A Sumo Fan Decides Which Stable to Join – Part 1

One of the most important but least seen aspects of sumo life is, well… your day to day life. It has been said that the daily activity, the keiko, the act of being a rikishi is what sumo is all about. The tournaments we see on television, on the internet or in person are simply the culmination of all of the processes, traditions and daily activities one must endure.

There can be a number of reasons why a new recruit joins a particular stable. Perhaps the stable master has a strong scouting network in his hometown, or there are links with the stable’s supporters group. Perhaps he was invited to spend time in the heya and loved it, went to the same school as the shisho, or simply idolised the stable master or had mutual friends with someone connected to the heya. Perhaps, as with Hokuseiho, the recruit had a chance meeting with the stable’s superstar rikishi in an airport. 

Let’s assume we have none of these personal connections, and decide to join a stable. Which one to join? In light of recent announcements heralding the future branch-outs of new stables from relatively recent top division names like Kisenosato and Takekaze, there’s much to be excited about in terms of the shifting landscape of sumo stables. Both of those guys have shared new ideas for their evolution of the place for which sumo’s lifestyle revolves – joining other recently minted oyakata such as former Kotooshu in attempting to push the sport forward. Of course, plenty of other stable masters have experienced incredible success with age old coaching methods or just good old-fashioned man management.

Our rikishi will be for all intents and purposes of average build and good (better than average but perhaps not superstar) ability. We can say they will be a little more technique driven than simply a pure pusher-thruster who relies on blunt strength and physicality. It will be someone for whom development will be required rather than being able to simply bulldoze the bottom four divisions and brute force their way to sekitori-hood. Like the author, this rikishi will be very handsome and surely will attract some of Endo’s brand sponsors should they ever make the top division. This is of course my analysis and these are my opinions, and yours may differ, and that’s okay. But if there were no subjectivity in sports, they probably would not be as interesting and we’d all have the same favourite teams.

With that preamble out of the way, we’ll start today with the smallest ichimon, Takasago, and work our way through the other four over the next few weeks before doing a deeper dive and settling on a final decision. Come with me on my journey!

Part 1 – Takasago Ichimon

Hakkaku: This stable is enormous (growing yet larger with the import of Azumazeki’s crew) and has quite a bit of upwardly mobile young talent. The influential and inspiring stable master – the current chairman of the kyokai – was a yokozuna, the coaching staff now includes the exciting former “Robocop” Takamisakari**, and in a few years, you probably report to Okinoumi, one of the more underrated technicians of the current time. While you’re probably starting your career scrapping for sleeping space with a large number of lower-rankers, the location of the stable in Ryogoku is also really good, about as good as it’s possible to get without waking up to the sounds of the JR line. There are no long commutes to Kokugikan from here. Verdict: On the shortlist.

Kokonoe: Chiyotaikai took over from an all-time legend in Chiyonofuji about five years ago, and has done well to develop many rikishi he inherited into mid-level sekitori. Additionally, various rehabilitative efforts have kept that impressive number of sekitori on the dohyo, or returned them to the salaried ranks after they’ve dropped out. Kokonoe-oyakata is a visible presence within the kyokai, but for all of the recruits he’s brought in, he hasn’t added a ton of quality since he took over a few years back. So when you see a stable of this size, you wonder whether the recruitment efforts are in service of a tsukebito factory. Verdict: This shikona won’t be joining the thousand generations of “Chiyos” – it’s going to have to be a pass.

Nishikido: An apparently dying stable with plenty of scandal in its history. It’s a hard pass.

Takasago: There’s some degree of uncertainty, following the retirement (and re-employement as consultant) of the former high-achieving shisho, who apparently still lives in the heya. The roster is a bit bottom heavy, but contains some inspiring talent to practise with (the soon to depart Ozeki, plus names like Murata, Asagyokusei and Terasawa), and the recent recruiting (Fukai, Osanai, Ishizaki) has been interesting. But it’s tough to go where you’re not sure what the future holds, especially with some degree of punishment awaiting the new oyakata for the Asanoyama scandal. Verdict: A reluctant pass.

** Azumazeki-beya would have been an intriguing option due to the legacy and heritage, but Robocop, lacking the support needed to run a heya, decided to move over to Hakkaku’s place and recently shut it down.

Board Meeting News

On May 27th, a regular meeting of the NSK’s board has taken place. The main points of interest are:

Araiso oyakata to start a new heya

The board approved the request of former Kisenosato, now Araiso oyakata, to split away from Tagonoura beya, and start his own heya. Araiso beya will become reality as of this August. At first, it will take residence at Tsukuba city in Ibaraki prefecture (Araiso’s home prefecture), and a permanent one will be built in the city of Ami in Inashiki District of the same prefecture.

Araiso is to take 4 wrestlers and a gyoji with him. The wrestlers are freshmen Nishihara, Taniguchi and Kato, who have joined Grand Sumo in Haru, and set foot on dohyo for the first time in Natsu basho, and veteran Adachi, who joined at around the same time Kisenosato did.

(Usually an oyakata who splits off takes only his uchi-deshi – rikishi he recruited with the intention of establishing his own heya – together with him from his old heya. Adachi is an exception, and I think the reasoning behind it is that with three complete novices, a heya required a seasoned anideshi to teach them the off-dohyo “way of sumo”).

Decision about Asanoyama has not been made yet

Apparently, the investigation into Asanoyama’s shenanigans turned out to be complex, and is still on-going. Another board meeting is set for June, but Shibatayama oyakata, the NSK’s spokesperson, said the investigation will not necessarily be complete by then.

A decision has been made about Ryuden

Ryden has been found guilty of breaking the NSK’s COVID regulations, having gone on unnecessary outings 25 times between March 2020 and January 2021, for the purpose of seeing a woman who was not his wife. Those meeting happened mostly during basho, some just before it.

Ryuden’s punishment is a suspension for 3 basho, including Natsu basho, which he has already spent kyujo. He should be back by November, and will likely be ranked at Makushita by then.

Ryuden’s shisho, Takadagawa oyakata, has been punished with a reduction of 20% of his salary for 6 months.

Nagoya basho will be held without vaccinations

Although an earlier plan has been to vaccinate all the rikishi and staff in June, this seems to have been set aside, probably due to the slow progress of vaccinations in Japan.

The basho will still take place at Nagoya, and all involved will undergo a PCR test before traveling there. The plans are to:

  • Hold the new recruit checkup at the Kokugikan on June 18th
  • Publish the banzuke on June 21st
  • Hold PCR tests over the 23rd and 24th
  • Each heya will depart for Nagoya after completing the PCR test.

Nishiiwa-Beya Welcomes Four Staff

Four staff members from Minezaki-beya transferred to Nishiiwa-beya at the beginning of this month (4/1/2021), due to the closure of Minezaki-beya. There were two yobidashi, one gyoji, and one tokoyama.

Photo from Nishiiwa Beya’s Line Blog

The two yobidashi are both Juryo yobidashi. Masao (back row, second from left) hails from Yokohama while Hiroyuki (back row, second from right) comes from Aomori. Kimura Kazuma (back row, far left) is a Makushita-level gyoji from Osaka.

Tokoaki, a fourth level tokoyama, is in the back row, on the far right. He’s no slouch in the gym, having a max bench press at 140kg. You read that right. He can bench Kiribayama. That’s more than 300 pounds or 22 stone. He’s a good cook, too. Apparently, he cooks tons of spinach.

Looks like a lot of happy dudes there. Tokinosato is the current heyagashira, the only wrestler in Sandanme. All of the others are in Jonidan.

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.