Hatsu Basho – The Next Stage of Ura’s Return

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Tachiai fan favorite Ura finds himself in the thick of a very competitive Makushita division to start 2019, and it will be his biggest challenge in more than a year. Out of all of the stories that will be woven through Hatsu 2019, Ura’s battle to return to the top division continues to attract an increasing number of followers, as the master of “What the hell was that?” Sumo continues to fight his way though the ranks.

Ura attracted a great deal of attention from the start. A youth sumo competitor, he began his professional sumo career in May of 2015, and made quick work of the lower divisions. His promotion to Makushita in November of 2015 (his 4th basho) did not seem to slow him down at all, and he dispatched nearly every opponent. His arrival in Juryo in May of 2016 came just 1 year after his Jonikuchi debut. The man is a fierce competitor, and is the bane of any rikishi who faces off against him across the shikir-sen. He gained a well deserved following for his dynamic, acrobatic and sometimes unbelievable sumo.

But a tragic injury during Aki 2017 damaged his right knee, and he assumed at the time that his sumo career had ended. He opted for reconstructive surgery, and sat out healing tournament after tournament while his rank plunged down the banzuke, falling to the bottom of Sandanme before he was strong enough to return to competition a year after his injury. Since his return, it’s clear that his months spent healing his lower body allowed him to focus on his upper body, and he returned to the dohyo with a rather impressive gain in strength. He tore through his first two tournaments, scoring only a single loss.

After taking the Sandanme yusho in November, he has been ranked Makushita 23 for the Hatsu basho. The top quartile of Makushita is some of the most brutal, tough and flat out rank in sumo. This area is populated with rikishi who have fallen from the lofty ranks of Sekitori, and up and coming youngsters who are so close to the glory, money and privileges of the top two divisions. In some way it’s more rough and tumble than any other sumo group. Ura will be in this grinder, slugging it out for rank.

Some of Ura’s fans have asked if he should score a 7-0 yusho (possible but not likely) would he would be returned to Juryo. Truth be told, the climb through the top of Makushita into Juryo is sometimes referred to as “the wall”, and we can expect even a 7-0 finish to probably not be enough to do more than move him into the top 10 of Makushita for March. In order to reach Juryo, a rikishi must have both a strong winning score at the top of the division, and a slot must open up in Juryo by make-koshi, injury or retirement.

How tough will the competition be? Let’s look at some possible opponents:

  • Hoshoryu – Yes, that guy; Asashoryu’s nephew. He’s fast, strong and like Ura, has his eye set on a Sekitori rank.
  • Kizakiumi – A former college rikishi, he is another tough competitor who so far has not had to deal with injuries.
  • Chiyootori – Yes, the former Komusubi currently fighting it out to return to the top divisions, but mired in the Makushita mosh pit. This would be a tough, and exciting match.

It should be noted, that bout scheduling in Makushita works differently than the upper divisions. The first match will be someone close to the rikishi’s rank, then rikishi with the same score (ie, 2-0) will face each other in each successive match, with the schedule trying to keep huge rank mismatches from taking place.

Team Tachiai will be glued to our screens for each of Ura’s matches, as he has finally reached the rank where his recovery will be put to the test.

The Origin of Sumo: A Story of Gods, Emperors, and the History of a Nation

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Sumo wrestlers entering the ring by Utagawa Kuniteru,1863.

The origin of sumo is an ancient one, filled with mysticism and mystique. The sport of giants we so fondly love today, came into being over two thousand years ago when two Kami (Shinto gods) clashed in a tumultuous battle for the fate of Japan. Legend has it that the god of thunder Takemikazuchi met his rival, Takeminakata, on the shores of the Sea of Japan in the first recorded sumo bout. Takemikazuchi bested Takeminakata, and thus the thunder god’s followers inherited Japan and established the imperial line that continues to the present day. Henceforth, sumo and Shinto were irreversibly married, and the sport became an integral part of Shinto festivals to entertain the very Kami who gifted sumo to humanity. Sumo also held a key part in the annual rice planting, as wrestling matches played the role of prayer for a bountiful harvest. During the Heian  Period (794-1185), the status of sumo was further elevated when the sport became a regular form of entertainment for the Emperor and the Imperial Court. Not to be outdone, the Daimyo lords began holding sumo matches in their own fiefs across the nation. As rikishi during this era were typically samurai or ronin, they would be invited into the armies of lords who valued their combat prowess.

