Here Comes Gen Z

The previous few years of sumo have been strange, no? Like it or not, we’re in a transitionary period. For the last decade and more, professional sumo has been dominated by wrestlers of the “Millennial” generation, men born in the 1980s and early 1990s. It’s been an incredible era, and it is by no means over, but with more and more of these Millennials calling it quits each year, and with the retirement of Dai-Yokozuna Hakuho in particular, fans have started to actively speculate over what our beloved Grand Sumo will look like in the future. With our heroes aging before our eyes, it’s only natural to ask, “What’s next?”

First, a short acknowledgement of the Now generation. Men like Terunofuji, Mitakeumi, Shodai, Daiesho, Ichinojo, Takanosho, and Takayasu continue to be relevant at the top of the sport, and a few, such as Abi and reigning champion Wakatakakage, seem only now to be peaking in their late 20s. Many of them will no doubt continue to compete at a high level for much of the next decade, but that’s not the point. The point is that one day soon, this group will no longer be competing exclusively against their peers. Gen Z is coming of age. They are the future.

Makuuchi

They are also, arguably, the present. It’s easy to forget because he achieved so much so early, but Ozeki Takakeisho is still only 25 years old! He and Onosho (25) shot up the banzuke in their early 20s and established themselves as contenders, but at long last their classmates are catching up. Komusubi Hoshoryu (22), fresh off his first successful campaign in san’yaku, has been an early bright star, and with his electric arsenal of throws and trips he’s already being saddled with high expectations as sumo’s next “chosen one.” So too are we expecting great things from M2w Kotonowaka (24) and M9e Kotoshoho (22), two stablemates with formidable size and strength who are right behind Hoshoryu, making strides up the rankings chart. Last but not least, M14e Oho (21), now a Makuuchi sophomore, completes the quartet of young rivals that fans have been watching eagle-eyed for the last several years. All four have displayed great promise at an early age, and I can’t wait for the many battles between them in the years to come.

Juryo

I’ve always thought of sumo’s second division as something of a waystation, a checkpoint where promising young wrestlers stop off to hone their raw talent until they pass up and through, and where aging veterans get one last hurrah on their way down and, eventually, out of the sport. Recently, Juryo has been flooded with the former kind of wrestler, and I think there are two in particular who should be on everyone’s radar. J5e Kitanowaka (21), a former high school Yokozuna, more than impressed in his second Juryo campaign, and with his size (190cm tall) and already mature yotsu style, we shouldn’t expect him to loiter at the rank. His counterpart, J12w Atamifuji, is only 19(!) years old, but he too seems to have all the physical metrics for success, as well as a maturity and skill level which is hard to reconcile with that baby face. Both young men will be top division players before year’s end, or I’m Hoshoryu’s uncle.

Makushita and Below

Set to join them are a host of budding talents—there are too many to name, but let’s try anyway. Literal giant Ms2e Hokuseiho (20), Hakuho’s protégé, and Ms1w Nishikawa (23), a university standout and ex-Ozeki Goeido’s protégé, will sit in pole position come Natsu. A 4-3 kachi-koshi should be enough to earn them both their salaries (Hokuseiho would likely still have his, if not for a knee injury in his Juryo debut last September). Close on their heels will be several of Nishikawa’s university teammates and rivals who had near misses for promotion in Osaka, including top-heavy Ms6e Kanno (23) and a pair of foreign-born powerhouses, 2020 College Yokozuna Ms8e Oshoma (24), and Kazakhstani sensation Ms4w Kinbozan (24), March’s Makushita champion. These last two are getting started slightly later than the rest in terms of age, but have exceptional university pedigrees and seem to be making light work of the lower divisions so far. Both seem to favor an overpowering oshi style, and both are ranked near Makushita’s pinnacle for May. I for one will be crossing my fingers to see their first professional showdown.

I would be remiss not to mention Ms4e Roga, also in the Makushita joi, who most should remember for besting the one and only Terunofuji in a Jonidan championship playoff during the Yokozuna’s first tournament back from injury. Roga has since stalled out in Makushita, but is still only 23, and shows great potential, if he can put it all together. Finally, watch out for these youngsters: Ms47w Yoshii (18), a former Hakuho Cup winner; Ms59e Kanzaki (22), another college standout who won the Sandanme yusho in his Grand Sumo debut; and a fresh-faced pair of stablemates, Jd21e Kototebakari and Jd21w Kotokenryu (both 18), who needed a playoff between them in March to sort out the Jonokuchi yusho. Kototebakari in particular we should watch with interest—not only did he win that playoff, but he is the kid brother of the aforementioned Kotoshoho, and it may not be long before the siblings are reunited in the top division.

The list goes on and on, but if there’s one thing left to say, it’s that sumo’s future looks bright. These kids are big (you can say that twice for Hokuseiho), strong, skilled, and hungry. So watch out world—here comes Gen Z.

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!

And the best basho of the 2010 decade is…

Admittedly, this article could have taken place at the end of last year. But slowly putting myself in the mood for the final basho of the year, I was thinking of past great sumo moments, and wanted to switch from an internal monologue to a broader discussion with you guys, sumo fans.

So my question is: in your opinion, which basho of the past decade would you consider as “the best” ?

Before we start, I’d like to point out the fact that this article will be purely subjective, and does not aim to be scientific or exact. I myself haven’t seen several basho from the beginning of the 2010 decade, so it’s likely I missed some great moments along the way!

I’d like to thank once again Jason Harris for his awesome coverage during the past decades, and his videos I took the liberty to upload here.

