Heya Hunters International

As detailed by Andy in his recent post (and via Twitter from Herouth, and throughout the usual dispatches from our friend Kintamayama over the preceding weeks), a number of heya changes have recently taken place. Additional changes will follow in the coming days… and in fact, there will be even more changes yet to follow later this year!

The kabu stock market tends to be an interest that’s restricted to the most intense of sumo anoraks. It’s not a topic of conversation for most normal sumo fans, confusing to others, and many changes and name transfers are often administrative in nature. However, for those wishing for a deeper dive, it seems like a good time to do some recap and analysis.

Nishonoseki Ichimon

The major story is the former Yokozuna Kisenosato taking over the prestigious headline Nishonoseki name, renaming his relatively new heya from Araiso beya to Nishonoseki beya. We have often wondered what kind of heya Araiso beya would be, and we don’t have to wonder anymore, because it won’t exist. Nishonoseki beya will be augmented by the arrival of eight rikishi from the soon to close Oguruma beya.

Oguruma oyakata reaches retirement age this spring, and the stable had long been rumoured to split into Yoshikaze (Nakamura oyakata) and Takekaze (Oshiogawa oyakata) factions. We have known for some time that Oshiogawa beya would be a new stable opening this year, but the division of the rikishi and what would happen to the existing stable and Nakamura oyakata had yet to be announced.

It was somewhat of a surprise, then, that Nakamura oyakata will make the big move up to Ibaraki prefecture to join up with Nishonoseki beya. And it was equally a surprise that the vast majority of Oguruma beya’s rikishi will not accompany the outgoing oyakata or the former Takekaze, with whom they will have had a much longer relationship, but instead be heading north with the former Yoshikaze to work under the former Yokozuna at his new stable. Kisenosato had long spoken – and even published a paper as part of his studies – about how to run a new type of modern sumo stable, and it seems that alongside his own recruits, 8 of the Oguruma beya rikishi will get a chance to experience that first hand when his new lodging opens.

Additionally, Nishonoseki beya gets an immediate quality boost with the presence of former sekitori Tomokaze, who will now almost certainly be the first sekitori of the new Nishonoseki beya as he continues his rehabilitation in the Makushita joi over the next couple of basho. While the former Yoshikaze certainly could have inherited and renamed the former Oguruma stable, and also qualifies as someone able to branch out and create a new heya in the future, he is also known to have a number of extra-curricular circumstances outside of sumo that would seem to have prevented him from running a stable at this time.

Working with Nishonoseki oyakata in the meantime, of course, does not prevent him from branching out in the future, and would appear to be a great experience for all involved: a number of the former Oguruma rikishi will certainly relish the opportunity to work under a former Yokozuna known for his fundamentals, and both coaches had very different sumo styles serving them well throughout their lengthy top division careers. And with Nishonoseki oyakata known to be both ambitious about his plans for the stable and shorthanded in the support department (most stables have an okamisan on hand to help with stable running – although this is certainly not a requirement and may be viewed as another way that Nishonoseki is progressing the tradition of stable management), the addition of a capable, young new coach should certainly help a stable master who is known to be extremely busy, between overseeing heya construction, kyokai and frequent media duties, and his various brand partnerships and endorsement deals.

As for Oshiogawa beya, former Takekaze will bring Oguruma oyakata, current sekitori Yago, and a couple others along with him to his own innovative new building (which was at one point said to include lodgings for students, and with the absence of a gym as his rikishi will apparently make use of community facilities as he seeks to integrate the stable with the local community).

Meanwhile, the man who held the Nishonoseki name for most of the last decade, former Ozeki Wakashimazu, continues as a consultant using Kisenosato’s former Araiso name. A number of his stable’s rikishi have retired following the Hatsu basho, but those opting to continue will do so under the tutelage of former Sekiwake Tamanoshima, who has long held the name of Hanaregoma oyakata, and as such, with the transfer of power complete at the former Nishonoseki beya, will run the stable – also soon to be at new premises – under the name Hanaregoma beya. The longtime shimpan and sometime heartthrob Hanaregoma will look back fondly at his move from Kataonami beya – where he was developed himself as a rikishi – to work under the former Wakashimazu, a move that certainly paid off in the long run as the legendary Kataonami beya (once home to Yokozuna Tamanoumi) fell into sharp decline.

