Legends of the Dohyo #7: The Saint of Sumo Part One

Hitachiyama

The history of athletics is full of innovators and dreamers, unafraid to break with tradition and challenge the old ways in the hope of making their sport better. Even a sport like sumo, steeped in ancient customs and practices, has had many revolutionaries come along willing to risk it all to ensure Japan’s national sport grows and prospers. Men like Futabeyama, who introduced salaries into sumo, and Takamiyama, who broke the gaijin barrier, ushered in new eras and shaped the sumo into what we know today. Yet there is no one who can hold a flame to the tremendous impact Yokozuna Hitachiyama Taniemon had on sumo in the early twentieth century.

Hitachiyama Taneimon was born into samurai nobility in 1874, but his families privileged status was stripped away during the political upheaval of the Meiji Restoration. No longer able to rely on his family’s reputation, the young Hitachiyama traveled to Tokyo to attend Waseda University. While in Tokyo he stayed with his uncle, who encouraged the youth to pursue a career in sumo after witnessing him lift a nearly five hundred pound boulder while working on his uncle’s property. Despite obvious physical talents, Hitachiyama’s father tried to dissuade him from a career in sumo as the sport held little prestige in the rapidly westernizing Japan. Disregarding his father’s concerns, Hitachiyama joined Dewanoumi Beya in 1890. Making his professional debut in Tokyo Sumo two years later, his early career hit a roadblock when  Hitachiyama was forbidden from marrying his stablemasters niece. Unable to be without his beloved, he fled Tokyo Sumo in 1894 and joined rival organization Nagoya Sumo for a brief time before entering Osaka Sumo.

Hitachiyama 2
Hitachiyama (left) and Umegatani (right). Together, these two men returned sumo to its former prestige in the early 20th century.

Hitachiyama eventually returned to Tokyo Sumo and Dewanoumi Beya in 1896, just in time for the spring tournament where he began an impressive 32 win streak. He made his Makuuchi debut in the 1899 Spring Basho, where he took home the yusho with a record of eight wins. Missing the following summer basho, he scored matching seven-win records at both tournaments in 1900 and took home his second championship at the 1901 Spring Basho. Following this success, Hitachiyama was promoted to the rank of Ozeki. After winning both Basho in 1903, including a senshuraku win over fellow Ozeki and chief rival Umegatani Totaro II, Hitachiyama became the sports 19th Yokozuna. However, he insisted that Umegatani receive a promotion as well and the two became Yokozuna simultaneously. Alongside Ōzutsu Man’emon, this would mark the first time the sumo world ever had three Yokozuna at the same time. Hitachiyama’s business sense was evident even early in his career, as the continuation of his rivalry with Umegatani as Yokozunas saw sumo reach it’s highest point of popularity since the Edo Period. Sumo had never been hotter, and as a result of this new popularity, construction began on a massive stadium to meet the demand of fans eager to see their hero Hitachiyama. Opening in 1909, this stadium became known as the first Ryogoku Kokugikan.

The first Ryogoku Kokugikan, 1909.

During his career, Hitachiyama won eight tournaments and oversaw the popularity of sumo grow to grand new heights. His conduct on the dohyo earned him the reputation as the sports most honorable Yokozuna and he became affectionately known as the Saint of Sumo amongst the population. So revered was Hitachiyama that his conduct becomes the very benchmark upon which all Yokozuna who followed have been compared. Yet despite his influence on sumo as an active Yokozuna, it was Hitachiyama’s work off the dohyo and across the globe that left a far, far greater impact on the sport we know today.

End of part one.

Legends of the Dohyo #6: Holy Grail

Futabayama Yusho
Futabayama, 1939

In January of 2015, Yokozuna Hakuho Sho made history when he won his thirty-third Emperors Cup, surpassing a record established by the legendary Yokozuna Taiho Koki over forty years prior. When he accepted his 32nd championship and drew even with Taiho one basho prior, Hakuho stated that the god of sumo had blessed his efforts on the dohyo. Blessed indeed, as he is one of only a select few to have ever amassed over thirty yusho, and even fewer have one to their name. It is the dream of all rikishi to one day win the yusho and lift the Emperors Cup, the holy grail of Japans national sport. Despite being the most prestigious, sought-after prize in all of sumo, the Emperor’s Cup simply did not exist for much of the sport’s history. Even the concept of the yusho, Japanese for victory, has only been a part of sumo for a third of its existence.

