed the Yusho, defeating the Shin-Yokozuna on the last day.
Kyushu 1990 was the only tournament in which all four Yokozuna participated from day 1 to day 15. This was the kind of tournament fans love: all Yokozuna (except Hokutoumi with 9-6) and both Ozeki having a powerful performance with double figure standings.
In Hatsu 1991, the tournament, which started with all four Yokozuna present, lost the Dai-Yokozuna after only two bouts. The three surviving Yokozuna had solid enough performances, but the Yusho went to Ozeki Kirishima. Chiyonofuji’s kyujo continued for the full length of the 1991 Haru basho, so this time there was not a single day in which four Yokozuna dohyo-iri were performed.
Things started rolling downhill faster from there. Natsu 1991 saw both Hokutoumi and Onokuni full kyujo. But the worse part was the attempted return of Chiyonofuji. The Dai-Yokozuna lost his first bout to the up-and-coming Maegashira 1 Takahanada (later Dai-Yokozuna Takanohana), and after losing on the third day to Komusubi Takatoriki, tearfully announced his retirement.
This meant the still-fresh Asahifuji was left all alone at the top in this tournament (and accordingly, won the yusho – in a playoff with Ozeki Konishiki). But it also meant that the “four Yokozuna era” was over in 5 tournaments.
In the next tournament, Nagoya 1991, the top of the banzuke was still suffering from the after-shock of the highly popular and admired Dai-Yokozuna. None of the remaining Yokozuna was performing well. Asahifuji finished with a dismal 8-7. Hokutoumi with an only slightly better 9-6. Yokozuna Onokuni tried to make a comeback, after his absence due to a skin infection in the previous tournament. But he lost four of his first eight bouts and decided to join Chiyonofuji and declare his own retirement.
The yusho in this tournament, by the way, went to Maegashira #13 (!) Kotofuji, who impressively beat two Ozeki and the unfortunate Yokozuna Asahifuji, as well as Sekiwake Takatoriki. His only loss that tournament was to Takahanada, then Komusubi.
So then there were two… but once again Asahifuji found himself as the sole Yokozuna with Hokutoumi fully absent from Aki 1991. Asahifuji himself injured his shoulder and pulled out of the tournament on the sixth day. The Yusho once again fell in the hands of a Maegashira, this time M5, Kotonishiki. The banzuke was leaking Yokozuna, but the Ozeki seemed to shy away from the rope.
Asahifuji was kyujo from Kyushu 1991 as well, with pancreatic problems. Hokutoumi attempted a return but went tochuu-kyujo, again leaving the Fukuoka crowd without a single Yokozuna dohyo-iri. This time Ozeki Konishiki took the Yusho.
The hapless Asahifuji found himself the third of the four Yokozuna to retire, in Hatsu 1992. Only the ailing Hokutoumi was left to shoulder the duty, with Konishiki unable to follow up with a second Yusho (which went to, you guessed it, Takahanada at M2) or even a jun-yusho. Haru 1992 saw the last Yokozuna lose two bouts and go kyujo. Konishiki won his second yusho, but not consecutively.
Hokutoumi officially retired in Natsu 1992. The last of the four Yokozuna was down, only one year after the first of them retired. Within a year, Grand Sumo went from four yokozuna to no yokozuna at all.
It took five tournaments from that point for Ozeki Akebono to string together two consecutive Yusho. Of course, there was a little problem: he was not born in Japan. However, faced with a long period without any Yokozuna, the NSK decided that Hinkaku (the Yokozuna’s spirit of dignity) could, sometimes, also be discerned in people born outside of the Land of the Rising Sun. And so, following Hatsu 1993, for the first time, an American was wearing a rope and performing the dance at meiji jingu. That same Akebono would survive long enough to take part in another four Yokozuna era – also known as the Waka/Taka boom – but that’s a story for another time.
Can we draw any conclusions from this story about the four Yokozuna era that ended just now with the Harumafuji retirement? As Leo Tolstoy said, “All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. Every four Yokozuna era crumbles in a different way. Unlike that time, the Dai-Yokozuna was not the first to retire. And none of the four Yokozuna of the early 90s retired over a scandal. Hakuho is such a statistical anomaly he may yet live to see another roost of Ozeki and Yokozuna around him.