Hanaregoma oyakata will preside over a stable with no fewer than three sekitori, as Wakashimazu’s (presumably) final recruit to make the jump to the salaried ranks, Shimazuumi, will move to Juryo in the forthcoming basho (joining stablemates Ichiyamamoto and veteran Shohozan there). I had pegged Shohozan to retire and inherit both the name and stable from Wakashimazu, having been his greatest success story as an oyakata and given Shohozan’s advancing years, but the wheeling and dealing behind the scenes, transferring names and stables, caught many sumo observers as a bit of a surprise. It’s probable however, that the deal for former Tamanoshima to take over the stable from former Wakashimazu had been in the works for a long time.

Dewanoumi Ichimon

It’s not quite as complicated here, as former Ozeki Goeido (Takekuma oyakata) and his new haircut have branched out from Sakaigawa beya, taking Makushita champ Nishikawa and promising youngster Goseiryu with him, to form Takekuma beya.

Given that Goseiryu has taken the first character of Goeido’s shikona, it will be interesting to see if this is an indicator of future shikona in the new Takekuma beya, and if more rikishi will take a “Go” prefix in deference to the new yusho-winning stablemaster. That said, the character also matches the first character of the rikishi’s given name, so it’s a little early to call.

Curiously, it’s the first time since the war that Takekuma beya will exist outside of the Tatsunami-Isegahama ichimon, and Goeido’s assumption of the name upon his retirement a couple years back marked what may become a more normal transfer of less prestigious names across ichimon lines.

Isegahama Ichimon

2021 had been a big year for this group of stables, but largely for reasons on the dohyo, with the retirement of Yokozuna Hakuho (Miyagino beya), the elevation of Yokozuna Terunofuji (Isegahama beya), and the kanreki dohyo-iri of Isegahama oyakata.

But a series of moves are now in the offing outside of the ring, and the first of these is the administrative name switch of Tomozuna oyakata (former yusho winner Kyokutenho) and Oshima oyakata (former sekiwake Kaiki), who ran Tomozuna beya for many years before his retirement, developing current sekitori Kaisei and long-time former Ozeki Kaio (for the vast majority of Kaio’s career, anyway).

Kyokutenho was brought up in the now legendary former Oshima beya under the tutelage of ex-Ozeki Asahikuni, who oversaw a decades-long production line running from Yokozuna Asahifuji (possibly now the best developer of talent in sumo as Isegahama oyakata) all the way through to Kyokutenho and his younger mates Kyokutaisei (as detailed in the film “A Normal Life”) and the newly-retired Kyokushuho.

Following the successful merger of the former Oshima beya with Tomozuna beya following former Asahikuni’s retirement, Kaiki ran the stable until his mandatory retirement in 2017 when Kyokutenho switched elder names to continue running the stable under the Tomozuna banner, in deference to Kaiki. Kaiki continued as a sanyo (consultant), and as he reaches the mandatory retirement age of 70 for sanyo this summer and leaves the kyokai for good, the two have switched names again to allow Kyokutenho to revive the Oshima beya name, which he will presumably run for many years to come. There are no fundamental changes to the stable beyond the name swap.

This, of course, will generate debate as to who will take the Tomozuna name when it becomes available later this year. Isegahama ichimon has no shortage of aging rikishi that may require a myoseki. And while there are those in other stables (Miyagino, Isegahama) who meet the requirements, Oshima beya will have its own coaching logjam. Former Asahisho is already using a loaner kabu (Kiriyama), which, coming from the Isegahama stable, is presumed to be Takarafuji’s in waiting. Meanwhile, Kyokutaisei, having been beset by numerous injuries and punted out of the salaried ranks, may need a kabu himself in the near future if he wishes to continue his career as an elder in the kyokai, having reached the required number of basho. While he hadn’t always seemed an obvious choice to become a coach, he assisted in the recent recruitment of one of the stable’s relatively few new recruits under Kyokutenho, the fellow Hokkaido native Kyokutaiga. It is possible he may unlock further recruits in the future from his home in the north.

