Today, Sumo Twitter was festooned with pictures and remembrances of Yokozuna Chiyonofuji. The Wolf, as he was known, was arguably the Greatest Wrestler of the generation and frequently tops lists for greatest of all time as his rein may have been the sport’s Golden Age. (No, in Japan he’s not known as おおかみ, the Japanese word for wolf, but ウルフ the katakana pronunciation of the English word.) He died at the very young age of 61, exactly six years ago (7/31/2016), when he was head of Kokonoe-beya.
The Buddhist tradition in Japan pays respect to past ancestors at a number of auspicious dates, called nenki, and the observances are nenkihoyo. For Chiyonofuji, this year’s observance is 七回忌; as far as pronunciation goes, I’ve seen both nanakaiki and shichikaiki. I’m going to use nanakaiki because it’s easier for me to say in my head. Because the numbers three and seven are important numbers in Buddhism, many of these special anniversaries have three or seven in the numbers.
If you’re not getting why the sixth anniversary is the nanakaiki, try to think of it this way. The Japanese term doesn’t use the character for year. It uses the character kai, for revolution, or turn. When Chiyonofuji died, that was the first time we all got together, so to speak, to honor him after his death. The second “time” would be the first anniversary of his death, and so on. So while this is the sixth anniversary, it’s the seventh occasion, thus nanakaiki.
Your humble correspondent was in Tokyo when Chiyonofuji died and paid tribute to the Wolf at the memorial set up outside of Kokonoe’s old digs in Sumida ward (now they’re closer to Koiwa-Shinkoiwa). The Tachiai blog was still a toddler back then, just about two years old, and our family had just gotten back from Nagoya, where we had watched Harumafuji take the yusho. Back then we were excited to see a promising young Ozeki named Terunofuji who rode with the champion in the “open car” parade.
So Chiyonofuji’s sudden death, just one week after Nagoya and four years before he should have retired, was quite the shock in and around Kokugikan and was a prominent news feature for several days. He’s still the Wolf, a legend and source of inspiration for many; he will remain so for years and decades to come.
Day 3 took place at Kusatsu, Shiga prefecture. Day 4 took place at Echizen, Fukui prefecture. Here are some of the things that happened, on and off the Jungyo.
Yeah, we couldn’t do without those, could we? Takanosho, a.k.a Onigiri-kun, injured his right knee during practice, and left for Tokyo, joining his two heya mates who are already kyujo, Takakeisho and Takagenji. The only Chiganoura sekitori to stay in the Jungyo is Takanofuji, the evil twin. I hope it’s not one of those career-shattering injuries.
And Ryuko, who was having a streak of bad luck ever since he had the privilege of being Aminishiki’s last opponent, also made his way to Tokyo with an injury. It’s not clear whether it’s a new injury or a lingering one from the basho.
Meanwhile, we are informed that neither Takakeisho nor Takayasu will be joining this Jungyo at all. Chiganoura oyakata says Takakeisho’s state is improving every day, but still, he is not practicing at the moment, taking treatments and rehab with a specialized trainer. He will apparently not be in until banzuke day, and then, says Chiganoura oyakata “We’ll see if he can wrestle sekitori”.
As for Takayasu… you can see for yourself. Torn ligament, arm in a cast. He is not supposed to be in the keiko-ba (practice ground) at all, but he is, though apparently, mostly moving a bit and bossing the youngsters around. I’m more worried about him, with his heya’s history of… Kisenosato… than I am about Takakeisho, though.
Chiyonofuji’s Death Anniversary
Three years ago today (July 31), former Great Yokozuna Chiyonofuji, AKA “The Wolf”, died age 61. Members of Kokonoe beya participating in the Jungyo, including tokoyama Tokotake (I hope I got that right) and Gyoji Konosuke, held a moment of silence in his memory:
Mitakeumi declares an Ozeki run
OK, enough sad news. Yesterday, Mitakeumi had his first on-dohyo practice.
On that occasion, he told the press he was very dissatisfied with his result in Nagoya – a mere 9 wins – and declared he was aiming for double figures and the possible start of an Ozeki run in Aki. “I keep telling myself I am the next Ozeki”. So far he is mostly getting reverse butsukari – yesterday he was pushing TV star Tochiozan, today Abi. His moshi-ai results are not exactly Ozeki-level. He had 5 bouts with Tamawashi, Ryuden et al., won 2 and lost 3. But the Jungyo is still young.
Kawaigari du jour
Yesterday Hakuho rested his inner khan, giving nobody kawaigari. But today, he was back. He told Kizakiumi he might go with him, getting a nervous laugh, but eventually decided to break the shin-Juryo pattern, and go with Tomokaze. That was a 7 minutes ordeal, as befits someone who is much more likely to actually meet Hakuho on the dohyo some time soon.
