The Sumo World Remembers The Wolf (七回忌)

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 former 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.

In the days after one’s death, there are several ceremonies and occasions where family, friends, and well-wishers gather to pay their respects, as well as to comfort the family. Shonanoka (one week after) and shijukunichi (7 weeks after), are just two of the more commonly observed occasions. Again, you’ll notice the particular importance of sevens.

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.

Paying Respects to the Wolf

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.