All of this of course ignores the presence of 35 year old Kaisei, the veteran most closely linked to the Tomozuna name, having been the last sekitori to have reached the top division from the old heya under Kaiki’s tutelage. The Brazilian born rikishi has already taken Japanese nationality, but has also given mixed signals in the past about his desire to remain in sumo. In any case, it would be a major surprise not to see the Tomozuna name ultimately go to Kaisei, but in the meantime the name may be shuffled around the heya to protect the employment statuses of others.

If you’ve made it this far, you can accuse me of burying the lede a bit, because August brings the mandatory retirement of Miyagino oyakata in what will signal the official power transfer of the storied stable to the former Yokozuna Hakuho. Hakuho – now Magaki oyakata – has of course already become one of the sport’s most prolific recruiters and developers of talent in recent years, even while still active (to some extent) on the dohyo.

Hakuho was made to sign a statement by the Kyokai with regards to his future conduct and behaviour upon retirement, but this is not thought to be an impediment to the future transfer of the stable into his control at this time. We already know that Hakuho has indicated an intention to build a new home for the heya, but the two questions currently unresolved are 1) whether he will switch names with the current Miyagino oyakata so that the stable can continue to operate under the Miyagino name, or if it will be given a fresh start and renamed Magaki beya; and 2) whether the current Miyagino oyakata and Takashima oyakata, who reach age 65 within a few days of each other, will both continue as sanyo for another five years in support of Hakuho. If either the current Takashima or Miyagino decide to leave, it could free up a name to be used for – speculatively – Ishiura. Hakuho has longtime links to the Ishiura family – Ishiura’s father runs the powerhouse Tottori Johoku sumo club, and the continued employ of the 32 year old Ishiura in the stable after his career could further deepen the recruitment pipeline for Hakuho’s stable over the next two decades.

Takasago Ichimon

Not much happening here, but the Oyama name will become available for the first time in 36 years by October, when former Onobori reaches the mandatory sanyo retirement age of 70. The Nishikijima name was also occupied by the former Takasago oyakata and Ozeki Asashio before his scandal related departure from the Kyokai last year. Speculatively speaking, either name could come into play on loan for the former Kotoyuki, who is currently borrowing soon-to-be-37-year-old Okinoumi’s myoseki Kimigahama. Both names could also be acquisition targets for Hokutofuji, who turns 30 later this year.

Tokitsukaze Ichimon

Michinoku beya’s Tatsutayama oyakata reaches the retirement age of 65 in June, and has yet to indicate whether he intends to continue as a sanyo. This will be of interest largely because of the situations regarding the former Toyonoshima (currently borrowing Izutsu from the deceased former shisho of that stable, Sakahoko) and former Yokozuna Kakuryu (currently operating under his ring name as the rank allows for a temporary period of up to 5 years). At some point, both former rikishi will need to acquire their own name.

Toyonoshima was said to have been making payments towards the Nishikijima name for years, and the Nishikijima name belonged to the Tokitsukaze ichimon for decades before being picked up by the Takasago family more recently. So, it would not be a surprise to see it come back into play as an option for him, especially if Tatsutayama (or Isenoumi beya’s coach and a former stable master in his own right, Kagamiyama, upon his retirement in 12 months) elects not to continue as a sanyo.

The wild card in all of this is that the former Izutsu’s widow was rumoured to be adamant the name would go only to the rikishi who married her daughter, and the rikishi to have taken that particular challenge on is none other than current maegashira Shimanoumi, of Dewanoumi ichimon’s Kise beya. While Shimanoumi seems likely to qualify for elder status by 2023, it seems incredibly unlikely that the prestigious Izutsu name, having never been associated with any other ichimon (barring a brief period under Kitanofuji’s control in the 70s), would be moved to Dewanoumi ichimon (though stranger things have happened).