The favorites

1. Natsu basho 2012

Had this basho taken place somewhere between 2018 and 2020, the final outcome would not have appeared that weird. But back in 2012, that basho was truly an anomaly.

Seeing an under-par Hakuho losing to Aminishiki on shonishi quickly made it clear the yusho would be up for grabs.

The eventual winner, Kyokutenho, started indifferently, with a 2-3 record after five days, whereas the ozeki were largely disappointing. All, except one: Kisenosato, who had a comfortable two win lead after ten days. But Kisenosato being Kisenosato (and Tochiozan being Tochiozan)…

To sum up this basho, I could of course have selected the playoff, but Kisenosato’s final bout, against Baruto, impressed me quite a lot. The Estonian’s stubborn resistance at the edge, even though nothing was at stake for him at this point, is stunning. Kisenosato’s inability to finish the big guy off is all the more painful.

May 2012, day 15: Kisenosato v Baruto

2. Osaka 2017

Definitely one of the blockbusters of the 2010 decade. The Osaka basho 2017 is the tale of three men, one yokozuna, one ozeki and one sekiwake. Two months ago, all three were ozeki. Kisenosato got promoted to yokozuna, Kotoshogiku could not save his ozeki rank, whereas Terunofuji entered the basho being sadly kadoban yet again. And all three entered the dohyo in fine form.

The shin-yokozuna pleased a delighted crowd, day after day, winning the first twelwe bouts. Terunofuji’s knees seemed to finally let him produce his A-game, having lost just once in the process. Meanwhile, Kotoshogiku grabbed eight wins, and has to win the last two in order to complete what an ozekiwake wants to do: getting his ten, and reaching sumo’s highest rank again.

The rest is already part of the legend: an injury ending career, an infamous henka, a forgettable showing up on day 14, and a playoff of the crippled.

This time, I definitely chose to show the playoff, and not to bring further images of that Kotoshogiku – Terunofuji bout.

Osaka 2017, playoff: Kisenosato v Terunofuji

3. Hatsu basho 2019

My personal favorite, and the perfect definition of sumo chaos.

I can’t help but introducing that event with the usual pre-basho “bold prediction” thread from Grand Sumo Breakdown. Feeling that the upper ranks were far from their best, I predicted a total of no more than 30 wins, for all ozeki and yokozuna combined – that included Goeido, Takayasu, Tochinoshin, Kakuryu, Hakuho and Kisenosato, so an average of five wins per rikishi! Jason thought I was losing it; I held on my prediction. How many wins did those six eventually get? 30.

Back to chaos. First of all, this was Kisenosato’s last basho. After an encouraging 10-5 in September of last year, the injured yokozuna could not grab one single win in November or in January, and had to call it a day.

Kakuryu and Tochinoshin also did not end the tournament – with two wins for the yokozuna, zero for the ozeki. Goeido and Takayasu got their kachi koshi, but varely more (9-6 for both).

What about Hakuho? During the first days, he miraculously saved himself from seemingly hopeless situations – not without a bit of help of Tochiozan, who self destructed once again. Hakuho’s desperate fight against Hokutofuji was a particular highlight. He snatched the win, but injured his knee in the process, as we were to know several days after.

After the first days scares, the dai yokozuna seemed as good as ever – Herouth advised his stable to book a fish in advance, as Hakuho entered the last third of the basho with a two win cushion. From there, the yokozuna’s knee could not stand the effort anymore, and the basho ended up – of course – with a surprise winner.

I enjoyed Takakeisho’s win over Hakuho :

January 2019, day 13: Hakuho v Takakeisho

The outsiders

There were, of course, many more delightful sumo moments to enjoy during that decade. I remember Kisenosato’s fine effort on his quest for his first yusho, in May 2013, where he won the first thirteen bouts before succumbing to Hakuho and ending the basho 13-2.

Kotoshogiku’s unstoppable gaburi was fun, back in January 2016. After getting his kashi koshi as soon as on day eight, things became serious when he defeated Kakuryu, then showing Hakuho and Harumafuji who the boss is. His 14-1 yusho was stunning; perhaps even more than Goeido’s zensho yusho in September 2016, where  Hakuho was kyujo.

January 2016, day 11: Hakuho v Kotoshogiku

The Aki basho 2017 was symbolic in more than one way. The basho almost became a no-kozuna, as the only remaining yokozuna, Harumafuji, was seriously struggling with his elbow (how many no-kozuna have we witnessed since ?). It was also the Mongolian’s final yusho, before his sudden retirement a few weeks after. That basho was yet another anomaly – the last rikishi to win a yusho having sustained four losses was Musashimaru, in 1996.

Goeido’s meltdown was truly shocking – he had a three lead cushion to Harumafuji at some point. All in all, this basho’s scenario was really entertaining, much to Jason’s delight. 

Aki basho 2017, playoff: Goeido v Harumafuji

Jason would surely single out the Aki basho 2012, too. It saw Harumafuji’s second zensho yusho in a row, which prompted a fully deserved yokozuna promotion. On the other hand, Herouth might stress out Kakuryu’s yokozuna promotion, which took place in March 2014.

Aki basho 2012, playoff: Hakuho v Harumafuji

I would finally recall 2019’s Aki basho¸ which was really fun too, with many yusho contenders, and an enjoyable sekiwake duel between Takakeisho and Mitakeumi.

The Aki basho has definitely been entertaining during the past years. Would you pick one of the previous editions as your last decade’s favorite basho?