The Asanoyama Affair — Commentary

The big ‘ole caveat: There is no news in this post that has not been mentioned before, I don’t think. This is just Andy expressing his views, and his views alone. There are a few points that I want to make out of this Asanoyama drama, especially as similar scandals have ensnared Ryuden and Abi.

Covid Compliance Questions

First, I wanted to address the Covid restrictions themselves. It would be a difficult, stressful life for groups of young men to be restricted to barracks for more than a year while Japan has tried to stanch the spreading infection. We’ve seen several scandals over the year that hint at the many stressors. My personal opinion is that this is the tip of the iceberg and I would not be surprised if more outings are uncovered but we need a better description of compliance before we can make any judgements. Understandably, it would be difficult to monitor the comings-and-goings of sekitori, especially popular rikishi who have TV appearances and events to go to, even during the pandemic. So it would also not be surprising if news of some outings are handled quietly and do not make the papers.

However, the Kyokai has had one fatality directly due to Covid. Ryuden’s closeness with Shobushi made revelations of his violations a bit difficult to reconcile. But the organization itself understandably has to take a very tough line, though I would not be surprised if, individually, many more oyakata and rikishi do not understand what the big deal is. Maybe the impression, mentally, is that Shobushi was unlucky. So many other wrestlers have gotten it and recovered. I hear that refrain a lot here, too. But the stories that will make it to the press will be those that are not only repeated but involve something extra, like affairs (Ryuden, Tokitsukaze), or hostess clubs (Abi, Asanoyama). The latter of which were focused on early on in the pandemic as accelerating the spread.

The lies, though. C’mon, guys. You know that will make it worse. That said, there’s been some discussion online that Asanoyama is effectively a scapegoat, sacrificed to protect those who continue to break restrictions. I say that without a serious discussion and thorough understanding of what compliance looks like in meetings with sponsors, it is inappropriate to make really wild accusations that the Kyokai is complicit in pardoning non-compliant behavior.

We know wrestlers appear on TV shows. We know wrestlers visit their former high schools and colleges. Goods are being donated to stables. I imagine commercials are being filmed and various visits to stables and to sponsors are made. These can be done in a compliant fashion. However, making friends with a reporter, going out 15-times to a hostess club*, and then conspiring to lie and actually destroying evidence (chat records) to cover up the meetings…<sarcasm>would likely not be compliant behavior</sarcasm>. So until the line is clearly drawn in the discussion, it’s certainly not appropriate to say non-compliance is rife and EVERY meeting is non-compliant.

There are also varying shades of “non-compliance.” In the rail-regulation world, we speak of inspector’s discretion. If something is non-compliant, in many cases they are trusted to use their judgement to determine whether the non-compliance is worthy of a defect (citation) or a more serious violation. Some things are automatic, though. Speeding in the railroading world is handled much more strictly than on the highways. I’m not sure if you all are aware of the Amagasaki train accident, but that illustrates the dangers of overspeed on rail. So, even without an accident, your certification — and your job — is on the line if you’re caught speeding.

But let me ask, back in the automobile world, have you ever sped while driving? Over 12mph over the speed limit? No? Around here, that’s where enforcement starts. Park illegally? Wear a mask in a way that didn’t cover your nose? Well, if you ever did anything not in strict compliance, do not worry, you’re not automatically guilty of more serious crimes like robbery or murder. (This is my #1 frustration with those silly “Lock them up” chants I hear in political rallies on both sides. Even if an action is not only non-compliant but an outright crime, jail time is often not automatic. Due process is a very good thing.) Back in the sumo world, the Kyokai knows their policy and procedures. They conduct investigations and learn the facts. While it would not surprise me if there have been more, it’s rather wild to accuse the Kyokai of complicity without a thorough understanding and description of compliance and without clear, specific allegations.

The Reporter Friend

Second, the unusual extra detail of the Asanoyama scandal is the way it impacts a newspaper, Sponichi. He went to the hostess club, multiple times, with a reporter. When found out by another publication, Asanoyama and the reporter conspired to lie and destroy incriminating chat histories. The ethical violations are serious so the paper fired the reporter, salary reductions to his supervisor, managing director, and the CEO, the paper apologizes to sumo fans and the Kyokai, is conducting more training and being more rigorous about compliance…including the creation of a code of conduct.

While we can hope the relationship between the reporter and Asanoyama had been a friendly, though professionally inappropriate one, the paper sure thought the implications were serious enough to pull no punches. Hopefully, the adoption of more rigorous standards will be good for the paper in the long run. Let’s face it, serious, objective journalism is important and needs to be held to a high standard. Sports news papers and the weekly publications that have been central to this tale are not held in the regard of Nikkei or Asahi Shimbun but they do provide more coverage of sumo than what we get from most formal news sources. Improved standards of “gossip” papers, or broader (non-scandal) coverage in elite papers is better for us fans.

