Sokokurai Danpatsushiki

Yesterday, it was Kotoshogiku. Today, Sokokurai had his danpatsushiki. He also retired back in 2020 but has already made a very quick, successful transition into running his own stable. Arashio-oyakata has ushered the younger Onami brothers, Wakatakakage and Wakamotoharu, into the top of Makuuchi. Josh recently wrote about his success in more depth, here.

Sokokurai Prepares for His Bout

This is quite the transition since he had to lawyer up and fight just for the right to continue his career. He’d been caught up, wrongfully, in the match-fixing scandal and banned from the sport in 2011. While that all worked its way to a decision, he sat out of the sport for more than two years, staying in shape the whole time. When he won in 2013, he didn’t get to ease his way back in from Jonokuchi…they threw him back in with the wolves of Makuuchi, giving him the rank he had earned back in 2011.

Their success featured highly in the retirement ceremony with a bout between the brothers — something we won’t see in a tournament unless they’re somehow both vying for the title in a playoff. Wouldn’t that be exciting?!?!

He’s setting up a real family operation with his nephew and the Tanji brothers joining the Onami brothers. We’ve seen several other stables pick up brothers as recruits, like Gaia and Byakuen at Tatsunami-beya and I wonder if it’s a growing trend in order to increase recruitment.

Kotoshogiku Danpatsushiki

Hidenoyama-oyakata and his family

Kokugikan hosted the retirement ceremony for Ozeki Kotoshogiku on Saturday. His 18-year career started in maezumo back in 2002, along-side his buddy and high school sumo rival, Toyonoshima. (Toyonoshima actually claimed the Jonokuchi title in their debut, with a win over Kotoshogiku along the way. Toyonoshima then beat Kotoshogiku in the Jonidan playoff to earn that yusho.) His career as an active wrestler came to an end near his Fukuoka hometown in November 2020. But his career as a coach has just begun, using the name Hidenoyama-oyakata.

We can blame the pandemic for the nearly two-year delay in getting his haircut, so newer Tachiai readers may not have seen Kotoshogiku compete at all, much less during his prime. On the dohyo, he was known for his sujo-pleasing “gabburi-yori,” hip-thrusting technique. What it boiled down to was this: he’d wrap his opponent up, ideally with a firm belt grip but sometimes just a big ole bear hug, and use those massive thighs to basically hop his opponent out of the ring. He also had a signature component of his pre-bout ritual where he would do this deep back-bend, the Kiku-Bauer (菊バウアー), his version of the イナバウアー.

(There was a famous German figure skater named Ina Bauer-Szenes who was known for deep back bends in the late 1950s. Her signature move, the “Ina Bauer”, was adopted and popularized by Japanese Olympian, Arakawa Shizuka in the early 2000s.)

The Chrysanthemum, featured here on his kesho mawashi, is a motif tied closely to Kotoshogiku because it comes from his surname, Kitutsugi (菊次) . The kanji character, 菊, is the character for Chrysanthemum and is pronounced either Kiku or Giku. It resonates with Japanese because of the symbolism of the Kiku and its ties to the Emperor. The Chrysanthemum Throne refers to the Japanese monarchy. Those learning Japanese will be familiar with how sometimes pronunciation changes, often to make it a bit easier to say, so Kiku becomes Giku. Try to say “Kotoshokiku” three times fast and you’ll see it’s just a bit easier to say, “Kotoshogiku.”

The Ozeki

In a testament to his longevity, his Ozeki run actually dates way back in 2011 as sumo returned to action after the match-fixing scandal forced the cancellation of the Osaka tournament and the calamitous Tohoku earthquake. That May, Hakuho was the lone Yokozuna while the Ozeki ranks were full with the likes of Kaio, Kotooshu, Baruto, and Harumafuji. Three tournaments and thirty-three wins later, Kotoshogiku debuted as Ozeki in front of his home-crowd in Fukuoka in November 2011. Kisenosato was promoted to Ozeki at the next tournament, and the two rivals would fight it out as fellow Ozeki for the next six years, until Kisenosato was promoted to Yokozuna and Kotoshogiku was demoted to Sekiwake.

I would be remiss not to mention his demotion and the grudge some sumo fans hold toward Terunofuji because of it. At the Haru-basho of 2017, he had already been demoted to Sekiwake after a terrible 5-10 showing in January. With five losses and three days remaining in the tournament, Kotoshogiku had to win out in order to reclaim his Ozeki rank. On Day 14, Kotoshogiku faced Terunofuji. The henka resulted in Kotoshogiku’s sixth loss making the demotion permanent.