The evolution of the yusho we know today was long and gradual, and dates as far back as the seventeenth century. Before this time, many of the men who defined the pre-yusho era of sumo, such as Onogawa Kisaburo, Raiden Tameemon, and Inazuma Raigoro, received no official championships or recognition besides credit for having the best record of their respective basho. The first semblance of a yusho or prize in sumo is found in the Edo period, when onlookers rewarded their favorite rikishi for winning bouts by by throwing  gifts of money onto the dohyo. Over time, these gifts transformed into more organized prizes and trophies provided for each basho by private financiers and awarded to the rikishi with perfect records. However, as Hikiwake (draws), Azukari (Decisions too close to call), and absences were not considered loses during this period, the rikishi with the most wins was not always awarded the tournament prize. It was also common in this period for several rikishi with identical records to be declared the champion of a basho and receive rewards for their efforts, as playoffs would not be introduced until much later.

Around the turn of the century, in January of 1900, this old system underwent a major change when the Osaka Mainichi Shinbun newspaper company offered a kensho-mawashi as a prize for the rikishi with a perfect record or the fewest losses at the upcoming basho. This development would establish the concept of a singular champion for each basho. The first tournament to declare an official yusho champion was the 1909 summer basho, when Maegashira 7 Takamiyama Torinosuke defeated Ozeki Tachiyama Mineemon. While the system of an individual basho champion was begging to take form, there were still some key differences when compared to sumo today. The most significant of these differences was the protocol for breaking ties. There were no playoffs in sumo during this era, and in the case of two men having identical records, the yusho was awarded to the rikishi with the higher rank. Playoff rules would be incorporated into sumo in 1947 after several controversial decisions saw Higher ranked rikishi being chosen over men below them without consideration for the circumstances of the basho. One such controversy involved Ozeki Hitachiiwa Eitaro receiving the yusho over Meagashira Misugiiso Zenshichi, despite one of his wins coming by default.

The final piece of the modern yusho structure came in 1925 when Crown Prince Hirohito donated a trophy, called the Prince Regent’s Cup, to be awarded to the yusho winner of each basho. Upon Hirohito taking his place on the Chrysanthemum throne in 1926, the trophy was renamed the Emperors Cup, and has remained the physical embodiment of the yusho ever since. From humble beginnings of monetary gifts showered upon rikishi from the common folk, the concept of a yusho unfolded gradually, eventually evolving into a splendid trophy from the highest lord in all the land, the Emperor himself. The yusho has become a milestone achievement, a career-definer, and the holy grail that every rikishi strives for each and every day.

Legends of the Dohyo #5: A Family Divided Part Two

Takanohana Wakanohana

Part One

By the early 90’s, Takanohana II and Wakanohana III, the young princes of sumo, were poised to dominate the future of the sport. They emerged at the forefront of a new generation of talent and had already amassed several awards and accolades, adding to those of their legendary father and uncle. The Hanada family dynasty had never looked stronger. Held up as the model of a perfect Japanese family, few could have predicted their downfall.

For much of their early careers, the Hanada brothers were considered near equals. As time went on, however, it was becoming clear that the bigger and stronger Takanohana was eclipsing his elder brother. In 1994, Takahanohana took four of the year’s six yusho and earned a promotion to the sports highest rank of Yokozuna, while Wakanohana suffered from injuries and remain out of yusho contention for the majority of the mid 90’s. The elder Hanada brother briefly stepped out of his sibling’s shadow at the 1995 Kyushu basho, where he won the yusho in a sudden death play-off against Takanohana. This bout would mark the first, and only time the two brothers ever competed against each other, due to rules forbidding siblings and stablemates from facing off outside of playoffs. In commenting about losing to his own brother, Takanohana stated that he “couldn’t come to terms” with the outcome of the match. Never the less, He carried his brothers yusho-ki banner as Wakanohana celebrated with fans. The first cracks in their relationship began to surface in 1998 when Takanohana developed a liver disorder. To combat this disease, the young Yokozuna consulted with physical therapist Tashiro Tomita. Tomita had a significant impact on Takanohana. In following his therapist’s teachings, Takanohana began to seclude himself from his family. This caused great concern for his father, who believed Tomita was brainwashing his son. During this time, Wakanohan finally managed back to back yusho wins and became sumo’s 66th Yokozuna. Despite making history by becoming the first brothers ever to be Yokozuna simultaneously, Takanohana and Wakanohana scarcely spoke to each other. Although Takanohana eventually reconciled with his family, this had opened the eyes of the world to the underlying issues that afflicted their perceived perfect family.

