Updated – More thoughts on the concussion issue

2021’s Hatsu Basho started amid fears, if not controversy, brought by the pandemic. It ended amid true controversy, on a different, albeit also health-related, matter: brain concussion among sumo wrestlers.

Before moving on this topic, let’s have a look back at what happened.

What happened?

Makushita, day 10. Shonannoumi faces Asagyokusei. Shonannoumi botches the tachi-ai, moves forward as his opponent still stands behind the shikiri-sen. Asagyokusei raises, both collide heavily on the head, and Shonannoumi falls to the clay.

The victim: Shonannoumi

At this point, the gyoji has two options:

A) Approving the tachi-ai. In that case, Asagyokusei has to be called the winner;

B) Calling a matta. That’s what happened during the bout. The gyoji orders a redo – the shimpan judges even quickly reunite in order to discuss on that matter, only to order to proceed further.
But Shonannoumi is obviously unable to do any kind of effort whatsoever – he stands up several times, only to lose balance and fall awkwardly again and again.
Eventually, he stands on his feet, the bout is a go, and Shonannoumi even wins it. But that’s not the point at all. Obviously, his health has been seriously endangered.

Has it happened before?

Of course, the Hokutofuji bout against Ryuden, in May of 2018, springs to mind. Basically, the story is the same.

Hokutofuji also suffered from concussion, in 2018

I’d also like to mention a crazy bout where Azumaryu and Tobizaru faced each other in juryo in 2019 (on day 9 of the Nagoya basho, to be exact). After a long fight full of twists and downs, after even a mawashi matta, both sekitori send each other outside the limits of the ring, and fall heavily to the ground. The catch is, it was realistically impossible to declare a clear-cut winner, and a torinaoshi was ordered. Here, Azumaryu, and especially Tobizaru, looked too exhausted to fight once more. The latter lost the re-match without being at full capacity.

What could have been done ?

My question would rather be: does a sumo bout necessarily have to see out a winner ?
As a chess player, I know individual sports can see contests concluded without a winner. It does not happen in tennis or in Formula One, but it does happen in darts, another lesser known sport.

Anyway, if football or rugby have an extended medical protocol in case of a concussion, in my opinion a handy solution exists. If this were unfortunately to happen again in sumo (and some day, it will happen again): the reintroduction of draws in sumo.

In fact, sumo initially allowed various kinds of draw. Let’s examine them.

Firstly, azukari used to be called, when a bout’s issue was too close to call, and no clear-cut winner could be nominated.The bout then just ended in a draw.

Secondly, hikiwake used to represent the situation when the opponents fought for some time, and no one could take the advantage. Here, too, the result would just be a draw.

Obviously, both cases don’t appear any more today. Instead of an azukari, a torinaoshi would just be called; and instead of a hikiwake, the shimpan judges would raise their hands after four minutes, and a mizu-iri would be orderer: the “water break”.

To be exact, the last azukari was seen in 1951, whereas the last hikiwake could be witnessed in 1974. And, obviously, neither of these calls fit to Shonannoumi’s situation.

Thirdly, the case of a mushōbu is interesting. That call could be heard if a bout was too close to call, and if the gyoji decided not to point his gumbai to anyone. In the 1860’s, that system was replaced, and only the shimpan judges could then decide not to declare someone as the winner. And then, that system has been replaced by the torinaoshi rule.

And finally, the itamiwake is what we’re looking for. It occurred when a rikishi got injured and could not continue – usually, not taking part in a torinaoshi.

The last wrestlers to benefit from some itamiwake respite were Narutoumi and Wakabayama, back in 1958.

Couldn’t Shonannoumi benefit from such an allowance?

Let’s reintroduce itamiwake in sumo!

Update: that issue, and the Shonannoumi case have seemingly given fruits. The shimpan department has just decided to act, not allowing any more hurt rikishi to fight again. From now, rikishi suffering from concussion prior to a match (or, of course, right after a matta) will lose by default:

That may not be the end to all our problems, but that’s definitely a great start.

Looking Toward the Haru Banzuke

The 2021 Hatsu basho is in the books, and all the kensho has been handed out. How will the results reshuffle the rankings for the Haru basho? As usual, I’ll have a full banzuke prediction posted once I’ve had more time for analysis, but here’s an early look at the key points. Note: I’m assuming that the rikishi who had to sit out the tournament due to COVID will have their ranks frozen, following the Tamanoi beya precedent from September. This actually helps to create a sensible Makuuchi banzuke, but creates major problems in Juryo.