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A mural depicting Oda Nobunaga, one of Japan’s most important Daimyo, observing a sumo bout. Nobunaga was a prolific supporter of sumo, and his influence on the sport can be seen today in the form of the raised dohyo.

As Japan descended into turmoil during the Sengoku period (1467-1600) the practice of  Kanjin, or public sumo bouts emerged, primarily as a means to fund temple renovations. Over time public sumo events spread out from the temples and into the streets of the major city centres of Japan. However, this street sumo was no longer the dignified sport that had enthralled Emperors and warlords alike. It was far more brutal, bloody, and lewd. Fearing the sport was negatively affecting public morals, the Tokugawa Bakufu (Shogan Government) put a moratorium on the sport, including events organized by shrines to pay for repairs. This ban was short lived and by the Genroku Period (1688-1704) public sumo returned stronger than ever, with the first sanctioned tournament taking place at Tomioka Hachiman Shrine in 1684. It was during this revival that many of the Shinto traditions and rules commonplace in modern sumo were adopted. These additions, such as a strict list of sanctioned techniques, were no doubt a move to improve the sport’s image in the eyes of the Bakufu. By the latter half of the 18th century, sumo’s popularity had grown to the point of being profitable and for the first time competing as a rikishi became a genuine profession. Rikishi such as Tanikaze and Raiden became superstars, and massive temporary venues were constructed to accommodate the throngs of fans desperate to see their favourite athletes compete. Professional sumo, Ozumo, was born.

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A temporary sumo venue on the grounds of the Ryogoku Eko-in Temple, Edo. The Eko-in was the seat of Edo/Tokyo sumo and the location of the annual fall and spring basho until the construction of the first Ryogoku Kokugikan in 1909.

While one could see sumo throughout the country,  the Tokugawa capital of Edo was the largest centre for sumo in the country. In 1761, the first banzuke was published, and the group tasked with developing these rankings became the foundation for an organized sumo association that would become the Nihon Sumo Kyokai. Edo, However, was not the only Ozumo hub in Japan. Osaka had also emerged as one of the major powers in the sumo world, and its rivalry with Edo (later Tokyo) Sumo would continue through to the 20th century.  With the end of Tokugawa rule in 1868 came the most serious threat sumo had ever faced. The end of the Bakufu saw Japanese society go through a massive restructuring during the Meiji Revolution, and sumo was seen as archaic and counterintuitive to the nations urgent efforts to catch up to the western world. Furthermore, with the Shogun and Daimyo system abolished, regional Ozumo organizations and rikishi no longer had the financial backing they once relied on to hold tournaments and make a living. In an attempt to weather these financial constraints, Tokyo Sumo established the system of salaries and governance that is still in place today.

American-Sumo
A sumo bout for a crowd of American sailors, 1854. The forced opening of Japan’s borders by Commodore Matthew Perry and his notorious black ships had a significant impact on Japanese culture and, by extension, sumo. Perry and his crew were not impressed by the sport. Rather, they described rikishi as “overfed monsters” and deemed sumo brutish and disgusting.

Sumo remained in a state of uncertainty until Emperor Meiji endorsed the sport through his attendance of a tournament 1884. While the Emperor may have incorporated sumo back into the Japanese consciousness, it wasn’t until the heated rivalry between Hitachiyama Tamien and Umegatani Taro II in 1902 that the sport would regain national prominence. Sumo was once again one of Japan’s most popular forms of entertainment. This success, coupled with the poaching of talented rikishi away from Osaka to the “big leagues” in Tokyo, lead to the merger of the two regional Associations in 1927.  Thus the Nihon Sumo Kyokai was formed, the governing body that would shepherd the sport through the 20th century and it’s greatest boom period ever. Despite its divine origins, sumo has weathered many trying times that nearly saw its extinction. Yet the sport that has delighted both rulers and commoners refused to fade into obscurity. Sumo persists into the current day and survives as the physical, spiritual, and lasting link to the ancient past of Japan.

