The Sumo World Remembers The Wolf (七回忌)

Today, Sumo Twitter was festooned with pictures and remembrances of Yokozuna Chiyonofuji. The Wolf, as he was known, was arguably the Greatest Wrestler of the generation and frequently tops lists for greatest of all time as his rein may have been the sport’s Golden Age. (No, in Japan he’s not known as おおかみ, the Japanese word for wolf, but ウルフ the katakana pronunciation of the English word.) He died at the very young age of 61, exactly six years ago (7/31/2016), when he was head of Kokonoe-beya.

The former Kokonoe beya

The Buddhist tradition in Japan pays respect to past ancestors at a number of auspicious dates, called nenki, and the observances are nenkihoyo. For Chiyonofuji, this year’s observance is 七回忌; as far as pronunciation goes, I’ve seen both nanakaiki and shichikaiki. I’m going to use nanakaiki because it’s easier for me to say in my head. Because the numbers three and seven are important numbers in Buddhism, many of these special anniversaries have three or seven in the numbers.

In the days after one’s death, there are several ceremonies and occasions where family, friends, and well-wishers gather to pay their respects, as well as to comfort the family. Shonanoka (one week after) and shijukunichi (7 weeks after), are just two of the more commonly observed occasions. Again, you’ll notice the particular importance of sevens.

If you’re not getting why the sixth anniversary is the nanakaiki, try to think of it this way. The Japanese term doesn’t use the character for year. It uses the character kai, for revolution, or turn. When Chiyonofuji died, that was the first time we all got together, so to speak, to honor him after his death. The second “time” would be the first anniversary of his death, and so on. So while this is the sixth anniversary, it’s the seventh occasion, thus nanakaiki.

Paying Respects to the Wolf

Your humble correspondent was in Tokyo when Chiyonofuji died and paid tribute to the Wolf at the memorial set up outside of Kokonoe’s old digs in Sumida ward (now they’re closer to Koiwa-Shinkoiwa). The Tachiai blog was still a toddler back then, just about two years old, and our family had just gotten back from Nagoya, where we had watched Harumafuji take the yusho. Back then we were excited to see a promising young Ozeki named Terunofuji who rode with the champion in the “open car” parade.

So Chiyonofuji’s sudden death, just one week after Nagoya and four years before he should have retired, was quite the shock in and around Kokugikan and was a prominent news feature for several days. He’s still the Wolf, a legend and source of inspiration for many; he will remain so for years and decades to come.

7 thoughts on “The Sumo World Remembers The Wolf (七回忌)

  1. I remember watching sumo tournaments when I was stationed in Japan on shore duty (MP in Yokohama) when Chiyonofuji rose from M3 to Yokozuna. The Japanese interpreters and security guards were huge fans of the sport. His smaller size didn’t deter him from becoming the face and soul of sumo, and arguably one of, if not the greatest of all time. I was unable to follow the sport after going back to sea duty but I’ll never forget his amazing talent and tenacity. I was very fortunate to be able to witness his skills and very saddened at his early departure from this mortal coil.

    • Play soccer while kyujo? Bar fight? Fighting in the shitakubeya? Some breach of etiquette? You’ll need to be more specific.

        • Ah, something like the Geno Smith incident in the NFL?

          I’m not aware of it, but having seen the kawaigari video of Asashoryu with a maegashira named Hakuho, I gotta say that some things that wouldn’t be tolerated now seem to have been much more commonplace. I wouldn’t be surprised if Chiyonofuji, himself, had been in the receiving end of it.

  2. He has special significance for me, because he was yokuzuna the first time I saw sumo, the evening highlight show on a business trip to Japan. I was so smitten, I would make excuses to get back to my hotel in time for the show. Knowing nothing about the sport, except for the fat men in diapers cliche, it was immediately apparent that this was a very special athlete. In the same way that my wife, which knew nothing about basketball, would sit down and watch if Michael Jordan was playing.
    Given the intensity of the observance of his death anniversary, I suspect he was seen in Japan as someone who transcended sumo. One can compare records, but I’m not sure that Hakuho will be seen that way. That’s not a knock on Hakuho, only a reflection of how very special the Wolf was.

  3. Thank you for the explanation of how the death anniversaries and paying your respects works and also just remembering this Sumo Great.

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