The Tsukedashi Question: Accept or Decline?

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.

Maezumo (前相撲)

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?”

22 thoughts on “The Tsukedashi Question: Accept or Decline?

  1. The post is very informative and it is interesting to learn about the rikishis lifestyle.
    Andy, I like the way you describe in detail, so that we can understand the exact situation.

    Coming to the Hasegawa’s decision, I am surprised. According to me, these rikishi’s foremost aim will be to reach Sekitori as fast as possible, so as to spend very less time in the lower division, doing unpleasant chores.
    I cannot find any solid reason for Hasegawa’s decision.
    But I have two vague theories.
    Either he is very dedicated to Sumo, like his only aim of life is Sumo and want to savour it’s every aspect and to have a feel how each divisions feels like.
    Or as he is good in Sumo, it would be nice to collect few Yusho’s in the lower division. If he joins Sandanme then the chances of getting Yusho will get be low.

    • It’s that last sentence which I think is key. He will have little chance of a Sandanme yusho. But in the lower divisions, he will be able to win more often. I think less chance of injury, too.

    • The explanation Hasegawa has given to the press is essentially that his decision to turn pro was already made before he suddenly became tsukedashi-eligible through the September rule changes, and as he had mentally prepared himself to start from maezumo in any case he wasn’t interested in taking the shortcut now.

      I don’t think it’s going to become any sort of precedent, particularly since most high schoolers aren’t going to start in November like he is – guys who start in maezumo in January or March will find themselves in higher-quality rookie groups, where the chance to win the jonokuchi and/or jonidan yusho on the way up will be significantly lower for each individual contender.

      And even for Hasegawa it’s unlikely to result in divisional titles, as his maezumo will include Kyokukaiyu, an accomplished university wrestler who also would have been eligible for Sd90 tsukedashi if the rules had been changed in 2022 already. Earlier in his collegiate career he had even posted results that would be Ms60-worthy now. (Of course, the one-year time limit on exercising tsukedashi rights would have likely prevented him from taking that up even if the rule changes had been in place.)

      And all that aside, even in the best-case scenario a rikishi doing what Hasegawa is doing would reach about Sd20 off of a 14-0 start. A single 6-1 from the bottom of sandanme – which should be assumed possible for somebody who’s expected to compete for 7-0 from high jonidan – would also get a rikishi to ~Sd30 already, so it’s a matter of essentially giving up at least four months of progress for sure. In Hasegawa’s case it’s probably going to work out to six months.

      • Regarding the 6 months, I know foreign wrestlers have to acclimatize to the heya for that long but do Japanese amateurs associate with a heya for long before joining? Especially guys like Hasegawa, have they been training and acclimatizing for several months? If it were me, the calculus is still pointing me to want those extra four to six months to face lighter competition. It seems a lot of guys who go straight into Makushita end up injured.

        • I’ve heard of Japanese kids doing “experience stays” for a few months, but I think only some heya allow for that (since they don’t get a Kyokai training subsidy for such unofficial heya members), and it’s usually just kids who have no prior experience with sumo. The vast majority join up and immediately appear in the next available shindeshi examination.

          But beyond that, many of the more talented rookies are getting scouted by their future heya for a long time before graduation, and they’ll often be live-in guests for brief periods to get a taste of heya and Ozumo life while they’re still in school.

  2. As for the “Ultimately…” paragraph, I don’t think that any of that really applies to those who are in the running for tsukedashi qualification. Not only do those guys and their coaches already know they’re good enough (or rather, too good) for jonokuchi and jonidan and potentially sandanme, they’re also rikishi who have already paid their dues aplenty in their high school and/or university sumo clubs. The restrictions on everyday life might not exist in amateur sumo, but the hierarchical aspects very much do – a first-year student in a large university club (say, Nihon U’s) is just as much the low man on the totem pole as an Ozumo rookie is.

    In the end it’s up to the stablemasters to make sure their tsukedashi guys don’t come in with “big man on campus” delusions, but even they can only do so much because, honestly, jerks will be jerks. I doubt it makes much of a difference whether, say, a rikishi never had to experience going out in winter without an overcoat just because he got to skip jonokuchi and jonidan.

      • If I were somebody who somehow qualified under the present rules and had my actual self’s understanding of the ranking system, I absolutely would. But that’s a very hypothetical situation. ;) If you’re asking whether I would accept a higher starting rank under every possible scenario (even an extreme case, say, if the Kyokai awarded them by lottery regardless of ability), then that’s a different matter.

        But the new system as it is exists is, IMHO, still conservative in where the starting positions are, so there’s really no downside to accepting. Unless injured, basically everybody who qualifies for MsTd or SdTd ought to be good enough to get at least a 5-2 in their debut. That’s all the easing-in a seasoned amateur sumotori should need.

  3. If i was a rikishi that qualified for tsukedashi privledge, i assume the pressure would be there to accept it so i probably would. It unfortunately comes down to money in my opinion and the sooner you start earning the sooner the heya will also benefit financially, thus the pressure. I feel like money gets left out of these discussions but it is likely a greater driver than tradition in many cases. I would not accept the higher rank if i felt i was really out of practice and needed to build up more slowly. If you’re good enough to get the tsukedashi you are going to rise pretty quickly regardless. cheers

    • Money is certainly a motivator which I had not gone into, directly. If you are good enough to get lower division yusho, that will bring some cash. The extra certainty of kachi-koshi…and possibly even better… could help out but I don’t think either will be significant in the grand scheme of things. So yes, the promise of that sekitori status and the pay will tip many scales.

  4. I’m with Asashosakari. Assuming the tsukedashi qualifications are given based on performance as they are now, it’s a no-brainer to take it. If I’m Hakuoho or Onosato, why should I spend several tournaments beating up on much weaker competition than I am used to, with extra pressure to avoid an upset both because it would look bad and because it would further slow me down on the way to my ultimate goal (not to mention non-zero risk of injury)? Of course, for a scrawny 15 yo Hakuho, it’s a completely different story, but those are not the rikishi who qualify for the head start.

  5. For me to accept the tsukedashi position it would depend on three things:

    My self-confidence.
    Mine or my family’s money situation as well as their moral support.
    The particular Heya that is making the offer. Assuming I know the difference between the Heyas.

    I enjoyed reading, learning and commenting on this post!
    Thanks Andy!

    • Agree totally, self confidence (and personality attributes such as being risk taking vs risk averse) are big factors here. Some people will be thinking about where they want to be in 2, 3 or 5 years time and can live with reduced status for the next few months. If your family lacks money now that might be a factor that pushes you towards the tsukedashi route that presents big challenges sooner but gives you the prospect of making big money more quickly.

      Medical careers are a little like this – after getting your medical degree you can rush through to a position of responsibility in the minimum allowed time or you can take a slower route and gain wider experience at a more junior rank in different settings – while being aware that the guys who did it the quick way might have more status and out-earn you in the short-term, but not necessarily in the longer term if the extra things you learned on the way make you a ‘better’ or ‘more robust’ practitioner overall. Some personality types won’t care, they may feel it’s all valid experience whether you’re the junior guy or the senior guy but others will feel they’ll learn more spending longer at a lower rank. I’m with Hasegawa here – I’ve always been in the ‘slow but thorough’ category – it’s a marathon not a sprint!

  6. What I find really amusing is how they make the tsukedashi recruits also go through the 6 months sumo school. It’s an extreme example of course, but in Ochiai/Hakuoho you had a guy literally competing for the top division championship while still going to sumo school :)))


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.