Reluctant Opportunities

Third, is this punishment unduly harsh on low-ranking wrestlers? I am going to take the contrarian view on this and say no. The sumo world is rather full of these mis-matches. It’s an open competition where a new recruit may have serious university experience and still get pitted against Shonanzakura to start their career. Abi clinched the yusho in a match against Dewanoryu, who picked up his first Osumo win against Shonanzakura after losing to Nihonyanagi in his first ever bout. Enho gets no consideration for his mass disadvantage in nearly every bout.

That said, I’m confident that the Kyokai seriously considers who they schedule and will generally pit contenders against contenders. The guys Shonanzakura will face, for example, usually do not finish the basho with winning records — often they don’t finish with more than 2 or 3 wins. However, when Terunofuji was in Jonokuchi, most of his competitors finished 6-1, or 5-2, and the same with Abi in makushita. When Asanoyama is in Sandanme, he will be in the winners’ bracket facing the guys who are in contention for the yusho. I find the chance to be a great opportunity for the guys who do get chosen, not as an unfair punishment.

Not Brothels but Not Crochet Clubs, Either

*Lastly, I do think I need to shift any perception on the internet of hostess clubs as being brothels. They’re not. I’ve had the same perception in the past, before I actually met a some hostesses and former hostesses and went to hostess clubs. The first time I met a former hostess, I was actually talking to my best friend. We were chatting about nightlife in Japan and she opened up to me that she actually worked as a hostess for a week. A friend took her to her club for a week and she made enough money by sitting and talking to guys.

A few of my hostess friends tried to convince me to give hosting a try. I know a few hosts, too, but let’s face it, I’ve never been a night-owl. Anyway, they would take me out with them to their clubs in Roppongi. The atmosphere in those places actually reminded me of this restaurant back home where about half-a-dozen guys in their 50s would come have breakfast and coffee, basically because there was a charismatic waitress who worked there. When she got married, had a baby, and quit, the restaurant struggled to stay open and closed shortly afterwards. I know it was a TV show but I doubt Norm went to Cheers for the beer. It’s sure not why, pre-pandemic, I would hang out at Quadrant in downtown DC.

Once I actually went to one by accident. My wife and her mom still laugh at the “Pabbu Incident.” I was going to meet one of my wife’s friends and I saw a Jazz パッブ. My wife loves Jazz music so I thought I’d check it out and if it was any good, I’d bring her back. When I went in, they had a stage at the front with a piano. Then there were a series of tables with booths facing the stage. It kind of reminded me of a place where Sinatra or Sammy Davis Jr. would have been on stage and guys in tuxes and women in long dresses would be sitting drinking martinis or fancy cocktails. But it was early, so I was there, alone.

The hostess sat me down at a big booth at the back…and then she sat down with me. Then, another woman came in and sat down on the other side…both dressed very elegantly and both sporting big smiles. One asked me what I wanted to drink. I don’t remember what I asked for but when she scurried off and the other woman stayed behind and started asking me “small talk” questions, it clicked. The woman who met me at the door and brought me to my seat wasn’t the hostess. She was a hostess. The other hostess came back with my drink and both stayed with me in the booth. We chatted, I finished my drink, and left to go meet up with Yoshiko.

Later, when I got back to my mother-in-law’s place, I asked her and my wife…”So, um… What’s a Pabbu?” Then I told them about my evening and they both cracked up. “I thought ‘Pabbu’ just meant, ‘Pub,” I said. Other Pabbu may not provide such individualized attention I received at the Jazz Pabbu but I’ve not gone back to find out. However, if I were single and bored, sure. It’s not like a ソープ or something. While the “red-light” reputation is a bit overblown, they are not good places to frequent during a pandemic and have been highlighted by the government as hotspots that lead to the spread of the virus. When we think of the Kyokai’s Covid restrictions, even with the new face-shields these places are not going to be compliant.

Anyway, feel free to disagree with me on any points below. I’m interested in starting a conversation here and seeing what y’all have to say.

Who will get the most wins in 2020?

The coming basho will provide us a fair dose of excitment and hot topics, as our Tachiai team rightly discussed in our podcast.

But the November basho – also known as Kyushu basho, until last year also marks sumo’s final tournament of the calendar year. It’s therefore possible to nominate sumo’s “MVP” right after it – that is, the rikishi who collected the most wins in the given year.

