Last month we reported on Hasegawa Kaoto, an Ajigawa-beya recruit who, under the new rules, would qualify for the Sandanme Tsukedashi privilege as one of the top finishers in the national high school sumo championship. However, he declined this option and will go the more common route through the lowest divisions. I am aware of the successful amateur wrestlers who forgo professional sumo altogether; but to this point I am unaware of a wrestler who chose to have a go at it but decline the tsukedashi privilege, starting from the bottom. I have been on the fence about this decision, myself, and am curious of the opinions of my dear readers. Thus, a poll: If given the option, what would you do? Accept, or reject?
A Little Background
Before answering any poll questions, it is a good idea to get some background information, first*. My goal in the next few paragraphs is to make sure you understand the consequences of the question above, and can imagine yourself in that decision-making process. I think this will lead to a great conversation in the comments section.
New recruits (shindeshi), after parading around in uniform white boxers at the kensa, usually have their debuts in maezumo, literally “before sumo.” (It’s where your fears of waking up in school in your underwear are realized, and accompanied by fear of skidmarks.) While the kensa is where the Kyokai determines whether you meet the health and physical requirements to join the sumo world, maezumo is where you trade the boxers for a mawashi and face wrestlers from other stables, for realz.
These maezumo bouts offer the wrestlers a great first experience of real action, in the arena and under the lights. Here, the recruits do not just face other recruits. They also face more experienced wrestlers, the banzuke-gai, who are returning from long kyujo and have fallen off the banzuke. Below, as a demonstration, we see one day’s worth of maezumo bouts in Natsu 2022. Many of you will recognize the wrestlers featured. 懐かしい。
These bouts take place first thing in the morning, just before the regular Jonokuchi action, beginning on Day 3 and running for the next several days — depending on the size of the recruiting class and how quickly they pick up three wins. You’ll notice that they’re rapid-fire, with an abbreviated pre-bout routine.
The goal for each wrestler is to win 3 bouts. (Not everyone does, three wins is not a requirement for advancement.) Though the crowds are usually sparse for this early action, it offers parents and other supporters a great opportunity to support their new favorite wrestler. And it gives the Kyokai’s banzuke committee a chance to gauge where to rank the new guys. “Who is in the running for a yusho?” and “who will rival Higohikari?”
After the action takes place, they are introduced on the dohyo together as a group. This is called the shinjo-shussehirō, or display of new Jonokuchi wrestlers. They wear kesho-mawashi, usually borrowed from the heya’s oyakata, or sometimes relatives who were successful sumo wrestlers from the past. It’s a great photo-op. It offers fans a way to see just how far these guys come, and how much they change, like a young, scrawny Hakuho. Some recruiting classes, like the class that featured Akebono, Takanohana, and Wakanohana, are the stuff of legend. How many of his own kesho-mawashi does Takahashi have by now? Three, four?
At the end of the tournament, the maezumo cohort finishes their duties in the teuchishiki, climbing onto the dohyo, and joining the oyakata in symbolically sending the gods back from the dohyo by throwing the gyoji in the air and accompanying the audience in the rhythmic clapping known as, sanbonjime. The sanbonjime is often done at the conclusion of big events in Japan. These new Jonokuchi wrestlers’ shikona will appear on the banzuke at the next tournament where they will compete fore the lower-division title.
There are exceptions (always exceptions) such as when there’s only one recruit, or the COVID times, or these specified instances where a wrestler’s amateur success in specific individual tournaments earns them “tsukedashi” privilege. Eagle-eyed readers will note that Ikazuchido is not here. I believe he was injured after the bout above. Since he was kyujo for his last two maezumo bouts, he did not participate in the shussehiro or the teuchishiki. Tsukedashi wrestlers do not participate in maezumo. They do not take part in these, “pre-sumo” events.
On Rank, Promotion and Status
In the sumo world, status and rank mean a lot. It determines where you sleep, what time you wake up, when you eat, with whom and how you practice, as well as your role in chores. As the lowest guy on the totem pole, you are often an attendant to a sekitori in your heya or another in your ichimon. When you rise up the ranks, you gain more privileges and trade some of the chores for different fansa responsibilities, and even earn the right to have your own attendant(s).
To do this justice, I really need to outline a comprehensive list of perks. This will be a work in progress because such a list would be extensive. Do I think it would go beyond the scope of this post? No. All of these differences are germane to the decision-making process of a top sumo recruit. Essentially, you get the right to skip ahead in line. How far ahead is determined by how successful you were. Asanoyama was able to start his sumo career in Sandanme. Endo, Mitakeumi, and Ichinojo started in Makushita.
