The Kisenosato Dilemma


No Easy Way Out

With Kisenosato out for kyujo for a second straight basho, there is a growing concern among the men who run sumo. Kisenosato’s elevation to Yokozuna has been a huge boon for the sport, raising it’s profile among the broader Japanese public, and driving huge ratings for the daily broadcasts. But as it becomes clear that Kisenosato cannot “heal naturally”, the sumo world faces a set of tough choices.

Fans who have come to sumo recently may not know how far out of the public’s minds sumo had wandered earlier this decade. The Japanese are proud people, and rightfully so. The nation of Japan and Japanese culture wield an oversized influence across the globe. They consider sumo to be their national sport, and it is in fact a sacred ritual. When it became clear that the top men of sumo were Mongolian for the foreseeable future, a section of the population lost interest. Sumo still had it’s fans, but it had become a sport dominated by outsiders, making it more like football (soccer) or any other imported event.

At the new years basho in 2017, this dynamic changed. For some time, the sumo association had wanted to promote Kisenosato, but lacked the final ingredient: a Yusho. In January, there was a confluence of events that gave Kisenosato his best chance ever at a tournament championship, and he took it. With his promotion secure, suddenly sumo had a Japanese born man at the highest rank. The public went absolutely insane for sumo and all things Kisenosato. He was Babe Ruth and John Glenn rolled into one. He had broken the lock Mongolia had on sumo.

March 2017 in Osaka, and Kisenosato is a freshly minted Yokozuna. The Japanese public is glued to their televisions, as the Osaka arena sold out all 15 days in mere minutes. In his day 13 match against Yokozuna Harumafuji, Kisenosato takes a hard fall off the dohyo and ruptures his left pectoral. Kisenosato is left handed by birth, and this injury robs him of his massive strength. Like every other sumo injury, nobody wants to talk about it. But the Japanese public (even if you are not a sumo fan) knows that the hero of Sumo is wounded. Somehow, he takes the yusho by defeating Ozeki Terunofuji not just once but twice on the final day. Again Japan erupts in jubilation as not only has their champion won his first tournament as Yokozuna, he overcame a grievous injury and prevailed against all odds.

After the party that follows a yusho, there were serious decisions to be made. Kisenosato had an injury that always requires surgery to heal. This would mean that the hero of sumo would be out of commission for at least 6 months, and even then might not ever return. This would remove the key figure that was driving interest in the sport back to where it belonged from the stage, possibly forever.

For whatever reason, the decision was made to try and “heal naturally”. This mean Kisenosato was to spend weeks resting his left upper body. He did not train much, and he was to do everything he could to not use that muscle group. Anyone who has trained athletically can tell you, over a period of weeks of non use, the related and supporting muscle groups de-condition, and lose their power. By resting, Kisenosato was losing the strength and stamina that had made him Yokozuna.

For the past two basho, he has tried to compete, but he is completely out of shape now, and most likely that pectoral muscle is still damaged and generating a faction of its former power. Kisenosato cannot compete in his present physical form, and that form cannot change without medical intervention.

So the question is – what do to? All of the answers have huge down side. Here are a few

  • Continue to wait and hope – So continue to “heal naturally” knowing that every day that goes by without intense strain on the left upper body diminishes your strength. Medically, there is no way to naturally heal a pectoral tear. So Kisenosato never regains left side upper body strength. We get a sub-standard Yokozuna lingering in the shadows (like Kakuryu) but instead it’s your Japanese born hero rikishi. Eventually (probably later this year) he is pushed to retire due to lack of performance.
  • Medical intervention – You take your prize Yokozuna to the best sports medicine doctors in the world, and just tell the fans he’s gone for 6 months. Surgical repair of the pectoral and any other nagging bits that were plaguing him. Hakuho did this for the big toe on his right foot, and he had to train like a madman for months just to step on the dohyo and not embarrass himself. It took him a year to return to 90% of his former glory. For Kisenosato this would likely mean intense physical therapy and endless workouts with Takayasu to try to get back to the form that won Hatsu 2017.
  • Admit you are done – Ugly solution, but if you are not going to try surgery to fix your left upper body, may as well go intai now and save yourself further damage or the fans any further disappointment. This would be a nightmare scenario of the sumo association, as it would return them to the days of being considered a foreign dominated sport.
  • Hold the fort – The most cruel of the outcomes, Kisenosato can continue to compete as best he can until another Japanese rikishi is ready for promotion. The most likely candidate would be Takayasu, although Goeido 2.0 could get it done sooner. This would allow the sumo association to shift everyone’s affections to a new hero, and Kisenosato could quietly bow out and retire.