Kotoshogiku continued to fight for nearly four years as a rank-and-file wrestler. There were some hopes that Toyonoshima, then down in Makushita and fighting to regain a slot in Juryo, might be able to rise high enough back into Makuuchi for the two rivals to fight again. But it was not to be. Toyonoshima was demoted back into Makushita in early 2020 and retired early in the pandemic, his last competitive bout during the Silent Basho. Kotoshogiku stayed until November when he closed out his career back in Kyushu.

The Delayed Retirement

A retiring Ozeki deserves a party. So Kotoshogiku waited until he could throw a proper party at Kokugikan. That means jinku singing, hanazumo, and hair-dressing demonstrations. It’s helpful to be a part of a storied stable like Sadogatake where there are three Makuuchi wrestlers so that no matter where you were in the audience, you got a pretty good view. Each of them also did their own versions of the Kiku-Bauer backbend as tribute to Kotoshogiku.

The Kotoshogiku flags were out, the crowds were packed to the rafters, and various momentos of his career were out on display.

The retirement ceremony also featured a host of his old friends and rivals taking turns cutting his hair, including Toyonoshima, Kisenosato, Hakuho, and yes…Vader (aka Terunofuji). [Vader’s helmet was supposed to evoke a Japanese kabuto and I think of it every time I see Terunofuji’s oicho-mage.] His sons faced him on the dohyo for his final bout. His home Sadogatake beya also featured an 8-way round robin among their Sandanme and Makushita wrestlers, won by Kotohaguro. Up-and-comer Kototebakari lost to Kotohaguro in the first round.

I was glad to see a fitting tribute to Kotoshogiku’s great career. There’s quite a lot of coaches there at Sadogatake, with a couple of high-rankers, so I am curious if he will be able to wait to inherit the stable or whether he will have to branch out on his own, sooner. If anyone has any insight into the the future of Hidenoyama, please drop some knowledge in the comments. Tomorrow, we will see another retirement ceremony, this time for Sokokurai.

Learn About Sumo With Konishiki and Naro.tv

Just as we gather ourselves together here to watch the Aki Basho, Konishiki offers up great content in the form of an introductory course on all things sumo, available from Tuesday morning Japan-time, so 7:30pm Eastern on Monday evening. A Tokyo-based startup, Naro, offers these courses on features of Japanese culture and cuisine, provided by experts in their craft. Their debut series this summer was a Tempura course featuring Shuji Niitome.  For the sumo fans among us, Konishiki’s video provides an awesome way to demystify the sport. Tachiai was lucky enough to take a quick look, and the folks at Naro.tv are offering Tachiai readers a special 15% discount code: TACHIAI15.

The two hours of content is like a documentary broken up into individual, digestible chunks. With the help of three former wrestlers to help demonstrate, Konishiki covers a variety of the warm-ups and excercises, from shiko to the teppo pole and suri-ashi. His insight here gave me more of an appreciation for the rhythmic, meditative side to the teppo pole that I wouldn’t have grasped, otherwise. Having had a heavy bag in my room after college, I could see myself taking a few hours to decompress in the corner of the keiko-ba — venting at the teppo pole.

The videos provide a great look at some of the basic moves and techniques, as well as a frank, eye-opening discussion of the heya lifestyle from the lens of an 18-year-old kid who rose to become a Champion. Over the span of the videos, Konishiki opens up about his experiences and the difficult lifestyle that any young man faces in that environment. It should be required watching for any of us romantics who dream (or dreamt) of giving it all up and joining a heya. The reality of it is the grind — endless laundry, cooking, cleaning toilets and floors, helping your senpai shower —  with no breaks, no “weekend”. The Heya Life is lived 24/7, drama or no drama.

While there have definitely been some changes to that lifestyle in the last two decades, so much of it surely remains. His experience will be just as relevant to a recruit today, though the degree of the drama he describes will be less now, than it was then. But any recruit will have to face the fact that they’re going to live in a dorm with a bunch of teenage boys and young men. For those not fluent in Japanese or familiar with the culture, the learning curve will be…parabolic. One requires a singular dedication to not only the sport but a brutal, communal livelihood.

