Following the Hatsu basho, the Yokozuna Deliberation Council head a regularly scheduled meeting to discuss the state of the sumo world. In prior meetings, the council has rendered opinions on a variety of subjects including Hakuho’s controversial tachiai habits. Some notable elements (thanks to Herouth):
Kakuryu has passed his “compete or else” challenge satisfactorily. Council members were concerned about his week 2 fade. They urged him to rest up, heal up and return ready for Osaka.
Kisenosato was once again admonished not to return to the dohyo until he is fit and capable of Yokozuna-grade sumo. Kisenosato can’t keep dropping mid-basho. Next time he does that, the YDC will “make a decision” (choose one of its available tools such as reprimand or recommendation to retire).
Hakuho is encouraged to heal up and return for Osaka. While public sentiment has turned negative on the dai-Yokozuna, the fact is he is still the strongest and most capable rikishi in any tournament he enters, and the NSK needs him to continue competing if he is at all able. They cautioned him to restrain from using his habitual harizashi+violent kachiage for future matches. As we have seen, this recommended change in his fighting style left Hakuho off tempo and unfocused.
In other news, Hakuho’s toes are improving, and he is practicing shiko (leg stomps) at the stable.
Please note that there is no jungyo promotional tour until after the March basho in Osaka, so rikishi are focusing on training, and participating in a handful of promotional events around Tokyo and Osaka.
What a great basho with an unexpected champion. Below, I will go through the various tiers of Makuuchi (and upper Juryo) and assess the performances, as well as what they likely mean for the Haru banzuke reshuffle (as usual, a full “banzuke crystal ball” post will follow once I’ve had a chance to more carefully digest the results).
At Haru, we should see Kakuryu atop the banzuke, followed by Hakuho and Kisenosato. Although he faded with 4 straight losses after a 10-0 start before recovering to beat Goeido on senshuraku, Kakuryu did enough to justify his rank. I would give him a solid B. Hakuho (re)injured his toes, and gets an Incomplete. Kisenosato had to pull out due to underperformance rather than injury after racking up 4 losses in 5 days and handing out 3 kinboshi. It’s not clear what the way forward is for him. A generous D–.
The two Ozeki will swap sides in Osaka, with Takayasu fighting from the more prestigious East side. His 12-3 record is by far his most impressive in 4 tournaments as Ozeki, although he has to wonder what might have been in this wide-open basho. Any tsuna talk is highly premature, but if he can build on this performance, we may hear it in the near future. A–
The other Ozeki, Goeido, looked strong out of the gate but then went 4-7 over the last 11 days, ending with a minimal kachi-koshi. He avoided going kadoban by the narrowest of margins. A gentleman’s C.
The Old Lower Sanyaku
This highly touted group did not exactly distinguish itself, only managing 23 wins among the four of them. As a result, we should see almost complete turnover in the Sekiwake/Komusubi ranks. The one holdover is Sekiwake Mitakeumi, who started 7-0 but then went 1-7 the rest of the way to maintain his rank by the narrowest of margins. Some of this can be chalked up to tougher second-week opposition, but it’s hard to excuse losses to Arawashi, Shodai, and Okinoumi. This is Mitakeumi’s 6th consecutive tournament in Sanyaku, all of them alternating 9-6 and 8-7 records. He will have to find another gear before the often-mentioned Ozeki run can materialize. Still, he stays at Sekiwake. B–
The rest of the group put up disastrous performances. Instead of starting his own Ozeki run, Sekiwake Tamawashi went 6-9 and will drop out of Sanyaku. It’s not clear what was wrong with his sumo, as he looked like his own formidable self on some days, and went meekly on others. The good news is that he should only drop to M1, and will have a chance to fight his way back up with a solid record in Osaka. C–
Shin-Komusubi Takakeisho had a typical shin-Komusubi rough tournament, going 5-10. He should stay in the joi in Osaka, falling to around M3. C– His friend and fellow Komusubi Onosho faired even worse in his second go-round at the rank, picking up only 4 wins before withdrawing with an injury. No miracle kachi-koshi finish this time. He should drop to around M5. D+
The New Lower Sanyaku
