The Unpredictable Wizardry of Arashio

Arashio-oyakata (former Maegashira Sokokurai) promotes his upcoming intai-zumo event. Photo credit: Nihon Sumo Kyokai

Many rikishi are unable to craft a second act in sumo that’s as good as their first. That’s normal: the requirements to become an oyakata are such that you either need to create a career of some achievement, or just hang around long enough to have done your time in the dohyo and you’re then entitled to extend your career in the sport out of it.

In the former camp, there are plenty of oyakata who will have raised dozens of deshi over the course of their decades in the sport, never to see one come close to their own achievements. In recent years, former Yokozuna like Onokuni and Musashimaru come to mind, along with Ozeki like Chiyotaikai or Kirishima. Even the riji-cho, former Hokutoumi, who has raised plenty of top division talent, has yet to develop someone to even come close to his own achievements in the ring, as he nears the mandatory retirement age. Guys like the former Asahifuji (Isegahama oyakata) are rare: a champion who has raised (multiple) champions.

And on the flip side of the coin you have the long time coaches whose own careers didn’t amount to much beyond their longevity, but who have scouted and developed talent that has surpassed their own ability on the clay. The former Oginohana had a 44% winning record in the top division, never going higher than Maegashira 2, and he’s developed 3 time champion Ozeki Mitakeumi. Like his brother Terao, the former Sakahoko had a stellar top division career but never won a Yusho or made the top 2 ranks, and while the storied heya bearing the Izutsu name was more barren in later years, he still produced Yokozuna Kakuryu. Most famously of course, the former Chikubayama, veteran of a mere 2 tournaments in the top division, gave us the gift of record setting dai-Yokozuna Hakuho.

Over recent weeks, months and years, as many of our longtime favourites in the previous generation have gradually retired, our thoughts have turned to the question of “what kind of oyakata will they be?” Most people who read this site and some people who write on this site will be experiencing their first mass turnover of rikishi we have watched for years, as they become those blue-jacketed security guys we see next to the hanamichi when a rikishi is preparing himself for battle.

So the conversation has been: “wow, Hakuho has really recruited a lot of guys already,” or “Kisenosato is building an incredible new heya,” or “what’s going to happen with Takekaze’s new place now that he had Yoshikaze have split the rikishi from Oguruma beya” or “Goeido’s just branched out and already has a sekitori.”

But there was one guy that no one really talked about when he became an elder, and that’s ex-Maegashira 2 Sokokurai, who is now Arashio oyakata.

Arashio beya is a unique place. The previous oyakata, former Komusubi Oyutaka, coached for 15 years before branching out to open his own spot, and had a short and totally unremarkable sekitori career of his own. The heya became notable in later years among sumo fans for two things: 

If you have ever tried to visit a heya (in the before times), you’ll know that it’s not terribly difficult with the right connections, but that also a strict set of guidelines will apply for your visit. At Arashio beya, fans could simply walk right up on the street and peer in the giant window outside to watch morning keiko. The stable’s rikishi were known for being friendly with tourists and willing to snap a photo at the end of practise. It appears that after a stoppage to this practise during the pandemic, viewers may once again peep through the window to get a real live look at asageiko.

The other curiosity of this stable was the rise to prominence of its two cats, Moru and Mugi. During the days when rikishi were more able to share their lifestyle via social media, it offered sumo lovers and animal lovers a glimpse into the lifestyle where the stable’s rikishi cared for these two creatures. A coffee table book exists where fans can learn more. 

Oyutaka only ever produced Sokokurai as a sekitori over the 18 years he spent running the place, until Wakatakakage made it to Juryo just before he retired. Wakatakakage was always a talent of immense potential ever since his arrival on the scene, and is someone we’ve followed since his Sandanme tsukedashi debut. A skilled technician and incredibly athletic rikishi, it has been clear for some time that as long as his dedication and mental attributes were tuned to top level sumo, he could have a very high ceiling. This of course paid off in one way earlier this year as the now-Sekiwake clinched his first Emperor’s Cup.

It’s impossible to say whether Wakatakakage’s triumph was inevitable, but it is clear that since Sōkokurai took over the Arashio name, his coaching methods have translated to stark improvements in development across the heya. Both of Wakatakakage’s brothers had been languishing in Makushita, and Wakamotoharu has made a rapid ascent not only into the salaried ranks but all the way to the joi-jin, where he’s claimed an Ozeki scalp and taken the Yokozuna to the brink of a shocking kinboshi. He looks to be someone who can at least consolidate his place in the top division over the next couple of years, and certainly finish his career with the 30 sekitori basho needed to qualify for elder status himself.