So, in summary, watch this space in 2022 as there may be an update regarding the statuses of former Toyonoshima and Kakuryu, as any one of the Nishikijima, Tatsutayama, Izutsu or Kagamiyama names could come into play… or maybe not!

The Pride of Yokozuna: A Proper Review

Sorry for the short notice and the brief little write-up about the documentary a few minutes ago. Casa Andy has a flurry of unanticipated (and unwanted) activity this Saturday morning. Anyway, there will be several other opportunities to watch the documentary. There are multiple broadcast times. Hopefully they will make it available as a video-on-demand. If they do not, it will be rebroadcast on Sunday and Monday. But it is difficult to write more than a cursory write-up when I hadn’t seen it. Now that I have seen it, I have one opinion: watch it. It’s a great documentary.

https://www3.nhk.or.jp/nhkworld/en/tv/documentary/20211219/4001407/

The interview provides insight into his mindset at pivotal times, not just for his own career but at multiple critical points in the history of the sport. The rise of Kisenosato, the yaocho scandal, the baseball gambling scandal, etc. And they make a nice effort to tie so many moments and pivotal bouts to Nagoya throughout the years.

It was interesting to hear other former Yokozuna, Kitanofuji and Kisenosato, struggle to define “Hinkaku,” that quality of the Yokozuna that is never defined but somehow they must live up to.

He definitely puts paid to my theory about that infamous penultimate bout against Shodai. Herouth had already reported this but he lined up at the tawara due to his lack of confidence in his knee. Since we frequently give Shodai a bit of gruff about his upright tachiai, my romantic ideals had created this rebuke which clearly did not exist. Out of concern for his knee and his own doubts about beating Shodai, he opted to totally avoid the tachiai.

But the most poignant parts were the interviews with the man himself, and with his trainer. His trainer had kept detailed notes on Hakuho’s mindset and things that he had said. Key among those things are the importance of the fans’ sentiment. At so many points the fans were with him, cheering him on. But sometimes, they hope for others to rise. Is it a betrayal to the fans to win, if the fans want him to lose? He beat Kisenosato and Terunofuji when they clearly would have loved to see his opponent win. It seems the documentary really dives into how he lives to serve the fans. His achievement, therefore, would serve to disappoint them.

“What is sumo? What is a Yokozuna?”

What is Hinkaku?

Regardless of the answers we may have, Hakuho makes it clear that his answer is, “winning.” (Not in the Charlie Sheen sense of the term.) His recruits will surely do quite a bit of winning from now on but he will certainly serve as a great booster for the sport of sumo in his new role with the Association.

Hakuho Retires, Becomes Magaki Oyakata

This evening Japan time, the news that we have been anticipating all week was made official: The 69th Yokozuna Hakuho has retired from sumo.

“The Boss” retires with the tremendous career record of 1187 wins and 247 losses as a rikishi, including a top flight record 1093 wins, 45 top division championships (plus 1 from Juryo), 6 special prizes, a kinboshi, and numerous other records. His run of 63 consecutive makuuchi victories in 2010, broken by the future Yokozuna Kisenosato, is bettered only by the legendary Yokozuna Futabayama.

Hakuho was and will remain known for, among other things, his incredible presence and aura in the dohyo, his peerless speed at the tachiai, ability to overwhelm almost any opponent of the several eras of his career with a variety of techniques, his power of motivation to find new records to break and new ways to challenge himself, his dedication to amateur sumo, his community work (especially in the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami), his desire to connect sumo to global audiences, and latterly, the remarkable recruiting of new rikishi which he will bring into his coaching career.

Taking all of this into account, it is even more remarkable that Hakuho famously joined Miyagino-beya in a last ditch effort, after the oyakata took him in as a favour to groundbreaking Mongolian sekitori Kyokushuzan. Having been rejected by every other stable he reached out to, the skinny 16 year old was never regarded as a prospect of any sort, making his ascent to the very pinnacle of the sport’s centuries of history all the more remarkable.