The named ranks

With both Yokozuna absent, nothing will change at the top of the rankings. Barring retirement, we will have Hakuho on the East side and Kakuryu on the West for the 6th straight tournament. The Ozeki ranks will see a reshuffle, with Shodai and Asanoyama, both 11-4, occupying O1 East and West, respectively, and newly kadoban Takakeisho falling to O2e.

All the incumbents in lower san’yaku—S1e Terunofuji, S1w Takanosho, K1e Takayasu, and K1w Mitakeumi—are kachi-koshi, and all have 9 wins, with the exception of Terunofuji’s 11, which means that they will keep their ranks. I’m going to guess that Daieisho (13-2) will vault all the way to Sekiwake, creating an extra slot (he has unquestionably done enough to force a san’yaku promotion this time, after a very unlucky miss following the previous tournament). And with 24 wins in his last two basho, Terunofuji is officially on an Ozeki run and can re-ascend to sumo’s second-highest rank with another double-digit performance in March.

That’s a lot of wins (73, to be exact) soaked up by just 7 rikishi, and in a zero-sum game, the reverberations will be felt further down the banzuke.

Upper maegashira

It was feast or famine in this part of the banzuke. Daieisho aside, M2e Takarafuji and M3w Onosho recorded nine wins apiece, while everyone else was make-koshi. Takarafuji and Onosho will occupy the top maegashira rank, and Hokutofuji, with his minimal 7-8 make-koshi, will fall one rank to M2e. “Frozen” Wakatakakage conveniently occupies M2w, but filling the next few ranks isn’t easy. M5e Endo and M5w Okinoumi, both 7-8, can be placed no higher than their current rank, everyone else in the joi will fall even lower, and there’s not much help from the ranks immediately below them. This means bringing up kachi-koshi rikishi from lower down the rankings way up the banzuke. I have M7e Meisei, M8w Kiribayama and M9w Myogiryu, all 8-7, and M10e Shimanoumi, 9-6, all jumping up 4-6 full ranks, much more than their records would typically warrant.

Makuuchi-Juryo exchanges

With a 10-man san’yaku, the M17e rank will disappear, and its current occupant, Sadanoumi (5-10), will be heading down. I’m quite confident that he’ll be joined by M13e Akua (5-10). Beyond that, things get a little muddy. We have two clear promotion candidates—the yusho winner, J8e Tsurugisho (12-3), and Tobizaru’s big brother, J6w Hidenoumi (11-4), who hasn’t been in the top division since March 2018. We also have J1w Daiamami (8-7), who should be promoted, and with Ishiura “frozen” at J1e, there’s nowhere to put him except Makuuchi. I think this means that M8e Tokushoryu (3-12) will have to make room and fall to the second division a year after his triumph.

There are two other men in this conversation: J8w Daishomaru (11-4), who handed Tokushoryu his coup de grâce, and M15e Yutakayama (7-8), who could not pick up his 8th win on senshuraku and left his fate in the hands of the banzuke committee. I believe that the incumbent will just hang on, but this is a close call.

I’ll end this here, and cover what I think will happen in Juryo and upper Makushita after the new Juryo promotions are announced on Wednesday (it’s the only part of the banzuke we get to see early). Thanks for reading, and let me know what you think in the comments!

Momotaro Wins Juryo Yusho!

Thank you, Bruce and Leonid and all the readers and commenters for another very entertaining tournament. I’m very pleased this one finished so well and it seemed to offer quite a bit of solace and distraction from the news and Covid. During the run-up to the basho, the debate in the Japanese press mentioned how at times of hardship, sumo served to distract/inspire/cheer up the nation.

Sumo is a sport where there’s SO MUCH GOING ON that when you pull on one thread there’s usually an amazing backstory that just pulls you deeper into Japanese culture. Here, we have one such thread (in a literal and figurative sense).

After Tsurugisho’s Juryo yusho last night, the Yamaguchi.shishu Instagram account posted their congratulations with the image of his kesho mawashi. I’m usually asleep during the Juryo dohyo-iri so I had not noticed his kesho mawashi before. I really enjoy their account and I’ve found them not only beautiful but very interesting and I like researching it and the connection to the wrestler — or the dentist. Sometimes it’s a high school symbol or something from their home town…or in Shodai’s case, a random dam in Gunma.

“Is that kid jumping out of a peach? And why is that on a kesho mawashi?”