By the early 2000’s, both brothers had retired from sumo due to persistent injuries. While Wakanohana sought a career first in American football and later as a chanko-nabe restauranteur, Takanohana remained in the sumo association, taking over his father’s prestigious stable. Upon the death of their father in 2005, the Hanada family was divided by an incredibly bitter and public dispute between the two former Yokozuna. As an active member of the association, Takanohana demanded that he be the chief mourner at his father’s funeral, and not his older brother who had left the sumo world to chase fame and celebrity. Rumours also circulated that their quarrel was the result of uncertainty regarding the late Takanohana I’s estate, as he left his children no will.  Although Wakanohana did not give into his brothers demand to be cheif mourner, he did forfiet his claim to their father’s estate. Giving up his inheritance would not be enough to make peace with Takanohana, and from that point on the two brothers became like strangers, rarely if ever speaking to one another.  The once mighty Hanada dynasty, who had ruled the sumo world for nearly five decades, had been shattered.


 

Takanohana (left) vs. Wakanohana (right), Kyushu basho, 1995.


 

Legends of the Dohyo #4: A Family Divided Part One

Takanohana Wakanohana 2

Sports have a unique power to bond and connect us. New friendships begin on rinks, courts, and fields all over the world, and many a companion has been made cheering for the home team. Even the bond between siblings can be strengthened by a shared love of sports, and the storied history of athletics is full of brothers competing side by side, and sometimes, against each other. Competition drives us to become better, to push each other to new successes. But just as it can strengthen us, competition and the will to succeed can turn family into foe and tear the bonds of brotherhood apart. Such is the case of the Hanada brothers, Takanohana II and Wakanohana III.

The Hanada brothers were born into sumo royalty. Thier uncle, Yokozuna Wakanohana Kanji, was one of the most popular rikishi of the 1950’s. Nicknamed the devil of the dohyo, he had a prosperous career spanning twelve years and ten yusho championships. Wakanohana I opened the highly successful Futagoyama beya upon his retirement in 1956. One of his most promising students was his own younger brother, Ozeki Takanohana Kenshi. Although Takanohana never went on to reach the rank of Yokozuna, he was incredibly popular with fans throughout the 1970’s. Like his older brother before him, Takanohana would open his own stable (Fujishima beya) in 1982. After a successful junior high sumo career, Takanohana’s youngest son Koji joined his father’s stable in 1988. Not wanting to fall behind, he was soon joined by his older brother Masaru, and the two began to train together. Heya life would be an adjustment for the two brothers. When addressing their father, they were instructed to use the traditional name of oyakata, and they lived alongside their fellow rikishi in the stable, performing all the duties of rookies, regardless of their lineage.

Koji and Masaru adopted the shikona of Takahanada and Wakahanada respectively, and made their debut in March of 1988 alongside future rival Akebono. They made quick progress through the lower ranks amid much fanfare, as it was believed by many that the two “princes of sumo” were destined to continue their family’s prestigious legacy. Both earned promotions into the Maegashira rank in 1990, and by 1993 the brothers had become sumo superstars. With a combined four yusho and six jun-yusho, the brothers were widely credited for the sport’s restored popularity. 1993 also saw both men earn ozeki promotions, with Takahanada’s coming in March and Wakahanada receiving his in September. With these promotions the two were permitted to adopt the shikona of their father and uncle, officially becoming Takanohana II and Wakanohana III. Within six years, the Hanada brothers had taken the sumo world by storm, yet their greatest achievements and most challenging trials were still ahead of them.

End of part one.


Takahanada (left) vs. Chiyonofuji (right), Natsu basho, 1991.


 

Legends of the Dohyo #3: The Peerless One

Raiden2

Throughout sumo’s long and storied history, there have emerged several men whose exceptional skill on the dohyo has led them to be considered the greatest of all time. Taiho, Chiyonofuji, Takanohana II, Asashoryu, Hakuho. These are all sekitori whose status as the best of the best has been hotly debated even to this day. Yet there is one man from sumo’s distant past who may overshadow them all. A rikishi whose sheer dominance elevated him to the status of legend. The mighty thunderbolt, Raiden Tameemon.