So, who’s still in contention for that honorific title ?

First of all, it’s worth reminding that this year’s numbers will be pretty low, since wrestlers will have competed in only five tournaments, instead of the usual six. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that we end up far away from Hakuho’s mouth-watering 86 wins out of 90, which we could witness in 2009 and 2010.

Last year, Asanoyama pipped Abi’s six kashi koshi and 54 wins overall, ending the year with 55 successful bouts. Hakuho came third with 51 wins, but, as we will see, the yokozuna is far from that standard this year.

Abi did a fine job last year, before 2020’s downfall

All in all, it has largely been Shodai’s year, and it’s no big surprise he leads the pack with 45 wins. Remarkably, Asanoyama is still in contention to regain first place, with 43 wins overall. Actually, he could very well pip Shodai here too, as Shodai spent some time parading after his promotion to ozeki. Can Shodai keep momentum and hold on to his two-win lead? We will soon get to know.

What about the rest of the field? There’s a small chance somebody else than Shodai or Asanoyama finishes first – but that would probably mean an unfortunate kyujo from both men. Indeed, Takakeisho is seven off the pace, having snatched 38 wins this year. And that allows us a fine statement: the three men with the most wins in 2020 compose in fact the ozeki triumvirat! Let’s hope the current state of affairs will lead to a fine 2021 year for all of three.

Last year’s “MVP”: ozeki Asanoyama

Also worth mentionning are Takanosho (37 wins), Mitakeumi (who, arguably, has not had a brillant 2020 year despite having collected 36 wins), Kiribayama (35) and even Tokushoryu (32 wins).

What about both yokozuna?

As mentioned earlier, Hakuho is far from the leaderboard, and even from decent Hakuho numbers. He actually has 24 wins combined, one more than his stable partner, Ishiura, but one less than his other partner, Enho!

Things are even worse for Kakuryu, who just announced his withdrawal from the November 2020 basho. That means he’ll end up the year with a forgettable 13 wins tally, which is actually just one win more than Tochiozan – who retired following the Haru basho, in March.

So, it’s Shodai to lose here. That should prodive us an interesting sub-plot while watching good sumo behind our screens – or live, for the luckiest of us!

Pre-basho warm up: a kanji review

A couple weeks ago, our reader Kiran asked me to write an article about usual kanji we see in the sumo world. What a great warm up idea, prior to the basho! I hope we’ll be able to translate a few new names without effort, come the last tournament of the year. I’d like to point out the fact that I’m no Japanese born speaker (actually, not a Japanese speaker at all), but did my best to produce a serious, reliable article. Please don’t recommand an intai, should you spot mistakes along the way!

Back to basics

A few kanji are not too hard to remember, I think:

  • 海 (“umi”, as in “Mitakeumi”) means “sea”
  • 風 (“kaze”, as in “Yoshikaze”) means “wind”
  • 竜 (“ryu”, as in “Kakuryu”) means “dragon”
  • 富士 is “fuji”, as in “Midorifuji”
  • 丸 (“maru”, as in Daishomaru”) means “circle”

Not as commonly seen, but not too difficult to remember are:

  • 若 (“waka”, as in “Wakatakakage”), meaning “young”, “youth”
  • 里 (“sato”, as in “Kisenosato”) refers to a small village, or “hometown”
  • 魁 (“kai”, as in “Kaisei”) means “pioneering”, “charging ahead” (thank you, @TheSumoSoul!)
  • 聖 (“sei”, as in, well, “Kaisei”) means “holy”, or “sacred”
  • 照 (“teru”), meaning “shining”, or, again according to @TheSumoSoul, “blasting”. Notable holders of that kanji are Isegahama beya rikishi: Terunofuji, Terutsuyoshi, etc.

Even less used, but as easy to spot are:

  • 碧 (“aoi”), meaning “blue”, as in “Aoiyama”
  • 翔 and 猿, giving the now famous shikona “Tobizaru”, meaning “flying monkey”!

Apart from the “Teru”, it has to be noted that these usual kanji do not give indication of the rikishi’s stable. Being common, they are used by everyone, so to say. For example, Mitakeumi and Okinoumi do not belong to the same stable; the same applies for Terunofuji and Hokutofuji.

Two kanji simply indicate the belonging: の and 乃, who both are pronounced “no”. More on that later.

Going further

What about 山 ? It means “mountain”, or “hill”. But here’s the first trick: it is pronounced either “yama”, or “zan”, like in “Asanoyama” or “Shohozan”, who share that kanji. That kanji is very interesting. It reminds us the fact that Japanese language has Chinese origins, which explains the fact that many words have at least two types of pronunciation. But both pronunciations refer to exactly the same thing – so it would be wrong to say that “yama” means “mountain”, while “zan” would mean “hill”, or the other way around.