Me (to my wife)

For this one, though, I really didn’t know where to start so I asked my wife. Her eyes lit up and she started singing, “Mo– motaro-san, Momotaro-san, okoshi ni tsuketa kibidango…” That first bit was even in the Instagram post. Then she told me the story of the kid born from a peach to an elderly couple. He then goes on a Hobbit-type quest and defeats some Oni (demons). During the quest he’s picks up a few friends, who basically hang out with him and help him because his kibi-dango are the bomb.

A Little Tangent

Here’s where I’m going to go off on a little tangent and give some advice about studying Japanese. When you’re learning Japanese, do yourself a favor and pick up some childrens’ books. If you’re learning Persian, you’ll probably want to read Rumi. When I was studying Russian and Spanish back in college, our professors would introduce us to their newspapers and rather fine literature. Even back in High School my Latin teacher had us memorizing Caesar’s “Gallic Wars.”

Frankly, I think that’s a bit of a mistake and it’s probably done because high school and college students probably think they’ve outgrown nursery rhymes. That is definitely not-so with Japanese. You will NOT be able to pick up and read a Japanese business newspaper for the very simple fact that you have to learn all of that kanji first! And frankly, before even that you really need to master hiragana, katakana, and a lot of the basic kanji. That’s where childrens’ books come in.

So, swallow your pride and go to the childrens’ section if you ever find yourself in a Japanese bookstore, like Kinokuniya, (Don’t laugh, I go to the one in NYC all the time and I’m pretty sure there are 5 in California, and 3 in Texas — check that, there are 4 — and several more around the country.) If you’re lucky enough to make it to Japan, there’s usually at least one bookstore in every mall and there’s usually at least one mall attached to (or next to) every major train station.

The benefit of having two kids in Japanese school is that we have got a bunch of their text books and other books around the house. Momotaro is one of the more common stories that feature in their books. There’s a two-volume set that I love, pictured above. These feature 366 tales (one story per day).

Back to Momotaro-san

In the version of the story that’s in this book (July 13, in the red volume which covers July-December), the old woman goes to the river to wash clothes. She finds a nice peach floating down the river. She takes it back to her husband and as they’re going to open it, a cheerful baby jumps out. They are quite happy and name him, “Momotaro.”

He grows up healthy. “すくすく育った.” Japanese is full of these repetitive, onomatopoeic words and the kids books are full of them. They’re a huge stumbling block for me when trying to listen to the spoken language.

When he grows up, he decides to go off on his quest to the demons’ lair. As he sets off, he receives kibidango (dumplings) from the old woman. These dumplings are made from a process similar to the way mochi was made at New Year’s with the mortar and pestle. (Sumo’s ties to the mochi-tsuki run deep!) As he’s traveling, a dog, monkey, and then a pheasant accompany him, drawn by the dumplings which he shares with them as they travel.

When they make it to the demons’ hangout on Onigashima, the animals help attack while the oni were all drinking. They defeat the oni and the demon boss apologizes…with his hands on the ground. (“手をついていいました”! And people wonder how I am able to connect sumo to just about anything.) The merry band then travel back home with their plunder. I wonder if they rented the Takarabune to get back to the mainland….

There are a lot of vocabulary and kanji in these simple stories that really help with shikona and understanding basic Japanese. But the key is, it’s not such an impossible hurdle as trying to read a Japanese book about sumo, which usually has no helpful furigana. And these short stories are such bite-size chunks that it’s actually manageable, even early in your studies.

Even better, the great thing about being an adult, is that we understand metaphors and chuckle at the subtext. Just like many legends and Fairy Tales have a darker or “adult” edge, I wonder what the inside of the peach was referring to? Hold up…Venus was born from a “clam,” Athena sprang forth from Zeus’ “head,” Momotaro came from a peach… Dude, ALL these stories are dirty!

Tsurugisho Momotaro

Before my thoughts sink deeper into the gutter, let’s get back on topic. What is the connection between Tsurugisho and Momotaro? Well, it’s actually his name! We often forget that shikona, wrestlers’ ring names, include the more famous surname — and a first name!

Hakuho is “Hakuho Sho.” Takakeisho is “Takakeisho Mitsunobu” while Tochinoshin is “Tochinoshin Tsuyoshi.” Tsurugisho chose Momotaro. Whether there’s a deeper personal connection between Tsurugisho and the tale of Momotaro, I’m uncertain. If you know more details, please feel free to drop such knowledge in the comments! If you made it this far, thank you.