Yes, white-haired guy on the other side of the dohyo, Hakuho is actually tripping his victim as he is trying to push. Kawaigari is great fun!
As for Kizakiumi, Hakuho said “Well, the Jungyo has just begun!”
Kototsurugi (the official sumo illustrator, a former rikishi) created a design for a new line of Enho products, and had Enho promoting it for him:
Enho is depicted as Issun-Boshi in this design. Issun-Boshi, the tiny hero who leaves his parents’ house to sail the seas in a rice bowl with a chopstick for an oar, is the Japanese equivalent of Tom Thumb.
Of course, somebody else would need to empty that rice bowl for him, though, because Enho himself is famous for his dislike for cooked white rice.
I predict this line of merchandise (I have seen this shirt and a lunch bag so far) will be scooped off the shelves as soon as it hits them. Enho is the hottest thing in Sumodom at the moment.
It’s difficult to find a new angle on the Kisenosato story. Some new sumo fans who have joined the readership of this site may not even know what Kisenosato looked like before that injury which put him into the lingering zombie state in which we find him now, and may even be wondering what the fuss is all about.
Foreigners are there to invigorate a sport – but fans seek some sense of identity and belonging – and sumo lost a lot of that as foreigners “occupied” it.
Makuuchi looked a bit different back in Hatsu 2017, when Kisenosato became Yokozuna. Of 42 wrestlers, there were 15 foreigners (compared to 8 in Hatsu 2019). Of 11 san-yaku, there were six foreigners (4/10 now). Of the 3 Yokozuna, all were Mongolian – and there was no Japanese Yokozuna since Takanohana retired in 2003.
With Kisenosato’s promotion to the top rank, the first promotion of a Japanese to that rank in 19 years, sumo fans in Japan felt the sense of identity and personal involvement in the sport was coming back. Grand Sumo boomed. Expectations were high. Jungyo tours exploded. Merchandise sold by the kilo. The adversity story of Haru 2017, when the shin-Yokozuna not only grabbed a second yusho in a row, but also did so injured, became legend. There was an actual Manga about it.
But there is the rub. That injury. It wasn’t your run-of-the-mill tendon pull or bone fracture, where you can heal up to some extent, with or without surgery, and grind on until the injuries build up and you have no choice but to retire. He tore his pectoral muscle. That was an injury that could never heal without modern medical intervention, and that intervention never came. And thus, the healing never came, either.
A saga of injury, self delusion, secrecy, wishful thinking and reality checks begins.
Kisenosato’s career, which until that moment boasted spotless attendance – not a basho day missed – has become a string of absences, excuses, self-delusions and shuffling of feet. At Natsu and Nagoya 2017, he tried to start the basho as if nothing happened – only to find himself losing too many bouts for a Yokozuna and pulling in the middle – never mentioning the muscle tear. After full kyujo in Aki, again this same cycle repeated in Kyushu and then Hatsu 2018. This time he had no further injury. He was as healthy as a young lion. Except, of course, that pec. Hatsu 2018 was when he first handed a medical certificate for that damage, being forced to admit it existed at all.
He was told not to try to return again until he was actually able to do sumo. He was full kyujo for the next three basho, breaking the record for consecutive kyujo along the way. He said the next one he will appear on would be his make-or-break basho.
And much to the surprise of all of us, he showed up in Aki 2018, and achieved the so-called “Yokozuna kachi-koshi” – 10 wins. Did that muscle miraculously heal? No, it didn’t. His sumo style changed. Some of that change was due to ring rust, no doubt. But some of it was merely an attempt to compensate for the big hole in his chest by throwing everything and the kitchen sink at his opponent. Each of his bouts in that tournament was a skirmish. Slapping, grabbing, pushing, thrusting.
Then came Kyushu 2018, and on day 1, Kisenosato got injured. This was one of the “normal” injuries for a top division rikishi over the age of 30. But it was probably the last straw. With his new style relying on compensating for his injury with the rest of his body, any little damage to any other part of his body is bound to throw him off-course completely.
Former Yokozuna become exasperated. The YDC becomes (vaguely) exasperated. Fans become exasperated.
I cannot described what followed as anything but a disgrace to everything that a Yokozuna stands for. A Yokozuna can never be demoted. The unwritten law that goes with that privilege is that if he cannot win any more, he should resign.
Kisenosato broke the record for consecutive losses for a Yokozuna – and once again, resorted to going kyujo in the middle of a basho. I fully expected him to go the Chiyonofuji way, but that didn’t happen.