Back to 山. Pronouncing it “zan” refer to ths Chinese origins of the kanji – where, by the way, it is rather pronounced “shan” (in Mandarin Chinese) or “san” (in Cantonese Chinese).

So, when should it be pronounced “yama”, and when is it “zan” (or “san”) ? Actually, the “yama” pronunciation is correct, only when the kanji is isolated. As a matter of fact, Mount Fuji (富士山) should be referred as “Fujisan”, not “Fujiyama”.

Less of a debate are:

  • 琴 (“koto”), actually a Japanese instrument, a kind of zither made of thirteen strings. That kanji is of course used by Sadogatake wrestlers: Kotoshogiku, Kotonowaka, etc.
  • 大 (“dai”, as in “Daieisho”; or “tai”, as in “Chiyotairyu”), meaning “large”, or “great”. Quite logically, a 大 横綱 is a “dai-yokozuna”, a great yokozuna. Contrary to common belief, it does not refer to each yokozuna who won at least ten yusho, but rather to one dominant champion, in a given period. For example, Harumafuji ended his career with nine yusho in his belt – but had he won a tenth, he would probably not have been given that title, as Hakuho naturally holds it.

Now let’s dig into the “taka” maze!

  • First of all, Takarafuji does start with “Taka”, but the first kanji, 宝 actually is “takara”, meaning “treasure”
  • 貴 (as in “Takakeisho”: 貴景勝) can mean “expensive”, “costly”, or can express nobility.
  • 隆 (as in “Takanosho”: 隆の勝) has a similar meaning: “noble,” “prosperity”.
  • 髙 (as in “Takayasu”: 髙安) means “tall”, “high”, and can only be used in first or last names.

If many rikishi possess another common kanji – the “Chiyo”, that one is fortunately easier to translate!

Indeed, 千 litterally means “thousand”, whereas “” refers to years, or eras. Put it together, the “Chiyo” – 千代 – is simply translated into “eternal”.

One kanji curiosities

  • 輝, Kagayaki’s only kanji, means “radiance”. That kanji is actually the last one of Kotoyuki’s shikona: 琴勇輝
  • 勢, Ikioi’s kanji, means “strength”
  • Sakigake’s kanji is actually the afore mentionned 魁 – “kai”!

A few entire translations

I hope not being miles off target with the last part of that article, but I think we have amassed sufficient knowledge for some not too difficult translations:

  • 碧山: “Aoiyama”, of course, means “blue mountain”.
  • Let’s try with former sekiwake Wakanosato: 若の里. We have 若, meaning “youth”, 里, the small village or hometown, and の, referring to the belonging. 若の里 could therefore be translated into something like: the hometown of the youth.
  • Nishinoryu is currently ranked sandanme 8. His shikona is written as follows: 西乃龍. 西 means “West”, 龍 is “dragon”, 乃 is also referring to the belonging. 西乃龍, hence, means “dragon of the West”.
  • Former komusubi Chiyotairyu: 千代大龍. 千代 means “eternal”, means “big”, means “dragon”: eternal big dragon!

Feel free to give it a try; there’s no nothing better than pre-basho practise! Hakkeyoi!

Quiz ! About shikona changes…

As we previously mentioned it, Shodai decided to keep his shikona following his promotion to the ozeki rank. Let’s try to figure out how much we know about rikishi’s shikona, shikona changes and real names…

As usual, try your best to get your kashi koshi!

1. Let’s start this quiz quietly. Ama became ozeki…

a. Goeido

b. Kakuryu

c. Harumafuji

d. Baruto

2. Which one of these wrestlers is currently fighting with his real name ?

a. Takarafuji

b. Takayasu

c. Takanosho

d. Takagenji

3. Who started wrestling using his real name – Fukuoka ?

a. Hokutofuji

b. Okinoumi

c. Ryuden

d. Daieisho

4. Who is the other Mr. Fukuoka in makuuchi ?

a. Abi

b. Terutsuyoshi

c. Meisei

d. Enho

5. Who started his sumo career with the shikona Wakamisho ?

a. Kiribayama

b. Tamawashi

c. Ichinojo

d. Terunofuji

6. The Bulgarian wrestler Aoiyama was given his current shikona after being asked a few questions about things he likes. What does “Aoiyama” mean ?

a. Red wind

b. Red mountain

c. Blue wind

d. Blue mountain

7. And by the way, Big Dan’s (Aoiyama) real name is…

a. Petkov

b. Dimitrov

c. Kotov

d. Ivanov

Big Dan: Aoiyama Kosuke.