Joining Mitakeumi at Sekiwake will be the yusho winner, Tochinoshin. While there are many reasons to doubt he can replicate his amazing performance going forward, I’ll go out on a limb and say that if he accumulates 11-12 wins in each of the next two tournaments, we’ll see him at Ozeki. A+ Also rejoining the named ranks with a bang at Komusubi is Ichinojo, who really turned things around in the last two tournaments. If he can continue to bring convincing sumo to the dohyo, his size and skill could also see him at Ozeki before too long, although of course this is what was said about him after his amazing Makuuchi debut in 2014. A
Who gets the other Komusubi slot? The man who probably gained the most on senshuraku, sumo Elvis, Chiyotairyu. The big guy needed to win on the last day and have both Kotoshogiku and Endo lose, and this is exactly how things played out. The last and only time Chiyotairyu was ranked this high was also in 2014, and he’s spent most of the intervening time among the lower maegashira ranks, with 3 Juryo stints, so it’s good to see him climb the mountain again. A
The upper maegashira ranks in Osaka will see more permutation than turnover. Based on the thinness and health issues of the Sanyaku, I’m going to generously extend the joi boundary down to M5. These ranks should look something like this:
In addition to the aforementioned fallen Sanyaku rikishi, we have Kotoshogiku and Shodai treading water with their minimal make-koshi records and a pair of C‘s. Endo (A–) and Arawashi (B+) move up within these ranks. Takarafuji (B+) moves up from just below the joi, while Shohozan (A–) and Chiyomaru (A–) make some of the biggest moves up the board.
Dropping out of these ranks are Hokutofuji and Yoshikaze, who both had disastrous 4-11 tournaments, good for a pair of D‘s, along with Okinoumi (C–).
Makuuchi Promotions and Demotions
As has already been mentioned, the 8 lowest-ranked rikishi all earned winning records. For Ishiura, Asanoyama, Nishikigi, and Daiamami, this saved them from demotion to Juryo, but without much of a cushion for Haru. Daieisho, Yutakayama, and the newcomers Abi and Ryuden should move up into solid mid-maegashira territory. Yutakayama in particular is to be commended for turning things around in his third Makuuchi tournament by going 9-6, after his previous two appearances each ended in 4-11 records and quick returns to Juryo.
Dropping down into the M13-M17 ranks and fighting for survival in Osaka will be Ikioi and Sokokurai, who narrowly staved off demotion.
As a result of the solid performances at the bottom of the banzuke, not a lot of slots will be open for promotion. Dropping down to Juryo are Terunofuji, who desperately needs to take a page from Tochinoshin’s book, and Aminishiki. Also joining them will be Takekaze, the only rikishi among those who desperately needed a senshuraku win to not get it. Their slots should be taken by Myogiryu, Hidenoumi, and most likely Aoiyama, with Kyokutaisei just missing out on making his Makuuchi debut despite doing enough for promotion in most tournaments.
During the Hatsu honbasho we had the chance to catch up with John Gunning – whose work many Tachiai readers and others throughout the sumo world thoroughly enjoy in places like NHK World, The Japan Times and Inside Sport Japan. As it’s quite an exciting time in sumo, we had a number of topics we wanted to discuss with John, and Tachiai readers also responded to our call and came forward with an incredible list of questions.
Owing to limited time we were not able to get to all of our readers’ questions, but we are thrilled to have John as a friend of the site and are looking forward to connecting with him and others in the community in future. Over the course of 45 minutes we covered a lot of ground, and so we will run the interview over three parts. It has been edited only in places for clarity, and we hope you enjoy what will hopefully be the first of many similar features!
Tachiai: Most of our readers come from outside of Japan. As someone who is an immigrant to Japan, what brought you into the world of sumo?
John Gunning: Well, originally, when I moved here, a long time ago, it was pre-broadband internet, pre-good internet and I was basically like most people: your entertainment came from television. I didn’t speak Japanese when I came to Japan, and the only thing I could understand on TV was sumo. Basically, you know, the rest of it was people running around, shouting at each other. I had no idea what was going on. And, like a lot of people, you see sumo at first, and you realise “hey, there is more to it than I thought, this is not just fat guys in diapers shoving each other around!”
