Hatsu Preview – The Kisenosato Quagmire

Kisenosato, YDC Keiko Soken, January 7th, 2019

It’s difficult to find a new angle on the Kisenosato story. Some new sumo fans who have joined the readership of this site may not even know what Kisenosato looked like before that injury which put him into the lingering zombie state in which we find him now, and may even be wondering what the fuss is all about.

Foreigners are there to invigorate a sport – but fans seek some sense of identity and belonging – and sumo lost a lot of that as foreigners “occupied” it.

Makuuchi looked a bit different back in Hatsu 2017, when Kisenosato became Yokozuna. Of 42 wrestlers, there were 15 foreigners (compared to 8 in Hatsu 2019). Of 11 san-yaku, there were six foreigners (4/10 now). Of the 3 Yokozuna, all were Mongolian – and there was no Japanese Yokozuna since Takanohana retired in 2003.

With Kisenosato’s promotion to the top rank, the first promotion of a Japanese to that rank in 19 years, sumo fans in Japan felt the sense of identity and personal involvement in the sport was coming back. Grand Sumo boomed. Expectations were high. Jungyo tours exploded. Merchandise sold by the kilo. The adversity story of Haru 2017, when the shin-Yokozuna not only grabbed a second yusho in a row, but also did so injured, became legend. There was an actual Manga about it.

But there is the rub. That injury. It wasn’t your run-of-the-mill tendon pull or bone fracture, where you can heal up to some extent, with or without surgery, and grind on until the injuries build up and you have no choice but to retire. He tore his pectoral muscle. That was an injury that could never heal without modern medical intervention, and that intervention never came. And thus, the healing never came, either.

A saga of injury, self delusion, secrecy, wishful thinking and reality checks begins.

Kisenosato’s career, which until that moment boasted spotless attendance – not a basho day missed – has become a string of absences, excuses, self-delusions and shuffling of feet. At Natsu and Nagoya 2017, he tried to start the basho as if nothing happened – only to find himself losing too many bouts for a Yokozuna and pulling in the middle – never mentioning the muscle tear. After full kyujo in Aki, again this same cycle repeated in Kyushu and then Hatsu 2018. This time he had no further injury. He was as healthy as a young lion. Except, of course, that pec. Hatsu 2018 was when he first handed a medical certificate for that damage, being forced to admit it existed at all.

He was told not to try to return again until he was actually able to do sumo. He was full kyujo for the next three basho, breaking the record for consecutive kyujo along the way. He said the next one he will appear on would be his make-or-break basho.

That dimple near the armpit? It’s not going away.

And much to the surprise of all of us, he showed up in Aki 2018, and achieved the so-called “Yokozuna kachi-koshi” – 10 wins. Did that muscle miraculously heal? No, it didn’t. His sumo style changed. Some of that change was due to ring rust, no doubt. But some of it was merely an attempt to compensate for the big hole in his chest by throwing everything and the kitchen sink at his opponent. Each of his bouts in that tournament was a skirmish. Slapping, grabbing, pushing, thrusting.

Then came Kyushu 2018, and on day 1, Kisenosato got injured. This was one of the “normal” injuries for a top division rikishi over the age of 30. But it was probably the last straw. With his new style relying on compensating for his injury with the rest of his body, any little damage to any other part of his body is bound to throw him off-course completely.

Former Yokozuna become exasperated. The YDC becomes (vaguely) exasperated. Fans become exasperated.

I cannot described what followed as anything but a disgrace to everything that a Yokozuna stands for. A Yokozuna can never be demoted. The unwritten law that goes with that privilege is that if he cannot win any more, he should resign.

Dai-Yokozuna Chiyonofuji tearfully announcing his retirement in mid-basho, after losing two bouts upon his return from kyujo.

Kisenosato broke the record for consecutive losses for a Yokozuna – and once again, resorted to going kyujo in the middle of a basho. I fully expected him to go the Chiyonofuji way, but that didn’t happen.

Following that, the YDC issued their first ever “encouragement” decision for him. Most of the Japanese media take that to mean he should be back on the dohyo in Hatsu and look like a Yokozuna or else. Some, like NHK, merely interpret that as “show up for the next basho – no matter how much kyujo you take in the middle – and look like a Yokozuna”. And that’s the crux of the problem – the fact that “encouragement” can be interpreted to mean… well… anything. One cartoonist on Twitter even imagined it as Kitamura from the YDC at the side of the dohyo waving big “Go Kise!” signs.

So Kisenosato went kyujo again. Then went kyujo from the Jungyo. Then promised he would join the Jungyo at Ibaraki but didn’t. Then started a round of “private practices” – closed off to the public. He practices a lot with Takayasu, but with no-one else. He does not go on degeiko. A couple of days ago, Toyonoshima and Kotoshogiku showed up at Tagonoura to work out with the Yokozuna. That visit ringed more like a visit at a sick bed than as a real degeiko leading up to a basho. And of course, that practice was also held in private.

