A Day Out at the Yokozuna Deliberation Committee Soken: Aki 2019 Edition

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The sekitori do their rounds before the Yokozuna Deliberation Committee at the Soken

It’s always rare, and cool, to get a chance to watch an open sumo practise session. While I was denied a visit to the Yokozuna Deliberation Committee’s soken earlier this year, as the event was closed to all non-NSK/YDC/media members, today’s session in advance of the Aki Basho was once again open to the public. And so with that in mind, I headed East across the Sumida River to Ryogoku.

For the uninitiated, the soken is essentially a modified open keiko session in front of a considerable number of oyakata, as well as the esteemed and yet also sometimes puzzling Yokozuna Deliberation Committee. Many members of the sports and mainstream media are also in attendance, and today’s event was filmed by at least six different entities. After the workout, various luminaries will voice their opinions on the state of the sport’s top rankers.

Food is an integral experience of sumo, especially when sitting around for hours. I picked up an onigiri beforehand in the konbini at Ryoguku JR station, as I wasn’t sure what food might be available at Kokugikan. I needn’t have worried, as the venue had two small stalls selling both onigiri and tamago sandwiches.

The event started at 7.20am, and I arrived a shade before 9. Having arrived earlier in the morning on my last visit to the soken in 2018, I was shocked to arrive to see open masu box seats as the various Juryo men took their turns in the moshi-ai (winner stays on, picks next opponent). Unlike the event preceding the 2018 Natsu basho when I was relegated to the upper deck, plenty of lower deck boxes were still available as I entered to watch Sokokurai go on a several bout winning run. Indeed, the attendance peaked with about half of the lower deck being full, but it’s worth bearing in mind that the last time this event was open to the public, it was very much in a period where the public was eager to the see the condition of beleaguered hero and 72nd Yokozuna Kisenosato.

The soken does give a different atmosphere to a day at Kokugikan during the basho. While it is more sparsely attended, it’s almost exclusively attended by die-hard sumo fans, which provides a unique experience. It was a pleasant surprise to see a few foreign faces in the venue as well. I took up a position in front of the various camera crews and next to some veteran connoisseurs of sumo who themselves enjoyed a plethora of snacks and sake throughout the morning.

The soken really isn’t too difficult to follow. As the day progresses from moshi-ai to butsukari and san-ban and back to butsukari etcetera and so on, the announcers do a great job of very quickly announcing who has been selected next to mount the dohyo for various activities. Even without any kind of dedicated torikumi, it is quite an easy event both for new fans as well as those who are very familiar with the sport to understand. 

In terms of the matches themselves, one should bear in mind that these are all training bouts, and it is important not to put too much stock into wins and losses but rather the nature of performance, the apparent health of the rikishi, and any discernible genki factor heading into the upcoming tournament.

Please bear in mind also that these notes from firsthand viewing are simply based on what I saw in the arena with the naked eye, without the benefit of replay or video footage.

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The Kokugikan Shop sold a limited selection of goods during the Soken.

Juryo Notes

It was notable to see most veterans staying on the periphery of the Juryo action. As mentioned above, Sokokurai took a lengthy winning run in the moshi-ai until relative newcomer Irodori finally dealt with him. Kizakiumi and Kyokushuho vied for the chance to get dispatched by the veteran Chinese rikishi, but the latter was very much the exception. Other rikishi with Makuuchi experience such as Kaisei, Chiyoshoma, Kyokutaisei and Yago stayed very much on the periphery of the day’s action, choosing not to even venture near the dohyo for most of the day.

Kiribayama was a popular staple in the moshi-ai mix, a grappler in an age of slappers. He has adjusted well to life in the second division and I have high hopes for him as he enters the upcoming basho in the upper third of the penultimate tier.

We were afforded first proper look at shin-sekitori Kaisho, who was handled pretty easily by Wakatakakage, the Arashio-beya man appearing quite genki. Kaisho did however later give the business to fellow newcomer Asagyokusei, who also looked in good shape.