And, so, yeah, I had an interest in it – a casual interest in it as a fan. And then, I guess like a lot of people, I went to a live tournament and was just hooked: the smell of the binzuke, and the rikishi walking in, this was just unlike any other sport I’ve ever been involved in. And then I became a bigger fan, and through various connections I got to see keiko and stuff like that, and built up some more connections. At that time, I was living in Osaka, and when I moved to Tokyo I’d been playing soccer. I was 60 kilos when I came to Japan, and my soccer career was coming to an end, I was looking for something to replace it, and I was thinking “sumo looks easy” – the insanity of that! I took it up, I moved to Ryogoku, I got in with a lot of the rikishi and stable-masters. I used to visit keiko every day because I lived right there, I’d see all the guys in the supermarket and stuff like that, so that became my world, the sumo world.
I have a background in media anyway, so it was kind of inevitable that I’d eventually start doing sumo stuff in the media. So, that’s it!
Tachiai: How did you transition into the media work that you do today?
JG: In Japan, who you know is very important. Introductions are very, very important. You know, “he’s a friend of ours, a friend of mine,” like you see in those mafia movies. Generally speaking, in the media world, they don’t advertise positions or openings in Japan, you get introduced through somebody else. I knew some people in the media world here, through my own background, and I’d done bits online, stuff like what Tachiai is doing, and various pieces for a French magazine. The Daily Yomiuri, as it was then, had a columnist that was leaving and he recommended me. They asked me, “can you write something for tomorrow morning?” It was a preview for a tournament.
JG: Yeah. It was a Friday, and they wanted it for the Saturday paper. They contacted me at noon and said “can you get this to us for 6pm?” A whole story, with quotes from rikishi! So, it was kind of a test I guess, but I have everyone on the phone so I just called up a lot of rikishi and said “give me comments! I’m writing a piece.”
And then I got them and I wrote it, and I guess they were really impressed that I could get original content. That’s a big thing for Yomiuri: they want original content, they want quotes. And I wrote for them for a few years and had a column and stuff like that. [With] NHK, same thing. They had someone leaving, and somebody there said they liked what I was doing, and they contacted me and asked me if I would come work for them.
I’ve never actually sent a resume, or applied for a job. Somebody knows you, and then there’s that first meeting, which is what I call the “psychopath barrier,” and before you get offered anything, you meet for coffees so they can see if they can actually work with you. That’s the thing in Japan. And then with a lot of companies in Japan, there’s no contracts, right? They say “do you want to come and work for us?” And you see the paycheck then and you go, “oh, ok!” (laughs)
And that’s the way it kind of works in Japan, in the media world. I did a podcast, and someone was asking me “how do you break into the media world in Japan?” I said, “whatever your thing is, whether it’s sumo or some other sport or anime or something like that, come here, and get involved in the world and build relationships and build connections. And you create work, good work. And if your work is good quality, you eventually get it.” It’s all about networking, and building relationships with people. If you can do good stuff, and you have the connections, you’ll get in. You can’t just send a résumé – it’s everything in Japan: getting introduced through somebody else, essentially.
Tachiai: A lot of Tachiai readers first became aware of your work through seeing you on NHK World’s Grand Sumo Previews – what does it mean to you to get to share what’s going on in sumo with fans all around the world? For a lot of people, your work, and things like that preview are the only things in the English speaking world that they see that describes what’s going on, on TV.
JG: The flippant answer is you get paid to give people your opinion, which is great (laughs). It’s the dream job! But, yeah it’s a good point, I hadn’t really thought about it before.
There’s a lot of misinformation, urban myths, there’s also people writing about sumo who don’t know anything about it – journalists and so on. Also, that mystique about Japan and Asia, there’s a lot of that surrounding sumo. A lot of people romanticise the view of what sumo is. So, getting a chance to correct those factual errors and give people a sense of what sumo is – especially young rikishi and people who want to join sumo – I obviously can’t reveal everything that’s going on inside the sumo world, but to give people a truer sense of what it is, that’s an invaluable thing.
Tachiai: For sure. With the increase in the popularity of the sport – obviously the last couple of months have been interesting – but if you look at the last couple of years, tournaments have been selling out, and it’s exciting. Do you think we’ll be able to see an expansion of coverage like that to the English language community?
JG: I can’t say what – but there are plans in place among certain media organisations in Japan to expand – greatly – the coverage of sumo in English.