Hatsu Day 15 Highlights

For the 6th consecutive Hatsu basho, we have a first time yusho winner take the cup. I am not sure what it is about Hatsu, but it’s a glorious thing. I recall that it was Hatsu 2016, and the Kyushu Bulldozer, Kotoshogiku, broke the Mongolian yusho streak, taking home the Emperor’s cup, lifting the fish, and drinking far too much sake. Since then we have had some great January yusho, including Kisenosato’s the following year, which gave him the green light to ascend to sumo’s highest rank of Yokozuna. Then it was Tochinoshin, Tamawashi, Tokushoryu and now Daieisho.

We sumo fans have now had a string of basho with no real Yokozuna participation. While I do miss the presence of a Yokozuna in the tournament, I think I am enjoying watching the next generation sort itself out. I still think the skill and capability difference between the bottom of Juryo and the top of Makuuchi is not what it should be, and the top division lacks a pack of dominant rikishi. But I also think that in time sumo will return to that mode.

I note with some sadness that Ikioi took his first ever kyujo just prior to day 15 of what could be his final tournament. It seems there was some injury to his hand, and he withdrew from competition. That’s 1090 matches, and not sitting one of them out until today. He would mount the dohyo with any manner of injuries and fight on. It was his hallmark. But given the reality of the situation, I don’t blame him. I expect an intai announcement from him before March, as a make-koshi will likely relegate him to Makushita. He has a kabu secured, and a future as a sumo elder, so I think he may have realized that it was time to move on. My thanks for many wonderful matches over the years, and I look forward to him joining the Yoshikaze / Goeido / Aminishiki BS club on YouTube. Frankly, I do want to know which brand of curry he prefers.

Highlight Matches

Hidenoumi defeats Akua – Juryo visitor Hidenoumi hands Akua his 10th loss. With the so many rikishi in forced kyujo in Juryo, figuring out the promotion / demotion candidates is going to be complex. I will feel most fortunate if lksumo makes an attempt later. But I would guess Akua will be a candidate to return to the lower sekitori ranks. That fall as he exited the dohyo looked like it left him in pain. I am sure Akua is glad Hatsu is complete.

Myogiryu defeats Yutakayama – The lone Darwin match saw Yutakayama extend his losing streak to 4 and finalize his make-koshi. Myogiryu took control of the match after a brief struggle immediately following the tachiai. Myogiryu finished Hatsu with an 8-7 kachi-koshi.

Daishomaru defeats Tokushoryu – Tokushoryu’s pull attempt falls apart in spectacular fashion, handing Juryo visitor Daishomaru his 11th win for January. What are they putting in the chanko at Oitekaze heya?

Midorifuji defeats Tobizaru – One last katasukashi for the road! Tobizaru’s story of Hatsu seems to be “in all things, a half measure short”. The guy put a lot of energy and work into every day, but could only muster 6 wins out of 15. Midorifuji finishes in glorious style, hooking that right hand underneath Tobizaru’s arm and swinging him down. He finishes 9-6 and takes home the technique prize.

Kagayaki defeats Akiseyama – The first match ended with both rikishi exiting the dohyo together, and the replays showed all manner of complexities, from dead bodies to arms touching early. The Shimpan threw in the towel and called for a rematch, which was Kagayaki from start to finish. Sadly, Akiseyama misses out on a special prize due to his final day loss. Kagayaki finishes 6=9.

Aoiyama defeats Ryuden – Aoiyama’s V-Twin has been idling rough for the whole basho, but it was enough to power out a struggling Ryuden, who could offer little resistance to Aoiyama’s forward attack. That’s a 4-11 finish for Ryuden, and a 6-9 for Aoiyama.

Endo defeats Kotonowaka – Another special prize missed as Kotonowaka drops his final match to Endo. Endo had both hands inside early, and was able to grapple Kotonowaka’s chest, lifting and driving forward for a quick and clean win. Endo finishes January 7-8.

Tamawashi defeats Kotoeko – The grizzled veteran Tamawashi finds a the last of his energy for Hatsu and overwhelms Kotoeko. Kotoeko had a strong opening move, but got turned to the side and ejected by a strong Tamawashi shove. Both end Hatsu 6-9.

Terutsuyoshi defeats Tochinoshin – Terutsuyoshi’s one good arm proves to be more potent than Tochinoshin’s one good leg. The former Ozeki drops to 4-11. Terutsuyoshi really kept himself compact, and his hips low, robbing Tochinoshin of any chance to set up offense and use his size and strength superiority to attempt a lift and shift against Terutsuyoshi. Terutsuyoshi finishes hatsu 7-8.