Recent birthday man Midorifuji of the Makushita division was invited to play with the sekitori and I thought he looked impressive, although he was no match for Kotonowaka. He’s added some heft in the previous few months, and whether or not he achieves his promotion after the upcoming tournament, it is clear he is destined for a good run as a sekitori. As a smaller rikishi, he reminds me far more of the likes of Wakatakakage than Enho or Ishiura.

In the transition between the Juryo and Makuuchi portions of the day’s events, a pair of Ozeki took time to work with Juryo youngsters. Tochinoshin lent his chest to Kaisho, then later Kizakiumi. Takayasu, meanwhile, worked with Kotonowaka. Tochinoshin’s knees appeared taxed by the workout – though it’s very possible that may have been part of the purpose of the activity for him.

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Hakuho gives Takakeisho butsukari…

Makuuchi notes

During the Makuuchi moshi-ai, popular man Endo had a good winning run that was of course very much enjoyed by the crowd. He appears to be someone who trains well, but I didn’t feel there were too many clues with regard to how he may take his second bite at Komusubi in a few days’ time.

Ichinojo looked fairly genki. He had a spirited and victorious battle with Okinoumi, in particular. Of course, ever the inconsistent puzzler, Ichinojo was then bundled out by Nishikigi. It’s worth noting that Okinoumi was picked a few times during the moshi-ai. I think that as a tactically aware and technically capable veteran, he’s a great opponent to train against, especially if you’re a rikishi who may not have access to him all that much.

I felt Mitakeumi looked awful against the lower rankers, but that’s not really a surprise given his reputation of being a poor trainer. He could barely deal with a visibly tired Okinoumi before getting beaten in a yotsu-zumo match by famed slap artist Shohozan of all people – although it should be noted that Shohozan’s mawashi technique has improved notably as he has aged.

There were mixed results for Terutsuyoshi, who looks like he is honing his very compact style of sumo. He seems content to rely more on his strength than the wild trickery of the likes of Enho, Ishiura or Ura.

It was also a mixed bag for Takakeisho, who gambarized and was clearly intent to show his progress in his rehabilitation from recent injury, but he looked well short of match fitness. Video has circulated already of an impressive match of his with Aoiyama, but then the resurgent Yutakayama had Takakeisho all wrapped up and figured out. He largely disappeared after that match until the end of the day.

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… Hakuho leaves a disheveled Takakeisho writhing on the floor and poses for the cameras.

High Rankers

The men at the very top of the banzuke do not participate in the moshi-ai, and simply pick their partners and play with them until they decide they are finished. Unfortunately, like Tochinoshin, Ozeki Takayasu was not fit for bouts, just butsukari. Fellow Ozeki Goeido was rather more active, taking on Shodai for a number of matches. Shodai seems like an odd partner as his tachiai leaves so much to be desired that it’s difficult to tell whether Gōeidō has recovered his trademark speed or he’s just taking advantage of a weak opponent. In any case, he dominated the Maegashira.

Mitakeumi was a rather more robust opponent for Goeido in a matchup of men with rather different training reputations. Surprisingly, this is where Gōeidō came unstuck a bit and simply didn’t have his all-action high-octane offense. But after one win against the Ozeki, Mitakeumi crumbled, his overall performances on the day showing that while he has great ability in one-off matches during tournament play, his stamina for san-ban is rather diminished.

Gōeidō finished the day’s work with some lengthy battles against Daieisho. I felt his choices of opponent were curious. I understand that the three men offer different styles, levels, and are likely the type of opponents he will need to beat to get 8 wins. But I would have wanted to see someone in decent form like Ryuden (last basho’s results aside), Endo or Hokutofuji take him on – as I suspect they would have handled him quite differently, and that might have given more of a clue as to Goeido’s outlook for the basho.

Yokozuna Kakuryū ended up picking Endo off the bat, followed by Mitakeumi for a lengthy battle. The reigning yusho winner was very composed against both. Mitakeumi didn’t offer a whole lot and Kakuryū frequently picked the lock straight from the tachiai against the serial san’yaku challenger.

