Legends of the Dohyo #7: The Saint of Sumo Part One

Hitachiyama

The history of athletics is full of innovators and dreamers, unafraid to break with tradition and challenge the old ways in the hope of making their sport better. Even a sport like sumo, steeped in ancient customs and practices, has had many revolutionaries come along willing to risk it all to ensure Japan’s national sport grows and prospers. Men like Futabeyama, who introduced salaries into sumo, and Takamiyama, who broke the gaijin barrier, ushered in new eras and shaped the sumo into what we know today. Yet there is no one who can hold a flame to the tremendous impact Yokozuna Hitachiyama Taniemon had on sumo in the early twentieth century.

Hitachiyama Taneimon was born into samurai nobility in 1874, but his families privileged status was stripped away during the political upheaval of the Meiji Restoration. No longer able to rely on his family’s reputation, the young Hitachiyama traveled to Tokyo to attend Waseda University. While in Tokyo he stayed with his uncle, who encouraged the youth to pursue a career in sumo after witnessing him lift a nearly five hundred pound boulder while working on his uncle’s property. Despite obvious physical talents, Hitachiyama’s father tried to dissuade him from a career in sumo as the sport held little prestige in the rapidly westernizing Japan. Disregarding his father’s concerns, Hitachiyama joined Dewanoumi Beya in 1890. Making his professional debut in Tokyo Sumo two years later, his early career hit a roadblock when  Hitachiyama was forbidden from marrying his stablemasters niece. Unable to be without his beloved, he fled Tokyo Sumo in 1894 and joined rival organization Nagoya Sumo for a brief time before entering Osaka Sumo.

Hitachiyama 2
Hitachiyama (left) and Umegatani (right). Together, these two men returned sumo to its former prestige in the early 20th century.

Hitachiyama eventually returned to Tokyo Sumo and Dewanoumi Beya in 1896, just in time for the spring tournament where he began an impressive 32 win streak. He made his Makuuchi debut in the 1899 Spring Basho, where he took home the yusho with a record of eight wins. Missing the following summer basho, he scored matching seven-win records at both tournaments in 1900 and took home his second championship at the 1901 Spring Basho. Following this success, Hitachiyama was promoted to the rank of Ozeki. After winning both Basho in 1903, including a senshuraku win over fellow Ozeki and chief rival Umegatani Totaro II, Hitachiyama became the sports 19th Yokozuna. However, he insisted that Umegatani receive a promotion as well and the two became Yokozuna simultaneously. Alongside Ōzutsu Man’emon, this would mark the first time the sumo world ever had three Yokozuna at the same time. Hitachiyama’s business sense was evident even early in his career, as the continuation of his rivalry with Umegatani as Yokozunas saw sumo reach it’s highest point of popularity since the Edo Period. Sumo had never been hotter, and as a result of this new popularity, construction began on a massive stadium to meet the demand of fans eager to see their hero Hitachiyama. Opening in 1909, this stadium became known as the first Ryogoku Kokugikan.

The first Ryogoku Kokugikan, 1909.

During his career, Hitachiyama won eight tournaments and oversaw the popularity of sumo grow to grand new heights. His conduct on the dohyo earned him the reputation as the sports most honorable Yokozuna and he became affectionately known as the Saint of Sumo amongst the population. So revered was Hitachiyama that his conduct becomes the very benchmark upon which all Yokozuna who followed have been compared. Yet despite his influence on sumo as an active Yokozuna, it was Hitachiyama’s work off the dohyo and across the globe that left a far, far greater impact on the sport we know today.

End of part one.

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