Onosho defeats Hoshoryu – Onosho’s initial attack completely overpowers Hoshoryu, as Onosho is able to get his hands inside, then ramps up the drive from his legs. Hoshoryu realizes quickly that he’s in trouble at attempts a throw at the edge, but Onosho has him bracketed, brings his left foot to the clay, and the throw collapses from Onosho’s forward pressure. Both end Hatsu 9-6.

Kotoshoho defeats Sadanoumi – Kotoshoho gets his 2nd win of the tournament on the final day, as Sadanoumi accidentally steps out in the process of hurling the hapless Kotoshoho over the bales. Both rikishi are deeply make-koshi, with Sadanoumi finishing 5-10. I dearly hope that Kotoshoho can regroup, fix whatever plagued him and return to good form in March.

Shimanoumi defeats Takarafuji – Takarafuji’s defend and extend strategy came up short today, with Shimanoumi staying strong, focused and able to wait along with Takarafuji, focusing on shutting down Takarafuji’s left hand. Watching it a 3rd time, it’s quite brilliant how Shimanoumi control’s Takarafuji’s upper body, conceding that Takarafuji’s defense (and by extension, lower body) will be superior, he makes sure Takarfuji cannot generate any offense, and waits for his chance. Twice we see Shimanoumi make a play to take control, and both times Takarafuji recovers and they stalemate again. The third opening came when Takarafuji moved to change his grip, and Shimanoumi lifted and advanced to win. Subtle yet fantastic sumo from these two today. They both end the tournament with 9-6 kachi-koshi.

Daieisho defeats Okinoumi – Same formula today, Daieisho got his hands inside at the tachiai, and ripped a lightning fast combo straight to center-mass. Okinoumi could barely even attempt any kind of response and quickly found himself on the dohyo’s exit ramp. This is the kind of sumo that Takakeisho used to execute every day, and I am glad to see Daieisho pick u his 13th win, and the yusho with a solid example of top quality oshi-zumo mechanics.

Hokutofuji defeats Ichinojo – Ichinojo went on the attack at the tachiai, but he let Hokotufuji get his hands inside. Ichinojo found himself with superior position, but unable to really convert it into a win. Rather than wait for his situation to improve, he pressed the attack, and found his fortunes reverse, as Hokutofuji swung around, places a big left hand on Ichinojo’s chest and pushed. Exquisitely timed, it caught Ichinojo standing almost upright, and out he went. Hokutofuji complete’s his efforts to secure “The Most Powerful Make-Koshi In All Of Sumo” for like the 30th time, finishing 7-8.

Mitakeumi defeats Kiribayama – Mitakeumi took his first match from Kiribayama, and it was a complete tadpole job from start to finish. I think Kiribayama had one good attack, right at the tachiai, when he had a right hand on Mitakeumi’s shoulder. But this opened up his chest, and Mitakeumi was inside and driving hard for the win. Mitakeumi finishes Hatsu with 9-6.

Takanosho defeats Takayasu – I thought Takanosho’s chances of success went down when he allowed Takayasu to go chest to chest. But Takanosho stayed calm, stayed in the match and decided to challenge Takakeisho to a yotsu-zumo stamina battle. Things devolved after a good long grapple into a slap-down battle, with Takayasu trying first, failing, Takanosho responding and finding Takayasu off balance. Both finish Hatsu 9-6.

Terunofuji defeats Meisei – I am really enjoying Terunofuji’s sumo now. Meisei threw a lot of oblique torque into this match, looking to put stress on Terunofuji’s knees and generating an advantage. But I have to assume that Terunofuji somehow trains for this, as you can see him shift his hips back to be over the arches of his feet, and stays planted. Of course all of this tossing about by Meisei robs him of any real frontal power, and Terunofuji is free to move forward. Then Meisei decided to try a leg trip, in doing so he put all of his weight on his left foot, and that was the end of Meisei’s sumo for Hatsu. Terunofuji improves to 11-4, and picks up a special prize. Stay healthy, kaiju, I am looking forward to your Ozeki bid finals in March.

Asanoyama defeats Shodai – Not sure this match was definitive, as the tate-gyoji picked the wrong direction to shuffle, and ended up tangled up in the Asanoyama-Shodai scrum. This effectively cut off any “move at the edge” for Shodai, as there was someone in the way. Both end Hatsu with 11-4, respectable Ozeki kachi-koshi. Both have room to improve, and I expect 2021 will be a good year for the next level of sumo technique for both.

With that, dear readers, Tachiai’s coverage of Hatsu 2021’s action concludes. Thank you for sharing the basho with us, and visiting our humble sumo fan blog. Team Tachiai does it all for the love of the sport, and we are grateful that you decided to share some of your time with us.