Kotoyuki: One for the Fans

In an era where sumo commentary frequently makes reference of those rikishi who stay in the sport past their expiration date, some eyebrows were raised this week at the news that Kotoyuki had retired at the age of just 30.

Of course, anyone who’s seen the Sadogatake man on the dohyo over the past few years would find it hard pressed to dispute that perhaps he might struggle to regain the kind of form that would make him competitive even at sumo’s second highest division, never mind return to the top division as a makuuchi regular. Newer fans will need reminding that this was a man who will retire with a san’yaku rank as his career high.

And yet in light of the heroics of Terunofuji, and mid to late 30s comebacks from the likes of Aminishiki, Toyonoshima, Akiseyama and so on… it does feel a bit underwhelming to see the man from Shodoshima take his leave. Maybe this is in no small part owing to his status as somewhat of a non-traditional fan favourite.

If you looked around Kokugikan – back in the days when it would be full of sumo fans – Kotoyuki isn’t a name that you would see flying on cheer towels, at least not in recent years. But here’s a guy who was a fixture in the torikumi. In the beginning, he was notable for his “hoot” and clap, his method of psyching himself up for matches. It marked him out as perhaps someone in a line of sumo eccentrics, somewhere in between Takamisakari’s Robocop antics and Takayasu’s now-retired gorilla grunt in the Audio division (similar lineage of course existing within the Sodium Conference from Mitoizumi through Kitazakura and now Terutsuyoshi). Cheers to YouTube’s “Sumotori” channel for this edit:

Afterwards, he switched to his “helicopter” manoeuvre before matches which, as noted by venerable sumo laureate Kintamayama when we spoke on these pages, never really got the fans going in the same way.

Of course, on the dohyo in these later stages he also became a bit of a figure of fun, his absurdly serious demeanour in the pre-match pageantry giving way to this oversized bowling ball normally taking out several rows of poor civilian onlookers, tanimachi, shimpan and anything else in its way as he usually careened off the dohyo – winning or losing, though in later years more of the latter – at pace.

It’s also worth noting that in terms of his sumo form, Kotoyuki was, in his day, an oshi-zumo force, with an incredible amount of power generated in a pushing/thrusting attack from a body type that while optimal for that type of sumo, of course also perhaps contributed to his career’s early end. But what fun he was when he got going – we laud the technicians and tacticians of sumo on these pages, but he was at his best an all out attacking force.

He retires, per SumoDB, with a career record of 480-430-70. Record wise, his undoubted pinnacle would have been five years ago in Osaka, a tournament where he ran riot over the joi-jin and in an era where his 12-3 performance at Maegashira 1 sadly wasn’t even good enough for the jun-yusho (those were the days!). He snatched his only career kinboshi from the Yokozuna Harumafuji in that tournament:

I probably came around to Kotoyuki when I was last able to attend the Haru basho in Osaka. Keen fans will know that rikishi must pass right through the fans in the hallways of the Edion Arena as they make their way to and from the shitakubeya. I camped out in the dark recesses of the venue, attempting to get any usable photos of rikishi that we could use on this site – most of which were pretty terrible as the sekitori exited the venue with haste after their bouts. Kotoyuki, however, marked himself out as someone with a soft spot and a heart for the fans. He took his time to graciously meet children, sign autographs and speak at length with supporters on his way out of the building. Perhaps Osaka was somewhat of a “home” basho for him, being nearest his shusshin, and I don’t know if he approached fans at other tournaments with the same warmth, but it was notable in a sport that is known for its stoicism that he made time for those who came to support and cheer for him.

All in all, it is not an exaggeration to say that the highest (and sometimes even the lowest) moments of his time in service to the sport were to the great benefit and enjoyment of the fans.

What’s next? For now, he’s taken Okinoumi’s Kimigahama myoseki on loan, one of several hot seats on the kabu market as he settles into oyakata life. Hopefully over the coming months or years, sumo’s youngest elder – and first oyakata born in the 1990s – will find a name to make his own. 

As he enters the first of potentially 34-plus years as an oyakata, we can and should hope that he passes some of that same fun, that ability to entertain, and most of all that same reverence for the fanbase to those who will follow under his tutelage.

Yokozuna Kakuryu announces retirement

The Yokozuna has informed the NSK of his resolution to retire. The matter will be discussed in a board meeting, but it is a done deal – he will become Kakuryu oyakata, taking advantage of the Yokozuna privilege of staying up to 5 years as an elder using his ring name.

We wish Kakuryu a fruitful career as an elder, and thank him for his long career and clever sumo.

Rethinking the Heya Power Rankings

It’s been a bit since we published the heya power rankings.

This feature started off several years ago when I – and others! – were interested in the idea of ranking the performance of a stable.

Now, to be clear, this concept is not central to the idea of sumo at all. Heya do not compete with each other. Nor do they probably want to be told they are better or worse than another stable: they all have their own mostly distinct cultures, histories, chanko recipes, traditions, personalities, etc. While I also wanted to see performance of the various ichimon (the groups of stables organised largely for administrative and also historical purposes with many cross-stable relationships, training partnerships and links among oyakata and elder names), the idea was that perhaps training partnerships could show a correlation of performance over time and a rise in performance of associated stables under certain leadership.

It’s kind of an interesting concept, but I think the presentation was a bit ham fisted and while it was a good thought exercise, I’m sure there were plenty of number crunching people dwelling in the dark recesses of the sweat stain encrusted corners of the mawashi that is global sumo internet fandom slamming their faces into keyboards at the idea of measuring this kind of thing based off sekitori kachi koshi and various prizes.