Like many legends, this story has humble beginnings. Born Seki Tarokichi in 1767, the man who would one day be known as Raiden Tameemon grew up in a small village in Shinano province. Even in his youth, Tarokichi’s strength was already considerable, and his father enrolled him in sumo classes in a nearby village when he was fourteen years old. During a 1784 jungyo tour of Shinano, the young Tarokichi impressed the visiting stablemaster of Urakaze beya with both his strength and extraordinary height. Standing over six feet tall he was considered a giant compared to his fellow countrymen. Tarokichi was invited to train at Urakaze stable in Edo (modern-day Tokyo) where he honed his sumo techniques. His time at Urakaze was short-lived, and he soon began training at Isenoumi beya under Tanikaze Kajinosuke, sumo’s fourth Yokozuna and the first to hold the position while still living.

In 1790, Tarokichi would make his professional debut at the winter tournament under his new shikona of Raiden, which roughly translates to “thunderbolt”. He finished his first basho with the best record of all rikishi who had participated, including his teacher Tanikaze and the fifth Yokozuna Onogawa Kisaburo. In 1795 Raiden attained the rank of Ozeki, a position he held for seventeen years. Of the thirty-five tournaments he entered, Raiden emerged victorious on twenty-eight occasions*. Of these victories, seven were won without a single loss**, giving the Thunderbolt a record winning percentage of 96%. His supremacy on the dohyo became so renowned that the Sumo Association began limiting the techniques he could use in an attempt to keep his matches more exciting and less one-sided.

Despite dominating sumo for two decades, Raiden would never attain the prestigious rank of Yokozuna, retiring as an Ozeki in 1811 at the age of 44. There have been many theories as to why he was never awarded the title, the most likely of which involving his strained relationship with the Yoshida clan. At the time, only the Yoshida clan held the authority to issue official Yokozuna licenses. It has been hypothesized that Raiden was denied a license due to his ties to the Tokugawa Shogun, whose regime was deeply opposed by the Yoshida. Despite never being granted the rank of Yokozuna, In 1900 his name was inscribed on the Yokozuna Stone at Tomioka Hachiman Shrine, with the only title befitting his tremendous impact on sumo: “Peerless Rikishi” Raiden Tameemon.

* These are not considered official victories as the current yusho system did not come into effect until 1909.
**Although Raiden did not suffer any defeats during these tournaments, several of his matches ended in draws where the winner could not be decided definitively.

Links
http://sumodb.sumogames.de/Rikishi.aspx?r=3143
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raiden_Tameemon
Sumo Matchup Centuries in the Making

Legends of the Dohyo #2: Paving the Way

Takamiyama3

 

When one looks at the current banzuke, they are sure to find rikishi from all over the world. There are the Mongolians such as Hakuho and Terunofuji, Egypt’s Osunaarashi, the Bulgarian Aoiyama, and Wakaichiro from the United States. Foreign rikishi have become commonplace in Japan’s national sport, but for the vast majority of its existence, sumo was exclusively for those of Japanese heritage. That is, until Takamiyama Daigoro blazed a trial that countless rikishi around the globe have followed to this very day.

Takamiyama Daigoro, birth name Jesse Kuhaulua, was born on the Hawaiian Island of Maui in 1944. Even in his youth, he was known for his enormous size, standing over 6 feet tall and weighing nearly 300 pounds. Despite his impressive stature, he suffered from weak legs and hips as a teenager. He was encouraged by his high school football coach to join a local sumo club to strengthen his lower body. Takamiyama soon caught the attention of several professional rikishi visiting Hawaii from Japan, and in 1964 he accepted an invitation to join Takasago beya. At the 1968 Haru basho, Takamiyama became the first foreign-born rikishi to be promoted to the Makuuchi division. He would go on to have a long and successful career in sumo’s top division, spanning 17 years and a record 97 consecutive tournaments. This record for most consecutive basho as a sekitori stood for twenty-five years until it was surpassed by Ozeki Kaio Hiroyuki in 2009. Although not the most technically proficient rikishi, Takamiyama’s size and strength made up for what he lacked in skill. He regularly used his power to push his way to victory, and on many occasions would merely lift his opponents up and out of the dohyo.