At this point, former Yokozuna are grumbling. Kitanofuji said a few days ago: “There is a time when a Yokozuna has to retire”. Hakkaku, also a former Yokozuna (Hokutoumi), said he would like to see Kisenosato “practice as if this was his last time”. My personal belief is that this charade would have ended a long time ago – if Kisenosato’s stablemaster was a former Yokozuna, with the heya’s support group (koen-kai) to match.

But can Kisenosato pull another Aki 2018?

The YDC Keiko-Soken, where the sekitori all perform in front of the YDC, reporters and members of the NSK board, is a good opportunity for a reality check. No more private practices. No breathless reports about 17 wins against Takayasu. You have to show what your sumo looks like. Hakuho tried to cheat a bit in one of the Keiko-Soken last year by only engaging Shodai. He was taken to task for that.

So how did Kisenosato do in the keiko-soken?

NHK footage from the Keiko Soken

Well… you can see for yourselves. As an unnamed member of the YDC said to the press: “This was not Yokozuna sumo”. Kisenosato engaged only with Kakuryu and Goeido. He was 1-3 against Kakuryu and 2-0 against Goeido. At the end of his second bout with Goeido, although he won, he fell to the ground, hit his hip on the tawara, and then never returned to the dohyo.

His performance was weak. His opponents were lower on the tachiai and lifted him easily. The fact that he elected to end his practice after only six bout was also criticized. Kitanofuji said that “He needs to fight 15 days in honbasho. Only six bouts in practice is not nearly enough”. Kitamura from the YDC noted: “He showed spirit… but there is lingering concern because he hasn’t gained his sumo sense yet”. Hakkaku also noticed the insufficient training. The Yokozuna himself said that he felt his mobility was “not bad”, but you can see his expression in the interview at the end of the above clip. It’s not a happy one.

This is a far cry from the way he looked before Aki. There is less than one week to go before honbasho begins. Hakuho seems to be genki enough for this stage of training. Kakuryu seems to be a little less well. But Kisenosato seems to be still injured, lacking in self-confidence, and out of sumo.

So what’s going to happen?

That’s the difficult question, isn’t it? By all rights, Kisenosato should not have been in this position in the first place. At this point we should probably have written a report about his danpatsu-shiki. What will his stablemaster and koen-kai decide? What will the YDC do? Is he really allowed another kyujo? Is there a point? How long can he keep on calling himself “an active Yokozuna” while not being able to perform the basic function: fight bouts and win them?

Possible scenarios:

  • Kisenosato goes kyujo again, the YDC forgives him and tells him that whenever he shows up, it has to be for the whole 15 days and with good result. The end is delayed yet another basho.
  • Kisenosato goes kyujo again, and this turns out to be a misjudgement. The YDC hands him a reprimand or even a recommendation to retire. He has to retire in shame.
  • He decides to start Hatsu. Fights as much as he can. Retires in the middle.
  • He decides to start. Fights as much as he can. Goes kyujo again. A controversy ensues. He is forced to retire.
  • He decides to retire prior to the opening of the basho.
  • He decides to start Hatsu, and a miracle happens. The author of this post orders 10 hats from Ali Express and eats them all (preferably with a bit of wasabi).

26 thoughts on “Hatsu Preview – The Kisenosato Quagmire

  1. The look on Oguruma Oyakata’s face in the lead picture says it all – he doesn’t look hopeful at all 😔

  2. I have a feeling that, when he finally DOES retire, we’ll be looking back on March 2017 onward as, “Well….that happened…” and it’ll always be this awkward thing in sumo history. Also, what precedents are being set here? Kise’s refusal (or mental inability…) to face the music may have repercussions well down the line past when he DOES retire, unless following that the YDC issues concrete, firm guidelines to prevent a repeat.

    • It’s a reasonable point…but I think we both know that if Hakuho tore a pectoral muscle that the “you must retire” order would come down all the same in eight seconds and they would ignore any cries of bias and move on quickly…the reality is that there would be no outcry from the Japanese populace demanding Hakuho (or any foreigner) getting the same leeway as Kise. Remember this is the country that was all in favor of preventing foreigners taking the single season home run crown from Sadaharu Oh by walking them game after game (in a spectacle, frankly, that was beyond shameful).

      • I made a very similar point a number of months ago when i expressed my disgust at kisenosato even being given this opportinity to come abck on the dohyo after such a long stringof kyujo solely because he is japanese and veing given clearly preferential treatment.

      • I think you are overall correct here, though I could see Hakuho also getting a little more leeway given his epic career… we are past protecting records from him. Probably not as lengthy as Kisenosato’s hall pass though.

        And the culture seems to be slowly moving past these types of issues (slowly emphasized). (As I am sure you know) it’s been a few years since Oh was actually surpassed.

        Sidenotes: If Takayasu had taken the last Basho I think we’d be in a different spot as well. I’m also curious how much his Filipino heritage impacts how he is viewed.

