Hatsu Preview – The Kisenosato Quagmire

Kisenosato, YDC Keiko Soken, January 7th, 2019

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.

That dimple near the armpit? It’s not going away.

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.

Dai-Yokozuna Chiyonofuji tearfully announcing his retirement in mid-basho, after losing two bouts upon his return from kyujo.

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?

NHK footage from 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?

Possible scenarios:

  • 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).

Update on Harumafuji Scandal: YDC, NSK special meetings and report.

Today has been a day full of news. The YDC held its special deliberation. The NSK board followed with its own, and as it turned out, Takanoiwa appeared from his genie’s lamp and testified to the crisis management committee.

rijikai

Background

 

Here is how things stood yesterday:

  • Harumafuji has handed in his resignation. He is no longer an employee of the NSK, but they do have to settle issues such as retirement money, retirement ceremony, etc.
  • Hakuho, and to a lesser degree Kakuryu, have been criticised for not stopping the violence in a timely fashion or preventing it from the start. Hakuho has also been criticised for his on and off-dohyo behavior in general. There was the matter of his matta protest, his yusho interview and “banzai”, and his style of sumo of late, frequently using harite and kachiage.
  • Takanohana has been waging a war against the NSK:
    • When he found out about the event, he did not report it to the NSK, only to the police.
    • He then refused to cooperate with the NSK’s crisis committee’s investigation, and allowed Takanoiwa to be interviewed only by the police. At first he said he will cooperate once the police investigation was over. Then once the prosecutor hands in a decision.
    • He also failed to produce a medical certificate for Takanoiwa’s absence from the fuyu Jungyo. The medical certificate for the basho was also questionable, as it seemed to have expired by the time the basho started.

Disciplinary measures as well as preventive measures were expected.

Takanoiwa makes an appearance

After the NSK crisis committee has already announced that they have “given up on interviewing Takanoiwa by the 20th” and that they will be handing in their report without his side being represented, and the NSK was hinting that they will be considering his punishment for the unsanctioned absence, Takanohana finally relented and released his deshi to speak to the committee on the night between the 19th and the 20th.

Here is Takanoiwa’s side of the story, as retold by the crisis committee representative in the press conference following today’s board meeting:

  • He only operated his smartphone after Hakuho’s lecture was over, and Hakuho and Harumafuji started talking about other things. He does not believe he did anything insulting or anything that justifies receiving an injury.
  • He felt demeaned by receiving a one-sided beating in front of other rikishi and the staff of his alma mater.
  • He only apologized to Harumafuji the next day because those same staff members advised him to do so. He himself did not feel it was merited.
  • Nevertheless, he says that he had no wish to see Harumafuji retire.
  • When asked why he lied to Takanohana at first and told him that he received his injury by falling down the stairs, he said that he didn’t want to cause an uproar, and that it was unmanly to tattle.

Further, Kagamiyama oyakata commented on Takanoiwa’s current state. Apparently, he is currently hospitalized, suffering from after-effects of the attack.

The YDC convenes, makes recommendations and deflects criticism

The YDC convened and discussed Yokozuna past and present:

  • Although Harumafuji already retired, they discussed the case as a precedent and decided that any such case in the future would merit an intai recommendation.
  • They recommended a severe reprimand to Hakuho and Kakuryu, for making light of their responsibility as Yokozuna to serve as examples, and to prevent any form of violence.
  • They also expressed a unanimous opinion that Takanohana’s behavior is unacceptable for an executive in any organization.
  • They also received many complaints about Hakuho’s “violent” style of fight these days, such as kachiage using a heavily bandaged elbow, or strong harite “for more than 10 bouts out of 15”. Adding that it was “not Yokozuna sumo, ugly, something we do not want to watch”.
  • When asked about their responsibility for the promotion of two Yokozuna who have retired due to scandal the head of the YDC responded that they have neither the ability nor the authority to conduct their own research into the candidates’ characters and have to ask the NSK members about that. Also, that they act on the request of the NSK.

The board convenes

Following the YDC’s meeting and recommendation, the board of the NSK also convened and made some decisions.

hakkaku
Hakkaku. Gave up three months’ salary.