One thing to learn, though, is that it’s not easy for the Ozeki to fill in the gap when Yokozuna go under. The Ozeki themselves may belong to the same crumbling era. It is also not easy for up-and-comers to become Ozeki. Takanohana, who was the first punch in the one-two sequence that ended Chiyonofuji’s term, took a very long time to become the formidable Dai-Yokozuna he ended up being. And that bright meteor, Kotofuji, ended up with no further achievements after getting that Yusho. You need to be able to deliver a string of double-figure tournaments, be stable at that level, and not fall into the comfortable “Just get a kachi-koshi” mood when you are an Ozeki. The fact is that only 9 men were roped in the years that passed between the young Asahifuji’s promotion in 1990 and Kisenosato’s in 2017.
Every time the new banzuke is published, we start seeing pictures of proud rikishi pointing out their position on what seems to be a big wall of Kanji.
That, of course, is the official “banzuke-hyo”, or “banzuke table”. Here in Tachiai we frequently use part of it to head banzuke-related posts. So, let’s break down that wall:
Traditionally, Japanese is written top to bottom and right-to-left. This means that the Makuuchi entries – which are at the top of the banzuke – are written with the Yokozuna on the right and Maegashira 16-17 on the left.
[West is on the left of the Banzuke-hyo and the more prestigious East is on the right, as you’d expect from looking at a compass. When you see a banzuke written out in English, they’ll normally be swapped, with East on the left. –PinkMawashi]
At the top is the rank, followed by place of origin, and then full shikona (including first name). Here are the entries for Hakuho and Kisenosato, zoomed:
Yokozuna entries have a width of about 2.8cm. Ozeki entries – 2.5 cm. Sekiwake and Komusubi – 2.1 cm. The remaining width of the frame is divided evenly into the number of maegashira on that side.
The names are always written justified top and bottom. The calligrapher tries to leave a slightly larger space between the “surname” and the “given name”. In the image above, you can see Kagayaki’s entry, fifth from the left. He has only one kanji in his surname (輝), and two kanji in his given name (大士), so it stands out, having more white space than the ones around it.
Curiously, everybody below san-yaku on the banzuke is Maegashira! In particular, you can see “Maegashira” as the rank for each Juryo member. For Makushita and below, there is the character “同” (“do” = “ditto”) written in the rank position. And that character itself is shortened for sandanme and below. In this context, the “maegashira” means “ahead of the mae-zumo and off-banzuke guys” [Maegashira (前頭) literally translates as “those ahead” –PinkMawashi].
The bottom frame, excluding Jonokuchi, consists of members of the NSK. The big boxes on the East and West are for toshiyori of various ranks. The smaller boxes are for other members, such as sewanin, coaches, yobidashi and tokoyama.
The leftmost two boxes on the bottom left contain formulae in old Japanese. The second from the left says “In addition to the rikishi in this banzuke there are ones who do maezumo”. The leftmost evokes a thousand years of blessing.
So what about the middle column? The biggest, most impressive characters on the print – 蒙御免 – merely mean “Approved”. This is a vestige from the Edo period, when every sumo performance had to get approval from the shogunate.
This is followed by the date, length and place of the basho. Below them, the list of gyoji. The title of that is “行司” (“gyoji”), but if you take a look closely, you’ll see that the word is written right-to-left – the same way sekitori names are written on their akeni (the traditional luggage box every sekitori gets).
This holds true for every title in the banzuke-hyo – shimpan, riji, shunin. Anything that’s written in a single row is written right-to-left.
After the gyoji come the shimpan. Finally, “Nihon sumo kyokai” with details about the NSK.
Outside the frame, on the bottom left, there’s the date of publication and “all rights reserved”. And this is actually what gets written first! After drawing the frames, the calligrapher – a gyoji – writes the whole thing generally in reverse order – from left to right, from bottom to top, starting with that humble copyright notice, and ending with the East Yokozuna 1.
Moments ago, the Nihon Sumo Kyokai posted the New Year’s tournament ranking sheet. In a departure from some expectations, the banzuke features a single Komusubi and single Sekiwake rank, with Takakeisho and Onosho taking Komusubi and Mitakeumi and Tamawashi taking Sekiwake.
Terunofuji drops to Maegashira 10, which he shares with stable-mate Aminishiki. At the bottom end, the ranks extend down to Maegashira 17e, with a healthy crop of rikishi making the leap from Juryo, including Ryuden, Ishiura, and Sokokurai.