Following that, the YDC issued their first ever “encouragement” decision for him. Most of the Japanese media take that to mean he should be back on the dohyo in Hatsu and look like a Yokozuna or else. Some, like NHK, merely interpret that as “show up for the next basho – no matter how much kyujo you take in the middle – and look like a Yokozuna”. And that’s the crux of the problem – the fact that “encouragement” can be interpreted to mean… well… anything. One cartoonist on Twitter even imagined it as Kitamura from the YDC at the side of the dohyo waving big “Go Kise!” signs.
So Kisenosato went kyujo again. Then went kyujo from the Jungyo. Then promised he would join the Jungyo at Ibaraki but didn’t. Then started a round of “private practices” – closed off to the public. He practices a lot with Takayasu, but with no-one else. He does not go on degeiko. A couple of days ago, Toyonoshima and Kotoshogiku showed up at Tagonoura to work out with the Yokozuna. That visit ringed more like a visit at a sick bed than as a real degeiko leading up to a basho. And of course, that practice was also held in private.
At this point, former Yokozuna are grumbling. Kitanofuji said a few days ago: “There is a time when a Yokozuna has to retire”. Hakkaku, also a former Yokozuna (Hokutoumi), said he would like to see Kisenosato “practice as if this was his last time”. My personal belief is that this charade would have ended a long time ago – if Kisenosato’s stablemaster was a former Yokozuna, with the heya’s support group (koen-kai) to match.
But can Kisenosato pull another Aki 2018?
The YDC Keiko-Soken, where the sekitori all perform in front of the YDC, reporters and members of the NSK board, is a good opportunity for a reality check. No more private practices. No breathless reports about 17 wins against Takayasu. You have to show what your sumo looks like. Hakuho tried to cheat a bit in one of the Keiko-Soken last year by only engaging Shodai. He was taken to task for that.
So how did Kisenosato do in the keiko-soken?
Well… you can see for yourselves. As an unnamed member of the YDC said to the press: “This was not Yokozuna sumo”. Kisenosato engaged only with Kakuryu and Goeido. He was 1-3 against Kakuryu and 2-0 against Goeido. At the end of his second bout with Goeido, although he won, he fell to the ground, hit his hip on the tawara, and then never returned to the dohyo.
His performance was weak. His opponents were lower on the tachiai and lifted him easily. The fact that he elected to end his practice after only six bout was also criticized. Kitanofuji said that “He needs to fight 15 days in honbasho. Only six bouts in practice is not nearly enough”. Kitamura from the YDC noted: “He showed spirit… but there is lingering concern because he hasn’t gained his sumo sense yet”. Hakkaku also noticed the insufficient training. The Yokozuna himself said that he felt his mobility was “not bad”, but you can see his expression in the interview at the end of the above clip. It’s not a happy one.
This is a far cry from the way he looked before Aki. There is less than one week to go before honbasho begins. Hakuho seems to be genki enough for this stage of training. Kakuryu seems to be a little less well. But Kisenosato seems to be still injured, lacking in self-confidence, and out of sumo.
So what’s going to happen?
That’s the difficult question, isn’t it? By all rights, Kisenosato should not have been in this position in the first place. At this point we should probably have written a report about his danpatsu-shiki. What will his stablemaster and koen-kai decide? What will the YDC do? Is he really allowed another kyujo? Is there a point? How long can he keep on calling himself “an active Yokozuna” while not being able to perform the basic function: fight bouts and win them?
Kisenosato goes kyujo again, the YDC forgives him and tells him that whenever he shows up, it has to be for the whole 15 days and with good result. The end is delayed yet another basho.
Kisenosato goes kyujo again, and this turns out to be a misjudgement. The YDC hands him a reprimand or even a recommendation to retire. He has to retire in shame.
He decides to start Hatsu. Fights as much as he can. Retires in the middle.
He decides to start. Fights as much as he can. Goes kyujo again. A controversy ensues. He is forced to retire.
He decides to retire prior to the opening of the basho.
He decides to start Hatsu, and a miracle happens. The author of this post orders 10 hats from Ali Express and eats them all (preferably with a bit of wasabi).
The correct answer to the Twitter Quiz was B: Chiyonofuji. I admit, I would not have known the answer without looking up the data in the SumoDB. As reader @henzinovitost pointed out, Akebono, Hakuho, and Takanohana had rather rapid rises into the salaried ranks. The long reigns at Yokozuna are apparent in the charts of all of these wrestlers.
This is the rise of Akebono. Hakuho, Takanohana, and several other Yokozuna had rapid rises like this, though often with a few setbacks in Sandanme or Makushita. By the way, Akebono is literally Rikishi #1 on the SumoDB.