After a lengthy stretching routine during which a parade of tsukebito and lower rankers offered various greetings, gifts of chikara-mizu, towels, and so on, Hakuhō finally made his first appearance on the dohyo. Rather than taking on multiple challengers, he decided to give the fans a thoroughly entertaining set of matches against fun loving Komusubi Abi.

I felt both the Yokozuna made wise selections in light of their respective issues. Kakuryū, in good form, picked decent all rounders. Hakuho’s choice of Abi gave him a series of matches against a wild pusher-thruster with excellent mobility. He dispatched the Komusubi in a variety of manners, almost using a different technique each time, albeit with several thrust-downs. Hakuho’s main mission here seemed to be to blunt the two hand tsuppari, lock up the Shikoroyama man, and test various finishing manoeuvres against him.

Hakuho, as we know, is the consummate entertainer. I’d pay to watch him against Abi all day, but with the soken being a free event, it was even more of a treat. Abi did not try to use too much yotsu-zumo against the Yokozuna, which would have been intriguing, but facing the Yokozuna may not be the best time to try tricks you haven’t mastered. Abi did defeat Hakuho once, after which he holds his head in his hands looking like he can scarcely believe the level of work it took.

The relentlessness of Hakuho is such that surely when you believe Abi can’t take any more, Hakuho just continues to bring him back. Clearly, there is much to look forward to about Hakuho’s future as a stablemaster. Abi looked absolutely wrecked by the end of the day’s events, although he’ll come off better for it.

The finish to the day was mostly notable for Hakuho giving butsukari to Takakeisho, the only high ranker to the on the receiving end of any kind of brutal training. Takakeisho didn’t look great, although maybe didn’t have the most obliging partner in Hakuho, who would simply pull up and let the ozekiwake fall to the floor if he wasn’t delivering enough to push the Yokozuna across the dohyo. Indeed, most of the time, Takakeisho only had enough power to get the dai-Yokozuna to the shikiri-sen. A Hakuho butsukari session is always an entertaining watch.

As a thoroughly filthy Takakeisho exited the dohyo, that wrapped the day’s proceedings. Next up on the schedule is the dohyo consecration next weekend, and then we’ll be ready to kick off the Aki basho!

Upcoming Sumo Calendar

With banzuke weekend upon us, all of team Tachiai are eagerly awaiting the September ranking sheet, and to see how close lksumo came to hitting the bull’s eye on one of the more difficult to predict transitions in a while.

But while we wait with eager glee to see how many Komusubi and Sekiwake there are for Aki, let’s look forward to the next month or so of glorious sumo action. Here’s the plan

August

  • August 26th – Aki Banzuke (afternoon August 25th for us lucky Yanks)
  • August 31st – YDC Soken – Many of the top ranked rikishi will practice and compete in front of YDC committee members and some media luminaries

September

  • September 6th – Day 1 Torkiumi drawn up
  • September 7th – Dohyo Matsuri and yusho portrait unveiling
  • September 8th – Aki basho day 1
  • September 22nd – Aki basho day 15
  • September 25th – Banuzke committee meets to draw up the Kyushu banzuke
  • September 29th – Kisenosato’s retirement ceremony (Kokugikan)
  • September 30th – Meiji shrine ceremonies / dohyo-iri

January YDC Soken Reports

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During Monday, the Yokozuna Deliberation Council held a supervised practice session, referred to as “Soken”. It features the top men in sumo going through both practice moves and test matches. In general the civillian YDC advisory group watches the proceedings and makes a series of vague comments about the rikishi and their state of preparation for an upcoming tournament. Some excerpts courtesy of Herouth, who has been posting excerpts on twitter:

Tochinoshin sits out the Soken, still working through injuries

Kisenosato still having problems with his body position in the tachiai. As we saw during Kyushu, the Yokozuna was consistently high, and off balance.

Hakuho gave Kyushu yusho winner Takakeisho some direct and specific attention during the Soken, and soundly beat the shin-Sekiwake 5 straight times. To be fair, Takakeisho has struggled against “the boss” and has yet to formulate a good attack plan against the dai-Yokozuna.