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Two rikishi compete before Emperor Meiji, seated in the top right. The Emperor’s endorsement of sumo marked a dramatic change in the public perception of the sport and ushered in its resurgence in Japan. According to some biographers, Meiji himself was a talented amateur sumo wrestler in his youth.
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Onishiki Daigoro, sumo’s 28th Yokozuna who competed in the Osaka Association from 1906 to 1922. Following the merger of the two regional Ozumo associations, all Osaka rikishi were relegated to the Makushita division due to the perceived superiority of Tokyo sumo. The only exception were Osaka’s Yokozuna, as their rank protected them from demotion.

 

Hatsu, Black Francis & The Reckoning

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Andy and Bruce’s comments earlier in the week caused me to reflect on my own wishes for sumo in 2019. We’ve touched a bit on this in the Tachiai podcast (smash that subscribe button!), but in advance of marking the start of another spin around the sun and amidst an ever growing awareness of the passing of time, let me dive into what I’m looking for in sumo in 2019:

The Reckoning

While in Fukuoka, I accused Bruce of being the tin-hatted toilet-paper-hoarding apocalypse-touting fallout bunker dweller of Tachiai, so steadfast has been his insistence that we are on the verge of the great changing of the guard in sumo with never before seen masses of intai and tadpole-shaped superstars (plus Kagayaki) claiming scalps and kinboshi from the mass graves of fallen heroes.

I’ll stop putting words in Bruce’s mouth here, but let me just say, while maintaining the utmost reverence for those mainstays who have provided us joy, that I’m joining ranks with the big man and giving a full-throated welcome to sumo’s next dimension.

Does this mean I’m no longer Mr. Hakuho-2020-Ganbare? Hardly. But, I’m fine with the Boss serving up 2-3 glorious basho a year until the 2020 Olympics. As discussed in that latest Tachiai podcast (like and subscribe) however, we’ve been talking about this for the past year and the only major retirements we’ve actually seen have been tied to the Harumafuji Scandal. Woof.

I want to see a Yusho in 2019 from Takayasu. It’s been there for him to take and it’s time for him to step up and take it and show us he can at least make a case to be Yokozuna. I have a hard time buying into the idea that being a “good” Ozeki would be enough for Takayasu. As things stand he’s the only one of the top 7 ranked rikishi not to have claimed the Emperor’s Cup, and when you consider that sumo is usually dominated by a small group of men (a fact that has been especially true since the rise of Asashoryu and then Hakuho and to a lesser extent Harumafuji), he may never have a better moment.

By the way, The Reckoning doesn’t mean we don’t have time for romantic storylines. Do I want to see a sumo world without Kotoshogiku? Of course not (especially if he brings back the bend). But his two-way career-suicide pact with Toyonoshima adds intrigue as the latter continues his re-emergence as sekitori and continues his climb back towards Maegashira status so that the two men can resume their ages old rivalry. What price a torinaoshi, a final hug, chug and goodnight?

Hot Names for 2019

Takakeisho. Yutakayama. Onosho. Tomokaze. Meisei. Yago. Hokutofuji. Abi. These are the guys I think we will see regularly taking their lumps in the joi by the end of the year. Yes, even shin-Juryo man and yusho-grabber Tomokaze – who should make quick work of the second tier and establish his upper-top division credentials before the leaves turn.

The Pixies

I don’t know about you, but perhaps more than most, I like little-guy sumo. When you talk about the old times, I love Mainoumi. I couldn’t wait for Ura to make it up to the top division and I rooted for Ishiura and still do even when we could all see a henka coming through the thick gritty sludge of a protein shake.