Hakuho embraced modern medicine in a bid to prolong his career to the extent that he did, which often also brought him criticism from some within the sumo community who felt he should have retired earlier rather than taking repeated kyujo. This, combined with some cultural faux-pas which saw him in for disciplinary hearings more often than appropriate for a Yokozuna, often brought him scrutiny from those within the Association, the Yokozuna Deliberation Council, and some within sumo’s wider fanbase.

We will no doubt spill more words over the coming days, weeks and months over the brilliant (and perhaps even some of the less brilliant) moments of Hakuho’s career. But let’s be clear that while he was an imperfect legend, he was a legend, an icon of his sport, and not only in the conversation for the best to ever do what he did, but it is not hyperbole to put him in the conversation for one of the greatest champions in sporting history. As mentioned in a previous post, John Gunning did a wonderful encapsulation of this in The Japan Times, and it is highly recommended as a read.

Magaki-Oyakata

There had been speculation for years over when his retirement would come, and it was accompanied by the usual announcement from the Kyokai (above). We had debated not only when he would go out, and how. Those who are interested in the Sumo Association stock exchange had debated what elder name he might take, or if he would be allowed to continue as the greatest Dai-Yokozuna had, by using the privileged one-generation ichidai toshiyori.

It felt somewhat inevitable over recent weeks and months, given the controversy surrounding Hakuho’s various activities and performances and the aforementioned blots on his copybook, that “Hakuho oyakata” would not be named among the Kyokai’s members. And so it is that Hakuho will take the Magaki name, as had been rumoured earlier in the year. As the intai has been officially recognised after the banzuke committee’s meeting, it is more than likely that he will make his final appearance on the banzuke for the Kyushu 2021 basho at Yokozuna 1 West.

The Magaki kabu has moved around over the years, but largely has belonged to the Tatsunami/Tatsunami-Isegahama/Isegahama ichimon of which Hakuho’s Miyagino-beya is a member. Upon picking up the myoseki, Hakuho moved it back into the ichimon’s possession from Tokitsukaze beya and ichimon where it had spent the last several years. Its most famous occupant until now has probably been Yokozuna Wakanohana II – who as Magaki oyakata himself, recruited the 73rd Yokozuna Terunofuji before the Yokozuna’s move to Isegahama-beya where he developed and remains today.

In terms of what happens next: Hakuho’s stablemaster and boss Miyagino-oyakata will retire next August at the mandatory retirement age of 65. It is likely that at that stage (or at some point before), Hakuho will takeover the heya as the new shisho. He may choose to rename the stable Magaki-beya, or, as has been done recently at other stables such as Tokitsukaze and Takasago, switch kabu with the outgoing shisho and assume the more prestigious Miyagino name for himself at that time. Rumours are already swirling in the press as we have previously detailed that Hakuho is looking at expensive new real estate for a blockbuster new construction project for the heya. That, combined with his prolific efforts at recruiting, will set the stage for a very eventful opening to Hakuho’s career as an elder of the Sumo Association.

Despite the fact that recruiting and prospect development are often somewhat drier subjects within the sumo world, it would appear that as with Hakuho’s career on the dohyo, the next chapter promises to be anything but quiet. Strap in folks, it’s gonna get interesting.

Congratulations to Yokozuna Hakuho, Magaki Oyakata on the most incredible of storied careers on the dohyo.

Making a Case For The End of “The Transition”

Everything goes in circles. Photo credit @nicolaah

No matter how you feel about Hakuho (which seems crazy even to write), the sumo world is absolutely rocked not only by his retirement but the manner of it: out on his own terms, no matter how many veiled – thinly or otherwise – “encouragements” he had received, and at the top, unbeaten in his final tournament, and with almost every meaningful record you could wish to have.

It seems impossible to eulogise Hakuho’s career now (although John Gunning has been first out of the blocks with an unsurprisingly strong effort as usual). The debates about the content of his sumo and what to make of his controversial legacy and what it means to be a champion will wait. 