Yokozuna Kakuryu had more bouts out of the 3, turning in a 7-3 performance for his 10 practice bouts, dropping 1 to Kisenosato and 2 to Takayasu. Meanwhile it seems Goeido was struggling against Yokozuna, failing to take a single match from Kisenosato or Kakuryu. According to a write up by sumo luminary Kintamayama, Kisenosato was looking hurt by the end of the Soken:

At the end of the session, Kisenosato seemed to have injured his leg. “It looked like he was in pain.. I hope it’s nothing serious. I would have liked to see him do 4-5 more bouts. The two other Yokozunae seem to be in great shape.”

UPDATE

Some additional details from Herouth’s twitter feed. Firstly looks like Enho, Uncle Sumo and some others were in action during the Soken. Sadly I doubt we ever get to see video of their sparring.

And as a bonus, some video footage from the Soken. It pains me to say it, but it seems Kisenosato continues his rough and chaotic sumo that was so ineffective during Kyushu. It is a far cry from his pre-injury sumo, which was always low, strong and incredibly heavy. I fear the worst for him.

The YDC Convenes In Kyushu

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The Yokozuna Deliberation Council meets following most basho to review the performance of the top rikishi, and give guidance to the NSK and the sumo world on the state of competition. These meetings usually take place in Tokyo, regardless of where the basho might be, but this Monday, the council convened in Kyushu. The primary subject on the table was the lack of Yokozuna during the second week for the second tournament in 2018, and the failure of Kisenosato specifically to win a single match.

The YDC could take a number of positions on the topic, ranging from “encouragement” to “caution” and finally “suggestion to retire”. Given the fact that Kisenosato has sat out part or all 9 of the last 10 tournaments, and was specifically admonished by this same council to not return to the dohyo until he was ready to compete as a Yokozuna, the fans would be right to expect a stern warning or guidance towards intai.

Instead the YDC returned “Encouragement”. Chairman Kitamura remarked on Kisenosato’s performance, saying that he should be showing physical strength and ability commensurate with his position and ‘the disappointment of the fans who had earnestly hoped for his recovery at the Kyushu basho was great’. Trying to put a good spin on things, he also said “There was a lot of excitement without any Yokozunae. So much so that people may be saying ‘Maybe we don’t need any Yokozuna..”.

If you are rolling your eyes at the last part, you are not alone. Clearly the YDC wants no part in pushing the only Japanese Yokozuna out of the sport. They see there is a problem, it’s easy to identify and its hurting sumo. If the broader sumo world tracks the intensity of interest that we see in traffic numbers at the site, a “No-kazuna” basho produced about 30% less interest. This has to be eating into the NSK bottom line at some point.

(Below is opinion only)

The sumo association is in a tight spot now. One would think that Kisenosato would have figured out that he is past his ability to recover, and take a dignified way out. He has his name beside an inglorious record in the annals of sumo history, and the numbers are just getting worse. In a broader sense, the NSK has a real problem with its kanban rikishi. As we have pointed out in the past, with the exception of the absolutely fantastic Aki basho, participation of the top ranking rikishi has been below 50%, and continues to be poor.

The NSK either needs to clean up its rosters, or accept that its going to fade in popularity among the core Japanese audience. This clean up is going to be painful and difficult. Many of the rikishi who may be past their sunset date are popular and well loved. But there is a significant cohort of older athletes who are not performing with the same intensity that they did 10 or 15 years ago. This has the quiet background effect of lowering the overall intensity of each basho, and I would guess it impacts the fan base, too.

Finally, it has to be said that the sumo fan base in Japan is elderly. To appeal to new (younger) fans, they need some new faces. Yokozuna Kisenosato should show his leadership, and step down to start his life as a sumo elder. We are always going to love him, and remember fondly how he put everything he had into attaining sumo’s highest rank. But for myself, I think it’s time to encourage some long serving favorites to start working towards their exit.