Sumo is one of the most popular professional sports in Japan and
the image of two of these huge wrestlers grappling is one of the
most famous images of Japan abroad. The colorful traditional costumes
worn by the rikishi (wrestlers) and gyoji (referees), the
distinctive oichomage (gingko leaf knot) hairstyle and the various rituals give the
sport the exotic air that appeals to many foreigners. As TV spread the word worldwide,
many foreign hopefuls tried to break into the ranks
of sumo but few succeeded until recent years. One problem is the language as
there are many Japanese terms used even in English-language TV
For the rikishi, sumo is more than a sport, it is a
way of life, unbelievably tough for newcomers but with its rewards
for those who reach the top, especially the uppermost rank of
yokozuna (grand champion). The most dominant yokozuna to take
to the dohyo (ring) in the 20th century were Futabayama
(1912~68), who won a record 69 consecutive bouts in 1936~9, Taiho
(1940~ ), who won a record 32 basho (tournaments)
before retiring in 1971, Chiyonofuji (1955~ ), whose almost unbeatable
sumo in the 1980's earned him the nickname 'The Wolf,' and Takanohana (1972~ ).
After retiring, most top rikishi become oyakata (stablemasters) and train
future stars. Chiyonofuji, for example, became Kokonoe oyakata, a shimpan (ringside judge)
and a director of the Japan Sumo Association.
The sport has been rocked a couple of times by claims of yaocho, or
match fixing. Claims that some of the top rikishi routinely
took some ¥3-400,000 in cash to throw a match were quickly
and adamantly denied by the Sumo Association, but the sport's
image had been tarnished. This may have been one of the reasons why the sumo
elders started to relax the rules a bit in the late 80s and beyond. The result was
a relative flood of non-Japanese rikishi, mostly from Asia but also from the
US and even eastern Europe. And some did perhaps better than the sumo elders expected. Hawaiian behemoth
Konishiki, at 280kg the heaviest rikishi in sumo history who became a
TV personality and popular TV commercial pitchman, became the first foreigner to
reach the second-highest rank of ozeki. Another Hawaiian giant, Akebono, was Takanohana's
greatest rival in his heyday and was the first foreigner to make the rank of
yokozuna. He was soon followed by Samoan-born Musashimaru.
More recently Asashoryu, one of dozens of his countrymen to
enter the sport in recent years, became the first Mongolian to reach the top rank, and
became the most dominant rikishi of his day. In 2005 for example, he won all six basho, losing
a measly three out of 90 bouts in the whole year. His outgoing and aggressive style didn't go
down well with some sumo purists, who see dignity (not to mention Japanese racial purity) as
a primary requirement for a yokozuna. And so many were baying for his retirement when he caused a
major scandal in 2007. Video footage showed up of him playing a charity soccer game back
in Mongolia when he was supposedly resting due to injury and unable to take part in
regional sumo tournaments. This led to his becoming the first ever yokozuna to be suspended,
and the two-basho punishment left him in a state of severe depression. The media was split
between those calling for his retirement and those who felt he was being unduly punished,
but he bounced back the following year and in March 2008 pulled level with Takanohana's
career total of 22 basho. Though he had been accused by some of bringing the ancient and
venerable sport into disrepute, he certainly succeeded in putting it back into the spotlight.
That spotlight would soon fall on another of his countrymen...
The other scandal from 2007 damaged the sport in a much more serious way. Aichi Prefecture-based
Tokitsukaze oyakata, whose heya was established by the great Futabayama, came under intense media
and eventually police investigation after the June hazing death of a 17-year-old trainee who had
tried to quit the sport. Saito Takashi's death was first said to be due to heart failure, but
investigation and an autopsy ordered by his father revealed that he had been severely beaten.
Tokitsukaze himself had hit the junior with a beer bottle and instructed others to beat him with
a metal baseball bat. In February 2008, the now former oyakata and three of his rikishi were
arrested for manslaughter. The Sumo Association came under severe criticism for seeming to try
and sweep the case under the carpet and treat it as an internal matter.
Then in the summer of 2008 it was the Russian imports who were the cause of a major scandal.
Rikishi Wakanoho was arrested for marijuana possession and when the sumo association cut him loose,
he became the first active rikishi to be kicked out of the sport (that's right, he was dealt with
more harshly than the guys arrested for manslaughter!) and his oyakata Magaki resigned from the sumo
council. Wakanoho made repeated appeals to be reinstated but was told strictly that anyone who retires,
is kicked out, or who runs away is not allowed back into the organization. Shortly after that scandal
broke, two other Russian brothers, Roho and Hakurozan, failed drug tests (which
they disputed) but avoided arrest and like Wakanoho ended up suing the Sumo Association seeking to
revoke their dismissals. Former yokozuna Kitanoumi resigned as head of the sumo association and calls grew
stronger for a serious investigation into the sport.
In 2014, Mongolian yokozuna Hakuho (left) reached a milestone few thought possible when he equalled the record of
the legendary Taiho in winning his 32nd basho. He won 5 of the 6 basho that year, proving that he is still
very much at the top of his game and that Taiho's 40-year-old record was about to be broken. With the other
yokozunas - Harumafuji and Kakuryu - also both Mongolian, that country's domination of the sport is total
for the foreseeable future.
Sumo Basics | The Basho | The Hanada Dynasty | Musashimaru