We’ve often talked about our uncertainty of the legacy and achievements we will see from the current crop of sekitori. A large part of the reason for that uncertainty is that we were blessed by a group of rikishi for much of the previous decade which provided us with plenty of undercard excitement and intrigue. When someone like Bruce or Andy knocks out 21 previews of matches every day over the 15 days of a basho, generally the hope is that there are 21 matches that are going to be worth writing about.
I’m not saying there hasn’t always been the odd M12 vs M15 dud. Of course, throughout the years, there are matches every day that just flat-out aren’t exciting or interesting. But for many fans who got into sumo during the 2010s, they could be thankful for the guys up and down the makuuchi rankings who put on a hell of a show every time they crossed the tawara. One of those, without question, was Shohozan, who announced his retirement this past week.
The storylines that permeate most tournaments are: who’s going to win the yusho? Who’s going to be the next Ozeki/Yokozuna? Who’s this new top division debutant and how is he going to fare?
But it’s a real credit to the Shohozans of the world, the Yoshikazes of the world, the Chiyonokunis of the world (yes I know, he’s still going… kinda) that there’s a lot of sumo that doesn’t necessarily generate the headlines that inspire NHK to invest in luxurious half-an-hour-long special programming, but that still captures the excitement and the essence of what sumo is. Sumo that makes the whole of the product, and not just the top six bouts of the day, worth our time.
I’m not going to sit here drunk on nostalgia and pretend that the retirement of Shohozan gives me #allthefeels that I had for the retirement of Ikioi. Shohozan wasn’t my favourite rikishi. But he might have been yours. And his permanent scowl on screen, and his unmistakeable all-out brawler style cast him as a vital character in the recent, if now-bygone, era of this centuries-old saga that we all can’t stop watching.
Here, in a raucous – if half full – Kokugikan (calling back to the times in which you could go to Japan to watch sumo and the atmosphere was amazing), a fan captured Shohozan’s first kinboshi from 2013. It was the first of five in total and three which he took from from Yokozuna Harumafuji:
His stern on-dohyo demeanour always seemed all the more stark in contrast – to my poorly educated ears anyway – to the apparently eloquent and articulate way in which he spoke off the dohyo. In a world of mumbling Endos, here’s a guy who looked like he may go on to really do things in a future career in the kyokai.
This made it all the more shocking to sumo fans when, after a string of popular sekitori of the last decade had seemingly little trouble succeeding to their oyakata careers, the kyokai announced simply that Shohozan had retired with no mention of the elder name he would be taking. Because he wouldn’t be taking one.
SumoForum’s Akinomaki quotes a news article from PostSeven postulating that he was unable to remain in sumo due to a poor relationship with his oyakata, and that he will move on to a career in the food & beverage industry in his second life (and that the former Matsugane/Nishonoseki oyakata, former Ozeki Wakashimazu, preferred Ichiyamamoto as the eventual successor to his stock). This is a real shame if it is true, with Shohozan having been the oyakata’s finest product as a shisho. [updated to add: Akinomaki now reports (via ZakZak and recommended for the full quote) that Shohozan stated at his intai press conference that he did not have an intention to remain as a coach anyway.]
But we can’t possibly know or cast a value judgement on what goes on behind the scenes. You may already think I’ve spilled too many words in an opinion piece eulogising the career of someone who posted a 46% win rate in the top division and never found success in five tries at his career high rank of Komusubi.
Shohozan’s best wasn’t really about winning or losing though, at least not to me. It was about his contribution to enthralling battles, such as his epic late career encounters with Enho, or this bloody tsuppari special from Aki 2017 that ends in a loss to Yoshikaze (courtesy of Jason’s channel):
The man himself would surely prefer this example of a signature victory, his tsuppari giving way to the oh-so-satisfying bodyslam into the gyoji of Chiyonokuni at Haru 2012 (video courtesy of Maarike11):
The other day when reading quotes of interviews that Kintamayama had transcribed, I noted that rikishi are often reported with a desire “to go all out.” I asked our friend what the Japanese term for this actually was, and he said it’s “Ishoukenmei” (いしょうけんめい), and used in almost every interview to the press by rikishi. Lots of them may say it, but perhaps few actually deliver on the concept in the way that Shohozan did. Cheers to him for that, and best of luck to the man from Fukuoka in his second life.