  • For not having prevented the violence, being the most eminent NSK member present, Hakuho will be deducted his entire salary for the coming January, and half of his salary for February. This is estimated at ¥4,230,000.
  • Also for not having prevented the violence, Kakuryu will be deducted his entire salary for the coming January. This is estimated at ¥2,820,000.
  • There is a retirement sum awarded to retiring Oyakata, Yokozuna and Ozeki. Harumafuji will have some amount deducted from this retirement money, though the exact deduction has not been decided yet.
  • The head of the board, Hakkaku, decided to give up his own salary for the rest of his current stint. This means three months, until the next board elections. The sum is estimated at ¥1,448,000.
  • Isegahama oyakata has taken responsibility for the actions of his deshi, and handed in his own resignation from the board. He will therefore be demoted to yakuin-taigu-iin (executive member) instead of riji (director). (Note that he can be re-elected). Hakkaku added that Isegahama oyakata wished to resign already when Harumafuji resigned, but that he, as head of the board, asked him to postpone it until the investigation was over.
  • The board accepted the recommendation of the YDC to set a recommendation of retirement as the standard for any case of violence by rikishi at the top of the banzuke. They used the term “joi”, so this doesn’t apply only to Yokozuna.
  • The missing piece is Takanohana. The discussion of his part has been postponed to another meeting to be held on the 28th, together with the meeting of the board of trustees. “We will make a decision based on the explanation we will receive from Takanohana”, said Hakkaku.

Takanoiwa’s future

Kagamiyama oyakata said that in the board meeting, the board affirmed that they consider Takanoiwa as a victim of violence who should be protected by the NSK as a whole. He added that being kyujo from Kyushu puts Takanoiwa in Juryo on the next banzuke. However, should he need to continue his kyujo into Hatsu as well, considering the circumstances, allowances will be made as to his banzuke position.

takanoiwa
Takanoiwa. Will get to keep his silk mawashi.

Specifically, provided that he supplies the appropriate medical certificate this time, the NSK will not allow his banzuke position for Haru to drop below Juryo.

Preventive measures

All of the above are disciplinary measures. How is such an occurrence to be prevented in the future? Here are some of the suggestions brought up by the crisis committee as well as the board meeting:

  • Declare a “Day of violence prevention”, to make sure that this scandal is not soon forgotten as the Tokitsukaze scandal has been.
  • Create a code of conduct that will be taught and referred to in all pertinent cases.
  • The NSK board will form a violence prevention committee that will include independent experts, to hand in recommendation (one source says) by the 28th as well.

The story of October 25th, retold

In a comment to my previous post about the interim report, I said that I expect the story of what happened on the fateful day in Tottori to change again only once – on December 20th, when the final report is handed.

remote-control
Karaoke remote-control. May be used to zap away your career.

Truth be told, it did not change very drastically, but there are some interesting details surfacing. I’ll put parts that were not in the previous post in bold.