For a long time, people in the media world in Japan didn’t realise the depth or breadth of sumo fandom across the world. They thought, “there’s a few fans.” But nowadays it’s easy to get the audience feedback and to see who and where and why and what age groups [are paying attention]. It’s much easier to see who your audience is nowadays than it was even 10 years ago. Analytics obviously is a huge thing, but they’re starting to realise how big their audience is, and I think for a lot of organisations, that’s a surprise. Even for those organisations that I work for, the people at the top have been stunned how popular the stuff they’ve been putting out is, and the fact that they do a story, or do a feature on sumo, and it’s the top rated thing on their entire channel or newspaper for that month. So, yeah – there’s going to be a lot more stuff.
Tachiai: Cool. Along those lines, recently you started Inside Sport Japan. Is there anything that you can tell us about that new venture?
JG: OK, so, I work in the media world, and it’s better than it was, but for a long, long time, there have been so many great stories that I wanted to tell, but there has been no outlet to tell them. Either they didn’t fit into a daily newspaper, or there wasn’t an outlet for the feature or the behind the scenes stories, so I’ve always felt that there have been a lot of really great stories that haven’t been told. And I wanted an outlet to tell these stories. So, I created a company basically, to do that. Obviously I want that company to be successful and to be the ESPN of Japan… obviously not a bankrupt ESPN, but a successful ESPN! A place where people can get information.
Sumo is kind of a niche sport, but sumo has a lot of people doing good work, people like yourselves. There’s a lot of people putting out content on sumo, same as baseball and soccer. But there are a lot of great stories. So, we focus on sports particularly that wouldn’t get a lot of English language coverage. Women’s sports, blind soccer. We try to shine a light on great athletes and sports that don’t get a lot of attention. That’s one thing.
There are a couple of streams with Inside Sport Japan. [Another] is that there are a lot of people who are doing good work in Japan who are not getting any attention. Like I said, the media world is kind of closed here. Your site has been really successful and has exploded in growth, but there are some people toiling away for 15-20 years putting out great stuff on baseball or futsal, different sports, but they have tiny audiences. They don’t market themselves, or they don’t know how to market themselves, they’re more just about creating content, and putting it out there. They’re missing that whole “selling” side of themselves. So to be an umbrella organisation for a lot of them was another thing: here’s the content. Then, we give it the audience. That was the second stream.
And the third reason for starting the company was to give people an “in” to the media, and to find new talent – new writers and photographers. That’s been a mixed kind of thing – we’ve got some really great people. Great photographers, people who have no connection to sport or the media world. We’ve trained them up or brought them in and shown them how to do it. I’m willing to give anyone a chance that wants to try it, because other people helped me when I was starting out. And it’s kind of like paying it back, you know? You get a lot of help when you’re young, so you want to help young talent come through.
Tachiai: We have a reader question from Devon P: Is there any conversation within the Kyokai about making sumo more accessible to fans outside the country, and to make it possible for those fans to benefit sumo financially? Such as: merchandise or offering paid streaming services outside Japan?
JG: Not really, no. You’ve got to realise that, even though I said there was a large audience outside of Japan, it’s still minute compared to what’s actually in Japan. The Sumo Association’s remit is to popularise sumo and to keep it popular inside of Japan. That’s the actual remit of the organisation. Their whole raison d’être is to keep sumo alive inside of Japan. So, if they do stuff for foreign fans like jungyo or putting stuff in English, it’s extra, it’s ancillary to what they do. It’s not their purpose.
The unfortunate side effect of sumo being so popular in Japan, is there’s no need of a foreign audience. So, a lot of the stuff that maybe 5 or 10 years ago was put in place, like when they started selling burgers and hot dogs and pizza and stuff in the Kokugikan, because of this “Westerners, that’s what they like,” image – a very cliched image… a lot of that stuff was put in place when sumo was at a low level of popularity, because in those days, foreigners buying tickets made up another audience. It didn’t take much to cater to that, and put stuff in English.
The Kyokai itself is not the monolithic entity that a lot of people think it is. It’s very split up and there’s a lot of individuals. People tend to think of the Kyokai as a solid entity that decides this and that… and it’s not like that. It all depends who has the power and there’s all kinds of schools of thought and people with their own agendas, so a lot of stuff doesn’t happen, because it’s not really organized like that. And there are a lot of people inside the Kyokai who would rather do less for foreigners, because tourists can be troublesome. You know, showing up without tickets, losing their tickets and showing up at the gate and demanding to be let in… that’s a thing that happens in Japan a lot. It may be an outdated model of thinking, but whenever anything bad happens, or anything happens with foreign tourists, it reinforces the mindset that people have. You know, “it’s just too much effort to deal with foreigners.” So, there’s also that kind of thinking.