8. Let’s now have some fun (and a few headaches !) with Sadogatake’s wrestlers. Who used to be called Kotokikutsugi ?

a. Kotoosho

b. Kotoeko

c. Kotoyuki

d. Kotoshogiku

9. Kotokamatani, on the other hand, is now known as…

a. Kotonowaka

b. Kotoeko

c. Kotoshoho

d. Kotoshogiku

10. Whereas Kotoenomoto has become…

a. Kotooshu

b. Kotoeko

c. Kotoshoho

d. Kotoyuki

11. And finally, Kototebakari is currently known as…

a. Kotoshoho

b. Kotoyuki

c. Kotonowaka

d. Kotoshogiku

12. Takanohana and Wakanohana are one of sumo’s most famous brothers. Their real name is :

a. Hanada

b. Koga

c. Sawai

d. Hagiwara

A sumo legend: former yokozuna Takanohana.

13. Which one of these rikishi used to be called “Sato” and changed his shikona as he got promoted to makuuchi ?

a. Takakeisho

b. Asanoyama

c. Mitakeumi

d. Shodai

14. Hanakaze is known for his incredibly long career, which started back in 1986 (!). Under how many names has he wrestled so far ?

a. One

b. Two

c. Three

d. Four

15. And finally, the great Hakuho has changed shikona :

a. Once

b. Twice

c. Thrice

d. He never changed his shikona

The answers :

1. Let’s start this quiz quietly. Ama became ozeki…

c. Harumafuji. Of course ! He took that name after his promotion to ozeki, following the Kyushu basho 2008.

Nine time grand champion: former yokozuna Harumafuji.

2. Which one of these wrestlers is currently fighting with his real name ?

b. Takayasu Akira.

3. Who started wrestling using his real name – Fukuoka ?

b. Okinoumi. He actually semmed to have some remorses after changing his shikona to Okinoumi, in March 2009. Two basho after, he went back to Fukuoka Ayumi, during just one basho. He then changed once again – for good – to Okinoumi Ayumi.

4. Who is the other Mr. Fukuoka in makuuchi ?

b. Terutsuyoshi. He has used only one shikona so far : Terutsuyoshi Shoki.

Terutsuyoshi Shoki, also known as Fukuoka Shoki.

5. Who started his sumo career with the shikona Wakamisho ?

d. Terunofuji. Terunofuji likes changes : he used to be called Wakamisho Yoshiaki, then Wakamisho Noriaki, then Wakamisho Yoshiaki again, then Terunofuji Yoshiaki, then Terunofuji Haruo.

6. The Bulgarian wrestler Aoiyama was given his current shikona after being asked a few questions about things he likes. What does “Aoiyama” mean ?

d. Blue mountain. Aoiyama likes blue color, and prefers mountain over sea.

7. And by the way, Big Dan’s (Aoiyama) real name is…

d. Ivanov. Daniel Ivanov, to be exact.

8. Let’s now have some fun (and a few headaches !) with Sadogatake’s wrestlers. Who used to be called Kotokikutsugi ?

d. Kotoshogiku. His real name is Kikutsugi Kazuhiro.

9. Kotokamatani, on the other hand, is now known as…

a. Kotonowaka. Outside the dohyo, he’s Kamatani Masakatsu

10. Whereas Kotoenomoto has become…

d. Kotoyuki, also known as Enomoto Yuki.

11. And finally, Kototebakari is currently known as…

a. Kotoshoho. His real name : Tebakari Toshiki

12. Takanohana and Wakanohana are one of sumo’s most famous brothers. Their real name is :

a. Hanada. Koga is Kaio’s name ; Sawai is Goeido’s name and Hagiwara is former Kisenosato’s name. Some great wrestlers down there.

13. Which one of these rikishi used to be called “Sato” and changed his shikona as he got promoted to makuuchi ?

a. Takakeisho. Asanoyama did change his shikona, but after promotion to juryo. Mitakeumi took just one shikona, whereas Shodai is fighting under his actual name.

14. Hanakaze is known for his incredibly long career, which started back in 1986 (!). Under how many names has he wrestled so far ?

c. Three. He started fighting under his real name, Yamagushi Daisaku, then switched to Tatsuyamagushi Daisaku, and to Hanakaze Daisaku. He holds that name since July 1999 !

15. And finally, the great Hakuho has changed shikona :

d. He never changed his shikona. Hakuho Sho. That’s the GOAT’s shikona.

Simply the best: yokozuna Hakuho Sho.