Overall, I found Konishiki’s auto-biographical discussion fascinating. Content-wise, it’s a suitable, engaging introduction to the sport, a “Sumo 101” course. It acknowledges but gets us past the “fat guys in diapers” stereotypes and imparts an understanding and respect for what’s really more than just a sport — an entire way of living. I hope there will be more in the works, perhaps with rikishi from multiple time-periods to see how things have evolved, as well as more specifics on the Shinto traditions and symbolism; or a deeper dive into the various roles from gyoji, yobidashi, and tokoyama to okami to oyakata. Then there’s the organization itself, from riji-cho on down. As for sumo, we’d love more from keiko and honbasho to jungyo and hanazumo, I could go on. Sumo’s a complex topic.

The Unpredictable Wizardry of Arashio

Arashio-oyakata (former Maegashira Sokokurai) promotes his upcoming intai-zumo event. Photo credit: Nihon Sumo Kyokai

Many rikishi are unable to craft a second act in sumo that’s as good as their first. That’s normal: the requirements to become an oyakata are such that you either need to create a career of some achievement, or just hang around long enough to have done your time in the dohyo and you’re then entitled to extend your career in the sport out of it.

In the former camp, there are plenty of oyakata who will have raised dozens of deshi over the course of their decades in the sport, never to see one come close to their own achievements. In recent years, former Yokozuna like Onokuni and Musashimaru come to mind, along with Ozeki like Chiyotaikai or Kirishima. Even the riji-cho, former Hokutoumi, who has raised plenty of top division talent, has yet to develop someone to even come close to his own achievements in the ring, as he nears the mandatory retirement age. Guys like the former Asahifuji (Isegahama oyakata) are rare: a champion who has raised (multiple) champions.

And on the flip side of the coin you have the long time coaches whose own careers didn’t amount to much beyond their longevity, but who have scouted and developed talent that has surpassed their own ability on the clay. The former Oginohana had a 44% winning record in the top division, never going higher than Maegashira 2, and he’s developed 3 time champion Ozeki Mitakeumi. Like his brother Terao, the former Sakahoko had a stellar top division career but never won a Yusho or made the top 2 ranks, and while the storied heya bearing the Izutsu name was more barren in later years, he still produced Yokozuna Kakuryu. Most famously of course, the former Chikubayama, veteran of a mere 2 tournaments in the top division, gave us the gift of record setting dai-Yokozuna Hakuho.

Over recent weeks, months and years, as many of our longtime favourites in the previous generation have gradually retired, our thoughts have turned to the question of “what kind of oyakata will they be?” Most people who read this site and some people who write on this site will be experiencing their first mass turnover of rikishi we have watched for years, as they become those blue-jacketed security guys we see next to the hanamichi when a rikishi is preparing himself for battle.

So the conversation has been: “wow, Hakuho has really recruited a lot of guys already,” or “Kisenosato is building an incredible new heya,” or “what’s going to happen with Takekaze’s new place now that he had Yoshikaze have split the rikishi from Oguruma beya” or “Goeido’s just branched out and already has a sekitori.”

But there was one guy that no one really talked about when he became an elder, and that’s ex-Maegashira 2 Sokokurai, who is now Arashio oyakata.

Arashio beya is a unique place. The previous oyakata, former Komusubi Oyutaka, coached for 15 years before branching out to open his own spot, and had a short and totally unremarkable sekitori career of his own. The heya became notable in later years among sumo fans for two things: 

If you have ever tried to visit a heya (in the before times), you’ll know that it’s not terribly difficult with the right connections, but that also a strict set of guidelines will apply for your visit. At Arashio beya, fans could simply walk right up on the street and peer in the giant window outside to watch morning keiko. The stable’s rikishi were known for being friendly with tourists and willing to snap a photo at the end of practise. It appears that after a stoppage to this practise during the pandemic, viewers may once again peep through the window to get a real live look at asageiko.

The other curiosity of this stable was the rise to prominence of its two cats, Moru and Mugi. During the days when rikishi were more able to share their lifestyle via social media, it offered sumo lovers and animal lovers a glimpse into the lifestyle where the stable’s rikishi cared for these two creatures. A coffee table book exists where fans can learn more. 

Oyutaka only ever produced Sokokurai as a sekitori over the 18 years he spent running the place, until Wakatakakage made it to Juryo just before he retired. Wakatakakage was always a talent of immense potential ever since his arrival on the scene, and is someone we’ve followed since his Sandanme tsukedashi debut. A skilled technician and incredibly athletic rikishi, it has been clear for some time that as long as his dedication and mental attributes were tuned to top level sumo, he could have a very high ceiling. This of course paid off in one way earlier this year as the now-Sekiwake clinched his first Emperor’s Cup.