        • I suspect that the breaking of Oh’s record was more because Balentian (a career journeyman who accomplished zero in MLB – which shows you just how valuable Oh’s record was lol) tied with so many games left that it would have been absurd to walk him. I can’t find the exact number but it wasn’t the last game of the season. He hit 60 (5 more than Oh) and went 3 games without one after tying so let’s say he tied with 10 games to go? Can’t walk the guy 40 times to prevent him breaking it lol

          Anyway, I hope things are changing, I really do. As a Canadian I am not offended when an American or Russian is good at hockey. It doesn’t bother me that we suck at soccer. The best athletes doing great stuff should be all that matters. I don’t care whether Hakuho is Mongolian, Swiss or Australian.

  3. Kisenosato has never recovered from his injury. First he lost his power. Then he lost his dignity. He’s a walking intai. In the words of The Chambers Brothers, “Time has come today,” with today being his second loss of the Hatsu basho. I don’t say that with pleasure, but I do say it.

    • This is more or less where I have ended up, I feel really sorry for him because he’s turned into a bit of a parody. I worry it will damage his post-dohyo career, and for no really reason other than no one knows quite what to do now.

  4. ‘yokozuna’ kisenosato
    expectable, after yusho ‘winners’ kotoshogiku and goeido

    though it seems to be taking forever, this too shall pass
    after, we’ll find out who will be the next ozeki appointment; probably mitakeumi or takakeisho, both popular

  5. Kisenosato did miss one match before he became Yokozuna: Day 15, Hatsu 2014. He had no days he wasn’t scheduled, but he lost by failure to show up on that day. I’ve seen it said in multiple places that he never missed a day before becoming Yokozuna, because they were looking strictly for days of yasumi, not considering fusenpai, so don’t feel too bad about it.

  6. Was his decision to forego surgery just misguided hope he could “heal naturally” or did his stature as the first japanese yokozuna in 19 years somehow make it unacceptable? How long of a recovery would one expect from such a procedure?

    • It seems that was the case. Sure bet recovery from pectoral reconstruction is 12 months.

      But he has become de conditioned due to all the kyujo and “rest”. He has no means to recover his sumo now, it has been lost due to inactivity.

      • Begs the question imho if “we” would be in a different position at all even if he had undergone treatment .
        12 months recovery is a long time. Would Kisenosato be less de-conditioned and in a better shape now? Or would he still suffer from inches of ring rust?

    • The 51st Yokozuna Tamanoumi died because he delayed a appendectomy to not go kyujo for a basho. Now that was over 40 years ago, but It’s still hard to understand what happens in the heads of those guys.
      Kisenosato may stand out as an example, because he is a Yokozuna, but if you look at other guys like Endo or Terunofuji, you get the impressions that proper medical advice is either completely absent in sumo or the long-term health of the rikishi just comes dead last.

  7. I felt certain that this saga was about to close when Yoshikaze pushed him down and out in Hatsu last year, and wow…. that’s a year ago now. So I’ve given up trying to guess how much leeway he’s allowed. It won’t surprise me anymore.

  8. “Is there a point?”

    That’s the telling remark and (rhetorical) question

    (great post, by the way)

  9. Responding to Janet, you have a good point. But its possible they have asked him to stay because he is good for the sport, not that he is refusing to go. It seems that his position at this point is a bit embarrassing considering the history of Yokozunas and why they have retired. I’m not convinced he’s choosing this. Just one of the many questions surrounding this situation.

    • If having him around is truly “good for the sport” I would think he would be asked to retire and then moved into a public relaitons role before his poor performance taints his legacy any more. I beleive I read that he has elder stock lined up, correct?

  10. One more scenario:

    Kisenosato tries to show up for the first few days, goes 1-3, and goes kyujo, citing a debilitating case of the sniffles. The YDC members issue a formal request for his autograph, the kyokai places him as East 1 Yokozuna on the banzuke again, and the Japanese Diet recommends him for the national pride award for his bravery in battling through the sniffles. A new manga, titled “The Heroic Sniffles”, is published. Hakuho is blamed for all that ails Japanese society.

    • Alas, not daring to bet against you.

      Kisenosato was one of the very first rikishi I could identify when I started watching; I will always regret that I entered the fandom too late to really see the sumo that made him great. That era, however, has ended. I wish him well and hope he has a wonderdul next act, but this one is over. Please, someone, make it stop.

      • My husband and I have been watching old matches available from Kintanayama, in order. Very interesting, and informative, but it makes what is happening with Kise so terribly sad. After Aki, I was hopeful; more fool I.

  11. Maybe being Japanese is some part of this dragging on, but I can’t help but wonder if there was some internal discussion about surgery, and some decision was made (I doubt kisenosato had a big voice in this discussion), and now they need to prove that the decision was correct by kisenosato getting good results. The whole ideal of ‘gambarize’ is on the line.
    If he fails, more rikishi will opt for surgery, something the upper echelon of nsk wants to avoid (for whatever reason). I feel this contributes to kisenosato being given more lee way.

    • Hmm. I don’t think the sumo world works quite the way you think it works.

      A decision about surgery would usually involve the following people: The wrestler (if he is senior enough), his doctors (of course), his stablemaster, and maybe his koen-kai (his own or the heya’s) – who may have to foot the bill for the surgery if it’s not covered by the standard health insurance.

      Medical decisions fall within the autonomy of the heya.


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