The Onami family has some pedigree, with the three of Arashio’s Fukushima-hailing siblings descended from a grandfather who also plied his trade in Ozumo. But despite the lack of progress made by Makushita longtimer and eldest brother Wakatakamoto, the new Arashio-oyakata’s achievements don’t stop there.

Viewers of Makushita over the past several years will be familiar with Kotokuzan, the Filipino-Japanese rikishi who is surely sumo’s only Jasper. Kotokuzan (pronounced Ko-toku-zan, not “koto” like a Sadogatake beya rikishi) had struggled to make his way through sumo’s third highest division for nearly seven full years from his division debut until finally making the breakthrough to Juryo late last year. Kotokuzan is a pusher-thruster and possesses a very different style both to the other successful rikishi in his heya as well as how his shisho performed his own style of sumo (as a skilled yotsuzumo-technician) while he was active, and it’s perhaps most surprising of all that in his second bite at Juryo (after a quick demotion in mid-2021), he stormed his way into the top division.

Kotokuzan only has fought two tournaments as a Maegashira, both unsuccessfully and both looking somewhat overmatched, but at 28 still very much has time to solidify his place as a sekitori and go again. It wouldn’t be beyond the realms of possibility to see him settle into an Azumaryu or Daishōmaru style role in playing out most of his remaining career in Juryo, putting it together once in a while for a fleeting crack at the top division. It bears reminding that for a rikishi who didn’t seem to really look like he’d make the breakthrough to Juryo as of 3 or 4 years ago, that’s quite an achievement in itself. The success of Kotokuzan in recent years is perhaps the most indicative of Arashio’s ability to coax performances from his top talent, as other serial sekitori-impresarios like Kise, Oitekaze and, until recently, Oguruma-oyakata have shown the ability to get rikishi to the promised land with a wide variety of fighting styles.

While Arashio has never been a large stable, and very infrequently added new recruits, the new shisho has started to bring in his own deshi now that he’s got his feet firmly under the table. Famously sumo’s only Chinese rikishi for a period, and one who wasn’t short of opinions about the fate of his beloved Inner Mongolia region, it’s no surprise that his first foreign recruit hails from his own shusshin. Daiseizan has moved quickly to the top of the Sandanme division following three consecutive 6-1 tournaments, and that fortuitous banzuke placement this time out will give him a chance to make an auspicious debut in Makushita with a good score in the upcoming Aki basho.

16 year old Tanji has started his career with identical scores from his first two basho, and Jonidan pair Dairinzan and Sonoshun (18 and 19 respectively) may be intriguing prospects over the long term, with the latter the first rikishi to inherit his the prefix of his stablemaster’s shikona into his own ring name. We are in a period where other oyakata such as Nishonoseki, Naruto, Miyagino and others have been making waves for the sheer volume (and often quality) of their recruits putting their celebrity drawing power to good use, but it’s possible that the slightly more pinpoint recruitment strategy of the former Sokokurai will pay dividends for the heya when allied to his apparent coaching ability. And he seems more than willing to talk about his work, as evidenced by a series of appearances on NHK’s sumo content throughout the pandemic, showing how, as a new head of a stable, he was attempting to adapt his new home to the challenges presented by the unpredictable nature of COVID-19 in the sumo world.

Nishonoseki (former Kisenosato) has certainly positioned himself as a leader of the future by way of his remarkable rethink of what a heya should be, his political manoeuvring and what appears to be an interesting (if slightly voluminous) batch of early recruits. Miyagino (former Hakuho)’s pulling power and talent development has already made an impact on the top two divisions and had long before he hung up the mawashi himself. What Arashio is showing us is that there it doesn’t take a headline name to be an above average developer of talent, and that he does so in such a media- and fan-friendly environment is a welcome breath of fresh air in the sumo world.

10 thoughts on “The Unpredictable Wizardry of Arashio

  1. I’ll be honest, I wouldn’t agree that Dewanoumi, Izutsu, and Miyagino developed talent rather than massively lucked out with one scout/desperate entry (in the case of the two Mongolian yokozuna) and managed to make the best of it. That they never developed other rikishi of marginally comparable calibre goes some way to this point. Surely the kanban oyakata for having a middling career as a rikishi but excelling as oyakata must be Kise (ex-Daishōyama) and Oitekaze (ex-Higonoumi); <50% win rates in makuuchi and topping out as maegashira for both men, yet heading the two top stables in terms of sekitori volume for much of the past few years.