Stay tuned for parts 2 and 3 of our chat, where we discuss rikishi, injuries and more!
It was a satisfying end to a really tremendous basho. Over the course of the last 15 days, we have all enjoyed some really tremendous sumo in a tournament that once again featured only a single Yokozuna. Since the start of the Asashoryu era, much of each basho revolved around the absolute dominance of a pair of dai-Yokozuna. Tournament coverage was almost bifurcated along who the dai-Yokozuna would crush today, and then the battle for the remaining scraps.
For the past year or so, we have seen the emphasis shift. We continue to see an evolution, a “changing of the guard” in some sense, within the ranks of sumo. Rikishi who have been mainstays of Makuuchi for years or decades are making way for cohorts of healthy, strong and eager sekitori, ready for their time in the spotlight. While we are going to miss our long-time favorites, this basho helped us come to realize that the future of sumo is bright, and the next generation is going to continue to impress.
Look for 2018 to continue this trend, with at least one more Yokozuna headed for intai, and at least one more rikishi taking up the Ozeki rank.
As always, Tachiai will be along for the ride. We can’t help ourselves – we love sumo.
Highlights From Day 15
Daiamami defeats Aoiyama – Fairly straightforward oshi battle, with Daiamami picking up his 8th win, and keeping himself in Makuuchi for March. Aoiyama did not look amazing, but then he really did not need to pour it on for this match.
Nishikigi defeats Kyokutaisei – Nishikigi never gave up, stuck with it and managed to get kachi-koshi. That being said, he’s probably going to find himself down in Juryo soon if he cannot bring his performance up at least one notch. Nishikigi was slow at the tachiai, and let Kyokutaisei dominate the match right up until the final moments when Nishikigi rallied and forced Kyokutaisei out.
Asanoyama defeats Takekaze – I have been wondering what is wrong with the Oguruma team. I would guess they are suffering from the flu. All of them have been limping through this basho, and look to be in poor health. Hopefully by the time March rolls around, their health will return. Asanoyama stood Takekaze up at the tachiai, rolled left and guided the veteran to the clay. There is some discussion on if Takekaze will remain in Makuuchi, but I would think he will.
Ishiura defeats Kotoyuki – A pair of matta as each tried to smoke the other out on their tachiai plans. Yes, it was a raging henka fest that Ishiura got the better of. Kind of an uninspiring win, but a win nevertheless. Kotoyuki is make-koshi, but safe in Makuuchi for now. Ishiura will get promoted, but I am not sure his sumo will support his remaining at higher ranks. Train-train-train little muscle man!
Abi defeats Shohozan – Matta from Shohozan prior to the start, but the actual tachiai resulted in a slap-fest similar to day 14’s Tochinoshin match. Abi switched to double arm thrusts and started moving Shohozan back, and managed to turn him around and get behind. From here Shohozan is in serious trouble, and now struggling to recover while Abi continues to press the attack. Shohozan recovered for just a moment, but then it was all Abi. Nice win from the new Maegashira. I look for some wonderful sumo from him for the rest of the year.
Kagayaki defeats Shodai – This should have been a “gimme” for Shodai, but once again his weak tachiai cost him the match. Kagayaki moved forward aggressively from the line, and came in solidly underneath Shodai, lifting him under the arms. Though Shodai was able to counter and thrust Kagayaki back, Shodai’s feet were crooked, his hips high, and his lower body off balance. Kagayaki grappleds and marched Shodai out. This kind of match helps me think that Kagayaki has tremendous potential. His instincts are solid, and he does not hesitate to exploit even the smallest opening. Shodai needs more work.