17 thoughts on “The Kisenosato Dilemma

  1. Unfortunately, I think that ‘hold the fort’ will be the option Kise will take. I would be surprised if he admits he’s done, or if he takes the (from my point of view the only valid option if he wants to continue in sumo) medical intervention option. He has to shoulder a lot as the first Japanese born Yokozuna in such a long time and he might be choosing pride over health. Hm.

  2. This is such a tragedy… thinking about it again reading this wonderfully written post I almost feel like crying. I really hope Kise goes for surgery and somehow gets back to something close to yokozuna level, but I fear it is really unlikely. I won’t give up hope just yet, but at this point I am prepared for the worst.
    Anyway, thanks for the great writeup which prompted me to leave my first comment on your nice blog.

    • Thank you much for taking the time to read, and for letting me (and the blog) know what you were thinking. I DO think that if he takes surgery now, he could be back in fighting form for New Years, and it could be made to be a grand and wonderful thing.

      If you may remember, the healthy Kisenosato of Osaka did some really great “Leader of the Sumo World” think leading up to the basho. I fondly remember his “fight club” practice warehouse that had his entire ichimon, and quite a few other joi rikishi coming by to spar and practice together. It was really very cool, and it marked a new day in sumo to me. Now that he is hurt, he is not genki enough to make stuff like that happen. But he can be again.

  3. Even if he gets the surgery, he’s just going to tear it again going for or defending a throw. I would bet almost anything that he wrestles until the damage is catastrophic and he can’t use that arm to lift five pounds for the rest of his life.

  4. Ouch, your outlook on this is a lot bleaker than mine.

    The additional problem with the “Hold the fort” solution is that Hakuho is damned if he’s going to let anybody win two Yusho in a row. Even one is not going to be an easy goal, with three Ozeki yapping at the ankles of the Lord of the Ring.

    • Yes, The Boss is really the man to beat now. But as much as I don’t want it to happen, the great Hakuho can be injured on any given day. It happened last year at Nagoya. I hope it never happens again. But if the Boss is injured enough to (god forbid) intai, who do they have to headline next?

      Harumafuji is perpetually hurt now. His great speed and skill can’t predictably carry the day.
      Kakuryu is going intai this year unless he can get repaired.
      Kisenosato needs dry dock and refitting.

      Watch the NSK start working out how to get another rikishi ready to be Yokozuna. Best case they need one in 2 years, worst case they need one by January.

      • Isn’t Takayasu more or less ready to be Yokozuna at this very moment? That’s the subtext of every new ozeki promotion. Of course he’ll have to fulfill the performance requirements, but that’s not in the Kyokai’s hands.

        • Yes, he could. But the element here is that I think much of his performance has come from his constant training with Kisenosato. It’s possible he could grind his way to the next higher level without him, but I think it might not happen that way.

          As a huge Takayasu fan, I don’t mean to slight him. But today he is some distance from Yokozuna class sumo. I can see it being possible in the future, but the gap is the question.

  5. Grim prospects indeed for Kisenosato, I feel privileged that I was able to see one of his prime-form bouts in Osaka (against Ikioi). However I suspect that the prospects for the future of Sumo in Japan do not rest as squarely on Kise’s shoulders as it appears. My suspicion is that this renewed interest in Sumo has brought a new generation of Japanese fans to the sport and returned many to the fold, as it were. Certainly a kinboshi-bleeding hero or sudden retirement will turn some away again just as quickly, but my impression is that this renewed Sumo fandom has grown bigger than just Kise. Casual viewers have been drawn in by the storylines of scrappy up and comers (Ishiura for example), are enamored with veterans finding new strength (like Aoyama this basho), have been impressed and grown to respect the prowess of the top tier rikishi (Takayasu for one) and the sheer spectacle of seeing the indominatabale White Phoenix return to form gets the arena rocking. The price of a ticket gets you an entire zabuton, but you’ll only need the EDGE! In short, yes, perhaps Kisenosato’s epic one-armed Yusho playoff in Osaka may have been the impetus for this sea change in popularity, but the effects of this paradigm shift will likely keep Sumo entrenched in the popular zeitgeist for some years to come.