    While I would generally agree that ex-Sōkokurai taking over has done something to the top few rikishi in the heya, and Daiseizan and Tanji are rikishi to watch. Sōnoshun has been turning in extremely mediocre results even in the lower two divisions. His career record is a rather dismal 22-34 at the moment, and he’s – no kidding – only just scored his first KK in ozumo after nearly two years. I wouldn’t discount him managing to grow since he’s only 19, but that kind of start really doesn’t herald a serious prospect of any sort, shikona or no.

    • With respect to Izutsu, I think that’s being a bit harsh. He famously wasn’t much of a recruiter, but looking at the first several years of Kakuryu’s career, there are so many stages at which he could have flamed out or not taken the next step. Obviously a part of that is owed to the physical and mental tools of the individual rikishi but absolutely the oyakata and the environment in the heya need to take credit for his development as well. His affinity for the oyakata is/was well known, and how many wonderful prospects have failed to materialise in less healthy (Nishikido being the easy target) environments? Dewanoumi of course is a shell of what it used to be but again, you have to convince the rikishi to join your heya and Mitakeumi doesn’t win three yusho on talent alone – Endo entered under similarly vaunted circumstances and hasn’t accomplished anything like the younger Makushita tsukedashi entry. The larger point isn’t what the guy’s ceiling was when he entered ozumo as much as, these guys have created an environment where someone could exceed their own career, and I think they’ve done that – via recruitment or nurturing or technical coaching or some combination thereof.

      With regard to Sonoshun, yes of course you’re correct about that, but for 2 of his 4 recruits to look really exciting and the other 2 being young enough to keep an eye on, I think he’s done a great job of recruitment. It goes back to the discussion we had on sumoforum about what makes a good shisho. We don’t need all 4 of these guys to make sekitori but if the 2 lesser talents push the two greater talents every day in keiko and can perform the duties to make the heya succeed, while growing however slowly in their own roles, that also counts as good coaching/heya management.

  2. One thing to note is that what once were big windows you had to stand near amongst a bunch of bicycles in order to watch keiko has now become a top to bottom glass wall (with shutters for when privacy is required), and the bicycles have gone. Sokokurai is going all out for the fans.

    Especially since it seems the heya is living on a shoestring. Of course, nobody is ever going to go hungry there, and WTK’s championship probably brought in some more dough, but they do the moving to off-Tokyo basho in a tiny back-loading truck (when a heya like Nishikido is using one of the huge side-loading ones), and there was that famous scene where WTK was doing his yusho interviews sitting on the floor with a laptop set on an old chair.

    So they are definitely in need of sekitori and the supporters and income they bring along.

    • The good news is that with an intai-zumo event to come, some hard earned funds should be raised although who knows whether any of that gets earmarked for running the heya or just for the oyakata’s post-retirement life in general.

      The bad news probably is that Sokokurai would seem a bit of a prime candidate for someone whose danpatsushiki event might be attended by more international fans than usual (not least as a foreigner himself who might draw supporters from China who likely can’t attend under any circumstances in the current situation), and that will likely be hampered by the complicated ongoing entry rules. From our chat with BuySumoTickets, we learned that these types of events were often attended by curious observers pre-pandemic, people who just happened to be in Japan and were looking to see sumo and fill out the upper seats of Kokugikan. It seems less likely that these spur of the moment purchases can take place even in an era when travel agents need to confirm booking plans with the government. BuySumoTickets told us they did a lot of good for less famous rikishi’s retirement events by selling tickets that might have gone unsold, and – this is just my speculation – I would imagine Sokokurai might be in that category especially if, as you say, the heya lacks as many well-heeled supporters as other stables.

  3. “Nishonoseki (former Kisenosato) has certainly positioned himself as a leader of the future by way of his remarkable rethink of what a heya should be”… Josh can you expand on this? I guess I don’t read enough alternate sites to know what you’re talking about. Sounds exciting!

    • Sure – maybe this is worth an additional post in the near future. Former Kisenosato is very focused on many alternative ideas to how to build a heya, in fact he apparently wrote his master’s (possibly another level of degree, not sure) thesis on it.

  4. Belated thanks for an excellent article, Josh. One small nitpick: I’m fairly sure you didn’t watch Wakatakakage in jonokuchi. ;)

    • Thanks very much for the kind words, very happy to present longer content about some of the stuff we’ve discussed on SF over here. Nice catch. While I think I have many talents clearly that won’t have been one of them – amended.

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