While Ura packed on the pounds (leading some to question whether the bam-thwok of all the pressure on his knees led to his injury) and Ishiura slid out of the top division, there are still a number of smaller rikishi, rough diamonds who are making a considered assault on the slots held by the current crop of rank-and-filers. I predict that all of them will bossanova their way into the top division in 2019. Here come our men:

Terutsuyoshi is the closest, having maintained a lengthy stay in Juryo. The copious salt thrower is, for my money, the man to restore glory to Isegahama-beya and, given the way he shows no fear against gigantic opponents, I think he can ring the bell in the top division for a long time.

Wakatakakage is one of three brothers from Arashio-beya who have troubled the upper ranks of the amateur ranks over the past couple of years. However, he is the first to make it to Juryo and looks to be making quick work of the division. Like Terutsuyoshi, he is a tenacious rikishi, taking his opponents head on. He has a good grasp of fundamentals.

Enho is perhaps the newest darling of the sumo world, and you can tell from the wall of sound that echoes around the arena when he enters the dohyo. If I’m Endo I’m looking over my shoulder with some of these endorsement deals, because this new pretty boy packs a punch and delivers the enthusiasm and frankly excitement that’s been missing from the current pin-up boy’s sumo over the past year. Having quickly debased the credentials of the opposition in the bottom four divisions, his elastic antics call to mind Ura, and I for one can’t wait to see the erstwhile Hakuho-bagboy and the cherry blossom mawashi man have at it with kensho on the line.

The Tachiai Community

It’s been a pleasure to spend another year contributing along with the others on the site. It’s been incredible to see this community continue to grow, and even to meet folks in person at basho in Japan. Please continue to stay in touch with us, and tell your friends in the sumo community. And if the Natsu Tachiai meet-up comes to fruition, then we’ll look forward to seeing you there!

Andy’s Quick Commentary on Hatsu-2019

With the Christmas holiday over, I’m back home and can get back to work. The added benefit of the partial US Government shutdown means I will have extra time to pay attention to sumo!

I’m excited to see this banzuke for a number of reasons. The nostalgia center of my brain is thrilled to see so many grizzled vets back, as Bruce mentioned. With Myogiryu holding on to a sekiwake slot, Tochiozan as top maegashira, Kotoshogiku on a decided upswing, and Yoshikaze stabilizing in the top half, my own knees don’t feel like they’ll be 40 years old in 2019.

I welcome the Ozeki talk surrounding that whipper-snapper yusho winner Takakeisho and applaud the rise of junior tadpole Yago. I don’t think it will happen this go-round for Takakeisho but as I eluded to in the podcast, I do think it will come soon. I’m not a fan of 9-win tournaments in ozeki runs. I like to see consistency, especially when the presence of the full sanyaku slate has been anything but consistent. We’ll see if he has it if he picks up 11 wins in January and March. I know that’s setting the bar high but I like the bar high, dammit.

This brings us to our ozeki and yokozuna. There will be change in these ranks this year, but for hatsu I am hoping for full, championship level participation from all six men. As Herouth’s jungyo reporting has showed, however, not all have been able to participate. Of those who have shown up, they’ve largely taken it easy… except for those intense kawaigari sessions. And this is why I’m optimistic that 5 of the 6 will be ready for the first tournament of the year. Rather than risking further injury on the PR jaunt, they will be relatively rested and ready.

It’s great to see Ura back and bounding up the ranks but I really want to see Terunofuji throwing people. One more tournament off will be fine and dandy but if he’s ready now, by all means let’s have us some kaiju. I’ll be back with a New Years post soon!

NHK World Grand Sumo Review Airs Friday (Japan Time)

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NHK World’s Grand Sumo team keeps up the intensity with a year and 2018 Grand Sumo Review program, airing during Friday Japan time. Details on the NHK web site, though it seems that once again Raja Pradhan gets tortured.

2018 Grand Sumo Review

US Show Times

  • 11:30 PM Eastern Thursday / 08:30 PM Pacific
  • 03:30 AM Eastern Friday / 12:30 AM Pacific
  • 11:30 AM Eastern Friday / 08:30 AM Pacific
  • 05:30 PM Eastern Friday / 02:30 PM Pacific

You can watch it online from your computer, mobile device or most streaming systems such as an Apple TV.