Tochinoshin defeats Endo – This match was really all about Endo. Tochinoshin already had the yusho, but Endo needed to “win up” to stake a solid claim for the last remaining san’yaku slot. But Tochinoshin is genki enough for an entire heya, and although Endo gave him a good match, there was no stopping Tochinoshin. Endo has a great tachiai, coming in low and under Tochinoshin, who immediately grabs a hold of Endo’s arms and marches forward. Endo stops the charge at the tawara and nearly rolls Tochinoshin into a throw. Try as he might, Tochinoshin cannot land a solid grip on Endo, whose impressive flexibility and agility stymie the yusho winner time and again. Tochinoshin takes Endo to the edge again, and again Endo loads a throw that Tochinoshin backs away from. That final move puts Endo off balance, and sees him shoved out. Fantastic match from both men, very good sumo.
Chiyotairyu defeats Daieisho – Chiyotairyu gets his 8th win, against a much lower ranked opponent. This was a standard oshi match that was all Chiyotairyu (as it should have been). We will see Chiyotairyu at the top of the Maegashira ranks in March.
Takarafuji defeats Kotoshogiku – The day’s Darwin match. Winner advances, loser declines. This was actually a really solid match, with great sumo from both men. I had kind of wanted to see Kotoshogiku pick up kachi-koshi, but it seems the old Kyushu bulldozer is still on his way out to pasture. Takarafuji got a solid left hand inside grip early and kept Kotoshogiku bottled up. His first attempt to yorikiri Kotoshogiku was solidly beaten back, much to everyone’s delight. From there Kotoshogiku attempted to start the hug-n-chug assault, but sadly he can no longer generate the forward pressure due to his failing knees. Takarafuji turned him around at the tawara and took the win.
Ichinojo defeats Kaisei – If you want jumbo sized sumo, this match really packed the pounds. There was close to 1,000 pounds (yes, half a ton!) of rikishi fighting it out for one little shiroboshi. The fight was all Ichinojo: he got Kaisei sideways early and escorted him out. Huge, unbelievable turn around in Ichinojo the last two tournaments. This massive Mongolian has the potential to be a force within the san’yaku as long as he can stay healthy.
Arawashi defeats Takakeisho – Two real stories here, Arawashi was able to pick up kachi-koshi in spite of his debilitating knee injuries, and the mighty tadpole Takakeisho had a dud of a tournament. Takakeisho – he will be back, more fierce and determined than ever. This young rikishi is not ever going to settle for defeat, and I predict he will be invigorated by this deep make-koshi and the resulting demotion. Arawashi’s problems will probably require medical intervention, but as we have seen, the Kyokai and the Heyas don’t seem inclined to perform medical maintenance on their kanban rikishi. Kind of sick when I put it that way.
Takayasu defeats Mitakeumi – Takayasu storms into a strong jun-yusho closer. This match is worth a watch in slow motion. Takayasu starts with the now habitual shoulder blast that leaves him on one foot and high. Mitakeumi is braced on his left foot and marching forward. Suddenly the Ozeki has had the tables turned, and his wild bull tachiai has left him open and vulnerable. Mitakeumi is thrusting strongly against the Ozeki’s chest, and it’s moving him backward. Takayasu tries to pull but fails. They go chest to chest, and Mitakeumi channels the kami of Kotoshogiku’s mawashi and starts gaburi-yori. Takayasu is moving backward, and in real trouble. At the tawara, he suddenly remembers his “real” sumo, and switches modes into the Takayasu of 2016 – right hand outside grip, he lowers his hips and marches. Mitakeumi is now moving backward, and in deep trouble. Watch the Ozeki’s feet as he attacks. Low to the ground, each step just grazing the surface of the Sotho, his hips down, his shoulders forward. THIS is Takayasu sumo. Thank you, oh Great Sumo Cat of the Kokugikan, for bringing him back, even for a moment. Mitakeumi stops the surge for just a moment by planting his left foot. Takayasu, now back in his old, amazing mode, senses the weight shift and helps Mitakeumi follow through by rolling him to his left and down to the clay. Wonderful, wonderful match.
Kakuryu defeats Goeido – Please note that Kakuryu created almost no forward pressure in this win, and instead used Goeido’s reliable cannon-ball tachiai to power his exit. I continue to maintain that Kakuryu re-injured himself, and that is why we had a sudden cold snap from the sole remaining Yokozuna. Hopefully, with this senshuraku win, Kakuryu can keep the critics quiet for a few months. Way to survive, Big-K.
That’s it for Hatsu – what a great tournament it’s been. Thank you, dear readers, for spending your time with us. We dearly appreciate all of you and hope you will be with us in the lead up to March’s Osaka tournament.