  • Dinner party. Present: Hakuho, Kakuryu, Harumafuji, Terunofuji, Takanoiwa, Ishiura, Ishiura’s father and other members of the Tottori Johoku high school, 13 people in total.
  • During the dinner party, which took about 3 hours, Hakuho took issue with something a friend of his told him that Takanoiwa said in September. Takanoiwa denied. Harumafuji defended him and Hakuho let the matter go. This whole exchange was in Mongolian, and the Japanese present did not know its contents.
  • The after party included most of those participating in the dinner party, at a lounge recommended by the high school staff. Beer was served in glasses, not in bottles. Hakuho lectured to Takanoiwa and Terunofuji about their daily conduct and that they should be thankful to their high school teachers. He also reproached Kakuryu for letting him do all the lecturing.
  • Takanoiwa, thinking that Hakuho has finished his lecture, started to play with his phone. Harumafuji saw that, got annoyed, and asked “Why are you playing with your phone when the dai-yokozuna is talking to you?”. This was apparently also in Mongolian. Takanoiwa first denied he was playing with it, then said “I got a LINE message”. Harumafuji asked “Is that important? Who is it from?”. Eventually Takanoiwa said “It’s from my girlfriend”.
  • Harumafuji hit him once, on the face.
  • Takanoiwa said “sorry”, but Harumafuji thought he was giving him a defiant stare. So he hit him on the head and face several times with his bare hands, asking “Why are you behaving like that? I was protecting you earlier! Are you trying to be smart with Yokozuna?“.
  • He picked up a bottle of Champagne and made as if he would beat Takanoiwa with it, but it slipped and fell without harming anybody.
  • Hakuho, watching Harumafuji, said aloud “Don’t use any objects”. As soon as Harumafuji started using the remote control, he stepped in to stop the beating and took Harumafuji outside the room.
  • Apparently it was several minutes from the beginning of the beating and its end, and over 10 but less than 20 slaps/punches delivered.
  • Harumafuji then returned to the room and demanded that Takanoiwa apologize, hitting him once or twice again with his bare hands. Takanoiwa said “I deeply apologize, I’ll be careful from now on”, so Harumafuji stopped.
  • Harumafuji also reprimanded kakuryu: “You are not guiding them properly”. Then he addressed Terunofuji: “You have no spirit when you do keiko. If you want to ask something, just talk to me!”. Terunofuji changed his sitting position to seiza and answered “We can’t say what we think. There is a wall between us”. Harumafuji retorted “You are the ones who created that wall!”, and proceeded to slap Terunofuji (lightly) once or twice. Terunofuji’s reply: “Thank you”.
  • Takanoiwa’s scalp was lacerated and bled. He also suffered an injury to his wrist.
  • When they left the lounge, Takanoiwa asked Ishiura “What did Harumafuji hit me with?”. Ishiura replied “I think with a beer bottle and remote control”. However, Ishiura did not see that with his own eyes.
  • Takanoiwa had his wound taken care of  the next day in a local infirmary, and initially told Takanohana that he fell down the stairs being drunk.

(Compiled from Nikkan Sports and Nikkei).

 

Yokozuna Deliberation Committee Post-Kyushu Meeting

The Yokozuna Deliberation Committee (or Council – YDC in short) convened earlier today for its regular post-basho meeting. The meeting took place in Tokyo, at the Ryogoku Kokugikan.

YDC-2017-11

The meeting was longer than the usual, and included a briefing from the head of the NSK (Hakkaku) and other attending oyakata about the state of the Harumafuji investigation currently being conducted by the NSK’s crisis management committee.

Concluding Statements

Following the meeting, the head of the YDC, Masato Kitamura, held a press conference, and made the following statements:

  • Regarding the kyujo Yokozuna, Kakuryu and Kisenosato, the YDC wishes to see them take care of their health and attend the next basho in good form. Although Kitamura said that continuing the current situation casts doubt on their ability to maintain their status as Yokozuna, many voices in the YDC said that the Yokozuna should be allowed to rest as much as they need and that they should not need to end their reigns. (Edited to include the two conflicting messages).
  • Kitamura was very critical of Hakuho’s yusho “interview”:
    • The three “banzai” cheers were uncalled for. In the middle of a crisis in the world of sumo, and after his behavior in the match vs. Yoshikaze, there was no occasion to cheer.
    • Implying that there was a festering wound in the sumo world that “needed to be cleansed” is “strange”, and not something that a Yokozuna should say.
    • Promising to bring back Harumafuji and Takanoiwa as if it’s something within his power is also uncalled for.
  • Although it is not within the scope of the YDC’s responsibilities, he decided to comment about Takanohana’s behavior: “It is inexplicable. What is he trying to do? It seems as if he is trying to throw a spanner into the NSK’s investigation.”

Of course, the main issue of the press conference was the Harumafuji affair. Regarding that, Mr. Kitamura explained that as the NSK has not completed its investigation, the YDC is deferring its official recommendation until that investigation is done, at which point they will convene an irregular meeting to deliberate and make a recommendation.

However, he added that as it was undeniable that a violent act did take place, all the members of the YDC were unanimous in their outrage, and said that Harumafuji should be “dealt with with utmost severity”. He added that the YDC has several possible recommendations in its arsenal, from warning through an advice to retire, but “currently we do not know which level we will choose”.

Analysis

In theory, the YDC does not have any real power. It makes recommendations to the management of the NSK, and the NSK can decide whatever it wants.

However, other than general, non-actionable advice such as “get well and come back quickly” such as they have given above to Kisenosato and Kakuryu, the YDC’s “action item” recommendations are generally respected.