Here, as an example, we see Kinotsukasa of Ikazuchi-beya receiving his new obi as he was promoted to Makushita. Sandanme wrestlers get to wear upgraded footwear, in their comfy seta. Sekitori get to wear much more formal hakama and during the summer, Makuuchi wrestlers trade in the standard yukata for their own custom somenuki, which are emblazoned with their shikona and elaborate patterns.
The rules of tsukedashi have been subject to change over the years, and they have been updated again this year. To me, the most important aspect of this decision is less about the specific rules and eligibility but the difference in lifestyle. However, the choice of heya might even be as important, or more important.
If you’re looking to join Isegahama-beya or another group of 20 guys, where you’ll suddenly have a dozen guys below you in the pecking order, that’s one thing. But it will be a dramatically different environment than immediately being heyagashira at Shikihide, or thrust among several rivals at Naruto (before the recent retirements). Age will play a component here, too. Many of these guys are in their early 20s. Hasegawa and Hakuoho are still in their teens.
Historical Performance and Practical Outlook
Each path has its risks and rewards. But as a practical matter, the men who are eligible for this privilege are already great wrestlers. They don’t need to develop skills or bulk up to be competitive. Looking back at the past 50+ years we see many great names, including those I mentioned above. Along with Hakuoho and Onosato, there’s Gonoyama, Kinbozan, Wakatakakage, Takekaze, Mainoumi, Kotomitsuki, Takamisakari, Dejima, Musoyama, Miyabiyama, and Yokozuna Wajima.
You’ll notice that a lot of the top names are not here, though. Notably, Hakuho or any of the recent Yokozuna. We have to go back to Wajima for a Yokozuna who did not rise from Jonokuchi. Sure, there are some recent Ozeki who are among the privileged but there are a lot of cautionary tales here, too. The jury’s still out on young Hakuoho. But Daikiho, Yago, Fujikensho, and a load of others who did not stay sekitori long or rise much higher than their debuts.
When you look at the most successful wrestlers, especially the Yokozuna, you notice that they rise quickly into Sandanme. Hakuho was one of the rare few who needed two tournaments in Jonidan. Of the Ozeki, Takayasu and Kaio were the slowest risers. It seems clear that if someone is destined to be a top wrestler, they will not really dwell long in to lower divisions, anyway. They won’t spend years as a walking towel-rack during keiko, or wiping sekitori backsides. They’ll also carry a bit of the intangible clout from having “come up through the ranks.”
The politics of it, and the subsequent harassment and bullying, are interesting facets as the Kyokai tries to improve its image. Is it easier for Hakuho to understand the need to respect tsukebito than Oshoma because he’s been spat on and abused in the keiko-ba? Do you have an extra chip on your shoulder or sense of entitlement if you are privileged from the outset? I don’t know, ask guys like Asashoryu or Takanofuji who came up from the bottom.
Ultimately, I think I like the idea of easing into the competitive side but getting a hard taste of the life, from the outset. To me, the other way ’round, of skipping a few spots in line just to get thrown into the deep end…with the sharks and piranha…is more intimidating. I would rather pick up a few lower division yusho and learn whether I have a future here, and what that would look like. Am I going to be spending 10 years of my life as a tsukebito, or will I make a run at a yusho, or do I just love the sport so much that I’ll be here 30 years making chanko?
Either way, I am very interested in what you all think and what your decision-making would be. You might even come at it from a completely different angle. I guess that’s why rather than a simplistic poll, I’m interested in a well-reasoned conversation. Ultimately, rather than a yes/no, what would your criteria be? Would a different cut line make a difference to you? Rather than the decision, it’s more interesting to learn what goes into that decision. On the unlikely scenario that anyone has actually chatted with these guys about their decision, that would be fascinating.
* I find it amusing when polling companies, like Gallup and YouGov and others, stop random people on the street (or call them, sight-unseen) and ask their opinions on matters of policy or national importance. “You may not be able to point to the relevant countries on a map, but your opinion is just as valid as anyone else!” Approval/disapproval polls are the worst, essentially Homecoming Court popularity contests. Their ubiquitous use makes me wonder if people would rather have their annual job performance reviews conducted by a random sample of their fellow residents: “Now, what would you say…you do here?” As you may have discerned, I don’t think our opinions matter much to Mr. Hasegawa, nor should they. But it’s still an interesting concept and question. “What would you do?”