Admittedly, when you follow the sport more on a personal level and also over a longer period of time you start to understand nuances that appear: Scouting partnerships, relationships, connections to the amateur world, details of the specific oyakata and so on.

For me the most problematic thing, if you look at the old model, is how we would have handled a stable like Michinoku: having a yokozuna and a high ranking maegashira, it would have scored high in 2020. But the reality is that the perma-kyujo yokozuna was transferred there against his interest, and apart from Kiribayama, almost everyone the stable has put into the salaried ranks over 20+ years have been inherited from other stables (and number of those guys were even bounced in the yaocho scandal, truncating their sumo careers significantly). So our old model would have given very inaccurate portrayals of a stable like that, and its development relative to the rest of the sumo world.

The series also spilled a lot of words on these pages about the supposed “fall” of Isegahama beya, as our model showed its numbers going ever lower, to the depths of some stables like (for example) Isenoumi. Again this is a misrepresentation. While Harumafuji’s retirement, Terunofuji’s injury driven fall out of the top ranks and Aminishiki’s intai certainly impacted the stable’s impression on the sport in the short term, this model did not take into account the incredible stream of talent coming up toward the top two divisions while this was occurring. Nishikifuji and Midorifuji have since impacted the top two divisions while Terutsuyoshi has turned himself into a makuuchi regular and even handed his stablemate Terunofuji an assist in his improbable yusho on his makuuchi comeback. This all while Takarafuji continues to be a solid fixture at the business end of the top division. There’s more that happened there in the fallow period following Harumafuji’s retirement than has happened in the total of Michinoku-beya’s 22 years, but our model won’t have seen it that way.

So the question is: how to measure the success of a heya on an ongoing basis? Is it a body of work that can only be measured when an oyakata retires, like a ramen chef who has spent a lifetime perfecting the craft? Or is it fair that like a baseball farm system, we can identify, analyse and grade new recruits and their potential impact on the top end of the sport? Similarly, while the banzuke shifts largely on numbers alone (apart from some strange whims of a group of old men and the interference of a pandemic), the performance and projection of recruits needs context: a 7-0 in Jonokuchi is more impressive from a fresh 17 year old than it is from a 23-year old with university sumo pedigree. Numbers might be able to project a sekitori (as some folks on the Sumo Forum exhibited years ago), but the eye test and other factors are probably required to determine the quality that can lead to improved performance across the board.

I think the answer is somewhere in the middle. But unlike those who find it a pointless exercise, I do think there is value in doing the analysis. There just needs to be a better way. I’d love to hear some thoughts from the community. To what extent should data factor into this? Should we be taking more advantage of Andy’s data visualisation tools (trick question, the answer is yes)? Should it contain large amounts of subjectivity from experts with potentially differing opinions, like farm team rankings? Let us know what you think.

Freshman Wins Amateur Title

“I came to win. I came to win, and I won.”

Hanada Hidetora

The Japan Sumo Federation, not to be confused with the Japanese Sumo Association which governs professional sumo, hosted its 69th Annual All-Japan Sumo Championship. Hanada Hidetora took the yusho. Nitaidai has been a powerhouse, winning the yusho back in October. I think Hanada is the one holding the yusho pennant/banner in the picture in that article. But just to show how tight these competitions are, Yersin Baltagul did not make it to the final eight — and four of the eight were from Nitaidai, including Nakamura, who won last year’s university title. This elimination format is very different from the fortnight of fun we’re used to.

Young Hanada, no apparent relation to the infamous Hanada clan, hails from Wakayama Prefecture. In another coincidence, the last Freshman to win this sumo title was Kushima Keita (ex-Kushimaumi) who also came from Wakayama. However, Kushima was actually a repeat champion since he also won the title as a high school senior.

Above is the bracket for the final eight, elimination phase of the tournament. After beating Hadeyama from Toyo University, he faced off against his teammate, Matsuzono in the first bout below. Matsuzono had previously defeated Yersin Baltagul in the Sweet Sixteen. Hanada drove Matsuzono back to the bales, then pulled for the hikiotoshi win.

In the finals, the second clip from the embed below, Hanada beat Kinki University’s Yamaguchi. It seems like it was a mistake for Yamaguchi to try to go for the headlock. This meant Yamaguchi was too high and turned around, so Hanada drove straight through and pushed Yamaguchi off the dohyo.

I really encourage all sumo fans to try to learn some Japanese. Start off with the hiragana and katakana but definitely pick up some kanji as well. Give yourself a month to get that and you’ll find that a bit helpful when you’re watching sumo. For the next level, you’ll want to pick up vocabulary and some of the first kanji you’ll learn is 来る, to come, and 勝つ, to win. If you are diving into the grammar so you can try to really master it and read Japanese news articles, I found a part of the interview with Hanada very instructive on how to use ために.

The young man also contained his emotions when he won and did not celebrate. In Japan, they call such celebratory displays a “guts pose”. ガッツポーズ. I told you that katakana knowledge could be useful! He commented that Yokozuna and Ozeki do not do it, so he felt he should be able to contain his emotions, as well. Good job, and good luck next year!

*Note: For those who tried but quit trying to learn Japanese, I totally understand. Just when you think you’re getting the hang of it, you get a curve ball that makes you question what you’re doing with your life. You’re thinking, “Oh, that one’s easy. I recognize the name 山内. They just put a 小 in front of it, so it’s got to be Koyamauchi, right?”

Bahahahahaha! No, you fool! It’s Osanai!