In addition to his success on the dohyo, Takamiyama became a celebrity throughout Japan. His massive size, bushy sideburns, and jovial personality made him incredibly popular with fans, and he regularly appeared in advertisements until it was banned by the Sumo Association. The crowning achievement of his career came at the 1972 Nagoya basho when Takamiyama became the first foreign-born rikishi to win a yusho. To congratulate him on his victory, President Richard Nixon sent a letter that was read aloud after the presentation of The Emperor’s Cup. This marked the first time English was ever spoken on the dohyo. In addition to his yusho, Takamiyama was awarded 11 sansho special prizes and earned 12 kinboshi victories throughout his career.

In 1982, Takamiyama was given a heroes welcome when he returned to Hawaii. During this trip, he met a young Saleva’a Atisano’e, later known as Konishiki Yasokichi. This meeting would inspire the future first non-Japanese Ozeki to begin his sumo career. In 1984, at the age of 39, a debilitating elbow injury forced Takamiyama to end his career. Having become a Japanese citizen, he joined the Sumo Association and started his own stable, Azumazeki beya, the first foreigner to do so. His most promising student, Chadwick Rowan, would go on to become Akebono Taro, sumo’s first foreign-born Yokozuna. With his fighting days behind him, Takamiyama passed the torch to his fellow Hawaiians, Konishiki and Akebono, both trailblazers in their own right. They would, in turn, pass the torch to a generation of rikishi from across the globe, each of whom owes a debt to their forerunner, Takamiyama, the man who paved their way.


Takamiyama (left) vs. Asahikuni (right), Nagoya basho, 1972.


Links:
http://sumodb.sumogames.de/Rikishi.aspx?r=4050
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Takamiyama_Daigor%C5%8D

Legends of the Dohyo #1: The Unbreakable Record

Futabayama

In the world of sport, there are a select number of records so substantial, set by athletes who transcended their sport, that they are considered unbreakable. Wayne Gretzky’s 2,857 career points, Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hit streak, Cal Ripken Jr.’s 2,632 consecutive games played. All great records, all thought to be unbreakable. Yet there is one record that may genuinely never be bested: Yokozuna Futabayama Sadaji’s 69 consecutive wins.

At the age of fifteen Futabayama entered the world of sumo, making his Makuuchi debut five years later in 1932. His meteoric rise up the banzuke from mid-Juryo to Meagashira 4, an unusually large promotion, was the result of many of the sports top stars going on strike due to demands for reform within the Sumo Association. Desperate for talent, The Association put their faith in the young Futabayama. Their faith was well founded, and it did not take long for him to find success in the top division. In March of 1936 Futabayama won his first yusho at the rank of Sekiwake with a perfect 11-0 record. As a result of his impressive zen-yusho victory, Futabayama was awarded the rank of Ozeki for the following tournament. As an Ozeki, he would go on to win both bashos in 1937* with perfect zensho-yusho records and became the sports 35th Yokozuna.

At this point in his career Futabayama had garnered a great deal of public attention. Spectators eagerly attended tournaments to see just how long the Yokozuna could stretch his winning streak. Capitalizing on this popularity, the Sumo Association extended the number of days each basho ran from 11 to 13 and eventually to the 15-day tournaments we see today. Futabayama continued his winning ways with an additional two zensho-yusho in 1938. His streak would come to an end on the eighth day of the 1939 Haru basho when Futabayama, who was ill with dysentery, was finally defeated by future Yokozuna Akinoumi Setsuo. Although his undefeated record had been capped at 69 victories, Futabayama continued to find success in his career. He went on to win another six more yusho and opened his own stable in 1941 while still an active rikishi, an act now forbidden by the Sumo Association. After his retirement in 1945, Futabayama revealed that he had been robbed of his sight in one eye as a child, making the incredible achievements throughout his career even more impressive.

Since setting the record for most consecutive wins, many other great Yokozuna such as Taiho and Chiyonofuji have tried and fallen short of surpassing Futabayamas most enduring legacy. In 2010, Yokozuna Hakuho became the closest in modern time to breaking the record. Believing himself to have been born to eclipse Futabayama’s achievement, Hakuho fell just six wins short of drawing even with his Yokozuna predecessor. If the greatest rikishi of our time could not overcome Futabayama’s record 69 consecutive wins, Then it can truly be said to be unbreakable.

*During the late 1930’s and early 1940’s only two basho were held each year


Futabayama (left) vs. Akinoumi (right), Natsu basho, 1942.


Links:
http://sumodb.sumogames.de/Rikishi.aspx?r=3763
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Futabayama_Sadaji