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The tale of two former yokozuna, sumo grand champions

In the photo above, retired yokozuna (Grand Champions) Harumafuji (left) and Kisenosato (right) are standing with yokozuna Hakuho (center) at the Hakuho Cup, an annual sumo tournament for kids that Hakuho runs. (He doesn't just lend his name to it, he actually runs it, which is a huge job.) Seeing this photo, as a sumo fan, brings up all kinds of emotions. (Photo source)

If you’ve been following the drama in Grand Sumo these past few years you know what I’m talking about. If not, on.

Kisenosato, the Great Japanese Hope


Let’s start with Kisenosato. Harumafuji and Hakuho are both from Mongolia. (Hakuho took Japanese citizenship last year.) Kisenosato is Japanese. Before he was promoted to yokozuna, Grand Sumo had been dominated by non-Japanese rikishi (sumo wresters) at the top for more than 2 decades.

There’s a kind of unspoken rule that one must win at least two tournaments in a row before being promoted to yokozuna, but Kisenosato was promoted after just one win. Being promoted to yokozuna is a huge deal; besides the honor itself, once there you can never be demoted, unlike all the other ranks.

Although sumo is now "just" a sport, it was originally a religious ritual in Shinto. (You can still see many signs of that, such as in the salt thrown on the ring before each bout; the salt symbolizes cleansing and purity, and is supposed to ward of any evil in the ring and prevent the rikishi from being injured.) Modern sumo is largely based on rules and values established during the Meiji period onwards, and is laced with nostalgia for a rather mythical heroic past; in many respects, sumo rikishi are the last vestiges of the samurai. Therefore, as the Grand Champion of sumo, a yokozuna still has great status. Even touching a sumo rikishi, especially a yokozuna, is considered to be good luck. Given all of that, for some people having a Japan-born, Japanese rikishi as a yokozuna was important.

The last Japan-born yokozuna before Kisenosato (the 72st yokozuna) became one in 2017 was Wakanohana no. 66) in 1995. The ones in between are one Hawai’ian, Musashimaru, and four Mongolians - Asashoryu, Hakuho, Harumafuji, Kakuryu. This has rankled some people. Therefore, Kisenosato was promoted after just one tournament win, in January 2017.

As if to prove that he was worthy of being yokozuna, Kisenosato won the next tournament in March 2017, after a thrilling playoff match against then-ozeki (the next highest rank after yokozuna) Terunofuji. But after that tournament it, all went downhill for Kisenosato. Plagued by injuries, he withdrew from several tournaments or didn’t appear at all.

He never won another tournament, and in January 2019, just 2 years after becoming yokozuna, he retired.

Incidentally, Kisenosato was an ozeki for years, alongside another long time ozeki called Kotoshogiku, also Japanese. They were like a matching pair, similar in age as well as body type. Kotoshogiku still active, although lower in rank now and slowly fading. Kotoshogiku won a tournament in Jan. 2016 but was not promoted to yokozuna. Would Kisenosato still be active too if he hadn’t been perhaps prematurely promoted? We’ll never know.

Harumafuji, the fallen hero


Harumafuji was the 70th yokozuna, promoted in 2012 after winning 2 tournaments in a row, in addition to 2 more the previous year. (Compare that to Kisenosato’s single win ever at the Makunouchi or top level.) Harumafuji was not very big, but he was very quick and had a grace about him which attracted many fans. He provided healthy competition for the dominant yokozuna of our time and maybe of all time, Hakuho. They were good friends outside the ring. Harumafuji had 9 Makunouchi or top division tournament wins, which is pretty remarkable in the Hakuho era[1].

On Sep.25, 2017, a group of rikishi, mainly Mongolians but others too, were having a post-tournament party of sorts at a bar. Harumafuji got mad at a younger Mongolian rikishi, Takanoiwa, who was looking at his phone while Hakoho was talking to him, according to statements by both parties.

Harumafuji whacked Takanoiwa on the head with a karaoke remote control, causing him injuries. (It was initially reported that he's hit Takanoiwa with a beer bottle, but both sides stated that it was a remote.) Harumafuji was allegedly drinking at the time and despite his calm demeanor in the ring, was reported to have a quick temper.

Violence is never good of course, but what followed was a mess.

The head of the stable where Takanoiwa belonged, former yokozuna Takanohana, basically (and this is my view) used the incident as a weapon, not only against Harumafuji, but against Hakuho and all Mongolian rikishi, even though Takanoiwa was Mongolian too. Police reports were filed (the police never pressed charges though), and Takanoiwa was hidden away in a hospital in Tokyo. Harumafuji and his stable master Isegahama Oyakata apologized several times, but that wasn't enough. Harumafuji was forced to retire.

Again, what Harumafuji did to Takanoiwa, maybe in a drunken moment, was terrible. But what Takanohana did - using a young rikishi as a pawn and weapon, was imho worse. Takanohana became the leader and hero of all the people who had ill feelings against non-Japanese sumo rikishi. Are these people xenophobic? In my view, you bet they are, and so is Takanoiwa. These kinds of right wing xenophobic, nationalist, racist views have been on the rise in Japan lately unfortunately - or at least given voice due to anonymous social media outlets, as elsewhere.