What we can instead eulogise, in my opinion, is the end of a period of transition we’ve been discussing for the last few years. Or at least the end of the transition “out” of what was, as we now move “in” to what will be. While a handful of others from Hakuho’s era are still standing in some diminished status, he is the last meaningful domino to fall. And without his enormous presence casting a “will-he/won’t-he” shadow over literally every tournament – to say nothing of his other adversaries of the era: for example Kakuryu, whose own “should I stay or should I go now” drama was mostly informed by something as tedious as immigration paperwork – the next period can now finally begin in earnest.

Yokozuna Terunofuji of course has his own story, formed out of his battles with himself, and his own body, and it is right that he can set the tone for what is to come over the next few years. Whether or not his body can withstand the pressures of Yokozuna sumo for more than that is up to some substantial debate, but it is clear that he will be the wall that new talents will have to knock down. It seems reasonable to expect that for the next 2 years anyway, this will be the case.

It’s a clean time for the change, because everything below the Yokozuna is now up for grabs. There are no Ozeki runs in play, though Mitakeumi’s throughly uninspiring 9 wins from this tournament could eventually have meaning with a solid-if-unlikely 11+ in the next basho. We’ve seen it before. But while two enormous impediments in the shape of Hakuho and also Asanoyama have now been removed, the famous flat-track bully can’t seem to get it together to best his current score consistently enough to go to the next level. That the challengers from this recent tournament were all veterans unlikely to leave the rank-and-file does not speak incredibly well for the health of the division as a whole.

Relative newcomers like Kiribayama, Kotonowaka and Hoshoryu seem likely to have something to say about the shape of san’yaku to come, but it remains to be seen whether they can be more than this generation’s Okinoumi or Myogiryu or Endo. If there’s another rikishi who might be primed to take another step it could be the 26 year old Meisei, off the back of 8 consecutive winning tournaments. While he has a lower ceiling than the mercurial talents I just mentioned or even than those above him on the banzuke, he’s shown more consistency than any of them, as well as the ability to pull off upsets.

It’s also time to be honest about the state of the remaining veterans. For the Aoiyamas, the Tochinoshins, the Tamawashis, the Takarafujis… for sure their records may be informed by their various injury issues but the reality is that they are also of diminishing ability due to age and mileage. It’s probably fair to ask if we’ll see Takayasu in san’yaku again. Kaisei stated (credit to Kintamayama) during the basho that he simply had less power in his body with each passing year. Myogiryu’s face on senshuraku told us everything we need to know about his future: he knows that he would never have a better chance to win something. He’ll be 35 before the next basho. These guys may have, while the top division is a shadow of the quality it was five or more years ago, the chance to run into this kind of tournament one more time, but the reason for that is likely due more to the ability of the competition than their own ability to meaningfully challenge.

The new era is not going to take shape quickly. While there are interesting prospects, there are very few “can’t miss” talents banging down the door. A number of big prospects have fizzled recently atop Makushita (Roga, Oshoryu, Hokutenkai, etc.) and even for the next tournament, the Juryo promotees will be journeymen or slower moving college rikishi in their late 20s. Abi will almost certainly be the only Makuuchi promotee under 30 in the November tournament, and we know what he is already. It appears that there will be plenty of intriguing backing singers for this next era, but the identity of the frontmen is still very much in question.

One of the reasons why the debates about the content of Hakuho’s sumo and what to make of his controversial legacy and what it means to be a champion will wait is that, well… we’re going to have a lot of time to discuss it. If the new era starts now, and we don’t know what it’s going to be, then we can look at what was in better detail in the cold light of day where there is no more Hakuho. Well, no more Hakuho on the dohyo anyway, as rumours already swirl about a new $17M heya in swanky Nihonbashi. We can think about how all of that stuff from this past era made us feel, and what we want the next era to be. And hopefully as we analyse all of that, names will surface and performances will materialise that allow us to dream a bit again. 

While there is no Takanohana-defeating-Chiyonofuji moment here to provide the kind of punctuation mark that a satisfying transfer of power deserves, and the vacuum created by the absence of fond names can be a bit dispiriting, it feels like we can approach the next basho, the next year, and the tournaments and years to come with a renewed focus on the excitement of what could happen.