Of course, most of the precedents involve recommendations regarding promotions to Yokozuna rather than retirement advice. The YDC has blocked some expected promotions in the past for various reasons and those blocks have been respected.

There have not been many precedents for retirement deliberations. Sponichi (a Japanese news outlet) came up with only three precedents, two of which are not really pertinent:

  • Onokuni, in 1989, was make-koshi in the Aki basho. This is considered to be a cause for retirement for any Yokozuna. However, the recommendation they gave his stablemaster was that he should “get himself together, concentrate on practicing, and become a strong Yokozuna”.
  • In 1999, the third Wakanohana was makekoshi in the Aki basho. Again, the YDC did not recommend retirement but called him in and asked him to take care of his injuries and come back to the dohyo for a decisive basho. Following two kyujo he decided to participate, and retired after losing going 2-4.
  • Asashoryu’s drunken violence was the first and only time the YDC has decided to issue a recommendation of retirement to a Yokozuna. However, Asashoryu handed his resignation on his own initiative before that recommendation was made official.

When they say that “Harumafuji should be dealt with with utmost severity”, the YDC does not leave much room to believe that once the investigation is over they will be lenient. In fact, it sounds as if they have made up their minds already, and are only waiting for the NSK’s conclusions out of politeness.

And once that recommendation is formally made, if the NSK ignores it, it will be unprecedented and extraordinary. The NSK has the power to expel, dismiss, suspend or warn a rikishi. But if the YDC decides that a Yokozuna no longer has the “hinkaku”, if he does not hand in his resignation on his own as Asashoryu did, I cannot see how the NSK could justify keeping him as Yokozuna.

What about Hakuho’s vow, then? He wants to keep Harumafuji around. But I can hardly see how he can achieve that. I cannot see him convincing the members of the YDC to be less harsh, as you can see in the statements above he does not have any friends there. It’s an arch-conservative body, and one not known to be very friendly to foreigners, no matter how many yusho they have won.

In the NSK the situation is not much better. There are many conservatives in the NSK, and there was even a quote today from a “veteran oyakata” saying that there should not be Mongols in sumo. If Hakuho wants something unprecedented and extraordinary like ignoring the YDC to be done, the “reformers” may be his only potential allies. Only… the head of the reformers is Takanohana. Exactly the wrong man.

In western sports we might have expected him to try and arrange a wrestler strike or something similar. But this is unheard of in sumo.

In summary, I believe that the statement “to be dealt with with utmost severity” has pretty much clinched Harumafuji’s fate. The results of the investigation may be less severe than we thought at first. He may not face charges if he only used his bare hands. The fans may be able to forgive him. But the chances that we will see him on a dohyo ever again are vanishingly small.

YDC Soken Held This Week

goeido-down-ydc

Kotoshougiku, Kisenosato and Harumafuji Look Injured

This week, the Yokozuna Deliberation Committee (横綱審議委員会) held their “invitation only” practice to review rikishi performance, and decide what criteria might be levied for Yokozuna contenders. During these meetings, the top men of sumo conduct practice bouts for the committee, and it is seen as a preview of the readiness of the upper level Makuuchi two weeks prior to the start of the basho.

In general the reaction of the YDC Chairman Moriya was positive for a change, he stated that everyone looked to be putting forth a full effort this time.  He stated: “Today was good. Everyone showed great spirit and that does not happen much..

Kotoshougiku was 0-4 in this practice session, and seems to still be struggling with his injuries. Likewise, Yokozuna Harumafuji seems to still be bothered by ankle and knee problems, in continuation of the trouble he had in Kyushu. Kisenosato went for 8 bouts, but stopped complaining of pain.

Hakuhou went 10 straight bouts with Shodai, giving him the “Roomba treatment” winning all 10 as Shodia got a close look at the quality of the clay and sand on the YDC dohyo.

Then there was Kakuryū, who was like some wild, possessed beast. He was practically unstoppable, and at one point sent Goeido crashing into the front row of tables, breaking a teacup. Kakuryū seems to be continuing his strong run from Kyushu. Goeido finished the session 6-4 in spite of being Kakuryū’s bowling ball for one match.