Soon afterwards Takanohana really went off the rails. He tried to stage a coup of the Grand Sumo Association basically, who (leaving out a lot here) threw him out of the association's elder's council. And then, a seemingly unrelated incident occurred in Takanohana's stable. One of his other rikishi, Takayoshitoshi (later renamed to Takanofuji), beat up his tsukebido or attendant, a junior rikishi, in a fit of rage after a bout. He wasn't drunk at the time. After that incident, Takanohana suddenly withdrew his still standing complaint about the Harumafuji-Takanohana incident. Let's ponder why. (Or not.)

(Incidentally, Grand Sumo has been plagued by incidents of violence for years. A junior rikishi even died after being severely abused or 'trained'. That stable he belonged to was closed down, but no criminal charges were filed.)

Skipping ahead a bit because Takanohana was just all over the place - but remember, still a hero to many. On September 25, 2018, Takanohana suddenly announced he was retiring from the Grand Sumo Association and closing his stable. He dumped all his rikishi onto another stable, Chiganoura. It was reported that even Chiganoura Oyakata himself was surprised by the news.

So what happened to Takanoiwa after the bar incident? He was transferred to the Chiganoura stable too with his other stablemates. But on December 5, 2018, he was involved in another assault incident - this time as the perpetrator. He beat up his tsukebito (attendant) in a fit of rage. Sounds familiar. The police did want to press charges in this case and even filed the papers, but the victim didn't want to (or was pressured not to...) press charges, so they were withdrawn. 2 days after the incident, Takanoiwa announced his retirement. He was just 27, in his prime.

At Takanoiwa's formal retirement, his danpatsushiki (hair cutting ceremony), one of the participants who cut a lock of his hair and gave him a hug was Harumafuji. His old master Takanohana did not show up.

Aftermath: Where are they now?

  • Kisenosato is now called Araiso Oyakata. He trains young rikishi at his old stable, and promoted Grand Sumo. He's also proven to be a very good TV commentator, with sharp but fair analysis.
  • Takanohana is now in the entertainment biz in a minor way. He has a non-profit organization and has also toyed with the idea of entering politics. He still has legions of diehard fans who agree with his views on throwing the gaijin rikishi out and so forth.
  • Harumafuji is a coach at his old Isegahama stable. His master, Isegahama Oyakata, continues to speak highly of him and says frequently he is the best rikishi he's ever trained. Harumafuji also works in Mongolia to promote Japanese culture and Japan-Mongolia relationships. He too still has legions of fans, both in Japan and Mongolia.
  • Takanoiwa now runs his family farm back in Mongolia.
  • Takanoyoshitoshi, later renamed Takanofuji, was involved in yet another incident in September 2019, where he verbally and physically abused 3 young rikishi. The sumo association reprimanded him, and he subsequently announced his retirement on October 11, 2019. Instead of apologizing like Harumafuji and Takanoiwa, he left while expressing his resentment about their 'unfair treatment' towards the sumo association via an attorney.

And one more: Terunofuji


There's one more rikishi to follow up on. I mentioned above that Kisenosato won the tournament after becoming yokozuna after a playoff match against then-ozeki Terunofuji, who belongs to the same stable as Harumafuji and is his otouto rikishi - you unger brother in sumo terms, stablemates and close to each other.

Terunofuji has had his own, totally unrelated to the above mess, troubles. When he was promoted to ozeki at the age of 23, he seemed destined to become yokozuna soon. But he started getting injuries, especially to his knees. He was also diagnosed with diabetes. As mentioned above, all ranks other than yokozuna can be demoted due to poor performance or missing matches/tournaments. Terunofuji fell all the way down to Jo no nidan, the second-lowest division[2]. His diabetes was so bad he had to wear a glucose monitor all the time, strapped to his leg while he trained or even during bouts.

A lot of rikishi would give up and retired. But Terunofuji didn't. He got his knees operated on, improved his diet to control his diabetes, and worked his way back up. In the January 2020 tournament he won the Juryo division, the 2nd highest, right below the top Makunouchi division. If all goes well he will probably make it back to the top Makunouchi division soon. Then - who knows? He's still just 28 years old.

  1. Yokozuna Hakuho has won more tournaments and more matches than any other rikishi in modern sumo history. He has 1,053 match wins at the Makunouchi or top level (1,147 overall) and 43 Makunouchi tournament wins. At 35 he has been plagued by injuries in the last couple of years, but he still won 2 out of 6 tournaments last year, and still dominates the sport. This means of course that he has a lot of detractors, especially of the type that agree with Takanohana's views. But I'll write about Hakuho another time.  ↩

  2. The divisions in Grand Sumo are, from bottom to top: Jo no kuchi, Jo no nidan, Makushita, Juryo, and Makunouchi. Only rikishi in the top two divisions get paid; lower level rikishi get room, board and training, but no paycheck.  ↩

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