It’s impossible to say whether Wakatakakage’s triumph was inevitable, but it is clear that since Sōkokurai took over the Arashio name, his coaching methods have translated to stark improvements in development across the heya. Both of Wakatakakage’s brothers had been languishing in Makushita, and Wakamotoharu has made a rapid ascent not only into the salaried ranks but all the way to the joi-jin, where he’s claimed an Ozeki scalp and taken the Yokozuna to the brink of a shocking kinboshi. He looks to be someone who can at least consolidate his place in the top division over the next couple of years, and certainly finish his career with the 30 sekitori basho needed to qualify for elder status himself.

The Onami family has some pedigree, with the three of Arashio’s Fukushima-hailing siblings descended from a grandfather who also plied his trade in Ozumo. But despite the lack of progress made by Makushita longtimer and eldest brother Wakatakamoto, the new Arashio-oyakata’s achievements don’t stop there.

Viewers of Makushita over the past several years will be familiar with Kotokuzan, the Filipino-Japanese rikishi who is surely sumo’s only Jasper. Kotokuzan (pronounced Ko-toku-zan, not “koto” like a Sadogatake beya rikishi) had struggled to make his way through sumo’s third highest division for nearly seven full years from his division debut until finally making the breakthrough to Juryo late last year. Kotokuzan is a pusher-thruster and possesses a very different style both to the other successful rikishi in his heya as well as how his shisho performed his own style of sumo (as a skilled yotsuzumo-technician) while he was active, and it’s perhaps most surprising of all that in his second bite at Juryo (after a quick demotion in mid-2021), he stormed his way into the top division.

Kotokuzan only has fought two tournaments as a Maegashira, both unsuccessfully and both looking somewhat overmatched, but at 28 still very much has time to solidify his place as a sekitori and go again. It wouldn’t be beyond the realms of possibility to see him settle into an Azumaryu or Daishōmaru style role in playing out most of his remaining career in Juryo, putting it together once in a while for a fleeting crack at the top division. It bears reminding that for a rikishi who didn’t seem to really look like he’d make the breakthrough to Juryo as of 3 or 4 years ago, that’s quite an achievement in itself. The success of Kotokuzan in recent years is perhaps the most indicative of Arashio’s ability to coax performances from his top talent, as other serial sekitori-impresarios like Kise, Oitekaze and, until recently, Oguruma-oyakata have shown the ability to get rikishi to the promised land with a wide variety of fighting styles.

While Arashio has never been a large stable, and very infrequently added new recruits, the new shisho has started to bring in his own deshi now that he’s got his feet firmly under the table. Famously sumo’s only Chinese rikishi for a period, and one who wasn’t short of opinions about the fate of his beloved Inner Mongolia region, it’s no surprise that his first foreign recruit hails from his own shusshin. Daiseizan has moved quickly to the top of the Sandanme division following three consecutive 6-1 tournaments, and that fortuitous banzuke placement this time out will give him a chance to make an auspicious debut in Makushita with a good score in the upcoming Aki basho.

16 year old Tanji has started his career with identical scores from his first two basho, and Jonidan pair Dairinzan and Sonoshun (18 and 19 respectively) may be intriguing prospects over the long term, with the latter the first rikishi to inherit his the prefix of his stablemaster’s shikona into his own ring name. We are in a period where other oyakata such as Nishonoseki, Naruto, Miyagino and others have been making waves for the sheer volume (and often quality) of their recruits putting their celebrity drawing power to good use, but it’s possible that the slightly more pinpoint recruitment strategy of the former Sokokurai will pay dividends for the heya when allied to his apparent coaching ability. And he seems more than willing to talk about his work, as evidenced by a series of appearances on NHK’s sumo content throughout the pandemic, showing how, as a new head of a stable, he was attempting to adapt his new home to the challenges presented by the unpredictable nature of COVID-19 in the sumo world.

Nishonoseki (former Kisenosato) has certainly positioned himself as a leader of the future by way of his remarkable rethink of what a heya should be, his political manoeuvring and what appears to be an interesting (if slightly voluminous) batch of early recruits. Miyagino (former Hakuho)’s pulling power and talent development has already made an impact on the top two divisions and had long before he hung up the mawashi himself. What Arashio is showing us is that there it doesn’t take a headline name to be an above average developer of talent, and that he does so in such a media- and fan-friendly environment is a welcome breath of fresh air in the sumo world.