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.