    • I hope it works out as you say, but Japan as a culture is perpetually in hero worship mode. If you look at Japanese pop culture, it revolves around public figures or “Idols”. Long before Paris Hilton, Japan had famous people who were famous for being famous. In Japan it makes sense.

      For Kisenosato, did you know there is a manga about his life as a sumotori? The hero culture they have already built around him is impressive. This just raised the stakes for Kisenosato, who may have had an over-active sense or responsibility already.

      For Sumo to be a consistent big deal in Japan, it will help to have a hero figure. Many Japanese don’t care that rikishi like Hakuho came from Mongolia. The fact that he is the “Michale Jordon of Sumo” is the headline. But for a good number of folks, it’s happy days when a Japanese born man is part of the elite group at the top.

      • It’s an interesting business. I was living in Hiroshima in 2014 when Brad Eldred was a slugging powerhouse for the Carp. Nobody cared that he was a gringo, just that he had a C on his hat and was a home run machine. Obviously baseball is A) next level popular compared to sumo, and B) not entangled with national identity, but I don’t think baseball suffered when Ichiro or Nomo left the country. I guess we’ll see. As long as there are interesting and skilled wrestlers going at it six times a year I’ll be happy.

        Also I want that manga.

  6. I’m not sure that sumo really needs a Japanese hero – just the prospect of one seems to suffice. After all, the current boom was sparked by Kisenosato’s first unsuccessful tsuna chase back in 2013, and kicked into high gear by Endo of all people a year later. (Wow, was that some ridiculous hype at the time.)

    With the current youth movement, I would bet there are enough personalities to sustain it for a while longer even if it’s without Kise, and it would be quite a surprise if there aren’t at least a couple among them who will progress far enough to carry the torch. And with the scaled-back foreign recruiting of the recent years, one would think the current Japanese talents will be getting more opportunities to shine than their predecessors did 5-10 years ago (who had to contend against the products of the big foreign recruiting drive from 1999-2005).

  7. Man, it’s been so painful watching him suffer and perform below his talent.

    I think he’s still got years left, so I don’t want him to retire. If he doesn’t choose surgery, the remaining option isn’t as simple or passive as resting and hoping. There are a few different physical therapy avenues, depending on his injury (the extent of which nearly no one knows).

    But either way, it’s going to require an investment of time, maybe 2–3 basho, for the long-term return of being able to compete at yokozuna level for, I think, at least a few years. There’s just no way around it: Every injury leaves crumbs. There’ll probably be scar tissue and things are definitely going to move differently. It takes time to re-calibrate your body after you heal.

    The NSK will just have to suck it up, look past nationality, and be happy with the other yokozuna, at least one of whom is doing better than Kisenosato right now.

  8. With the upper sanjaku in disrepair and only Hakuho and Takayasu doing their job of taking names and handing out defeats the preasure on the sekiwake has lessend a lot, making ozeki promotion easier for Mitakeumi than it has been for Takayasu. And both men will be able to take a basho if Hakuho has a moment of weakness.

  9. Great post, Bruce.

    The frustration I have in watching him is what ended up manifesting itself in Nagoya – by continuing to perform like this, not only does he take a beating as opponents target the area they know to be weak (and we saw this from day 1), but also he becomes more prone to pick up other injuries he ordinarily wouldn’t. It’s easy to say in retrospect and of course freak injuries can occur at any time but I don’t think he gets that ankle injury if he has the upper body strength to hold off Ikioi to begin with.

    It’s interesting that when Hakuho won in May, he came out and said all the things he did to get back from the surgery, things rikishi don’t ordinarily try like yoga, etc. If I’m Kisenosato and realistically facing a surgery to get back into any kind of fighting shape, I look at his comeback as being inspirational and try to follow that blueprint, even if the road back is much longer.

  10. FYI the possessive of “it” is a special case in that it lacks an apostrophe. So instead of “it’s profile” or “it’s fans,” it would be “its profile” and “its fans.”

    “It’s” with an apostrophe means only “it is” or “it has.”


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