Japanese End Drought in Sumo Wrestling, Their National Sport – The New York Times
In Tokyo on Sunday, the sumo wrestler Kotoshogiku won the first of the year’s six top-level tournaments. The result was big news because of his nationality: Japanese.
Since the 1990s, foreigners have dominated the top level of sumo, Japan’s national sport. Although there are six two-week top-tier tournaments, or honbasho, every year, Kotoshogiku’s victory was the first for a Japanese wrestler in 10 years. Over the past decade, tournaments have been won by several Mongolians, and also by a Bulgarian and an Estonian, creating an identity crisis among fans and officials of the sport, which has roots more than a millennium old.
Sumo, which seems to embody Japanese tradition, got its first foreign-born champion in 1972 when Jesse Kuhaulua, a Hawaiian known by the sumo name Takamiyama, won a tournament in Nagoya.
The first true foreign-born superstar was Chad Rowan, a Hawaiian known as Akebono. Rowan, a 6-foot-8, 450-pounder, was the first foreigner to be named yokozuna, the sport’s highest rank. Yokozuna cannot be demoted, and only a handful of wrestlers hold the title at the same time. Being appointed one by the sport’s council of elders is considered a high honor.
Akebono’s rivalry with the Japanese brothers Takanohana and Wakanohana, two other yokozuna, energized the sport in the 1990s. But when a wave of stars from Mongolia — which has its own rich wrestling tradition — entered the sport around the turn of the millennium, few Japanese could challenge them.
The first great Mongolian, Asashoryu, won 25 top-level tournaments, but ruffled feathers in Japan for behavior seen as not in keeping with sumo tradition. Celebrating excessively (or, indeed, at all), as Asashoryu did, is considered a violation of the sport’s strict decorum.
Despite this code, the sport has recently had its share of scandals, including allegations of match-fixing.
The current Michael Jordan of sumo is Hakuho, a Mongolian who has won 35 tournaments over the past 10 years, breaking the record set by the great Japanese wrestler Taiho in the 1960s.
A honbasho consists of 15 matches, and both Hakuho and Kotoshogiku were 10-0 going into their 11th bouts on Jan. 20. After a ritual purification of the ring with salt, the much-anticipated match, like most sumo bouts, was over in seconds. Kotoshogiku seized the initiative, pushing Hakuho back and out of the ring.
Kotoshogiku finished the tournament 14-1 to win the title, while Hakuho wound up 12-3 and tied for second with another Mongolian star, Harumafuji.
The rising popularity of other sports with the younger generation, which sees sumo as old-fashioned, has been blamed for the dearth of Japanese sumo stars. Soccer has grown in popularity, while television ratings for baseball and sumo have slumped.
The drought is reminiscent of those at other important national events like the Tour de France (which has not had a French winner since 1985) and Wimbledon (which has not had a British women’s winner since 1977, and has had just one British men’s winner since 1936).
Did Kotoshogiku’s victory represent a passing of the torch to a new generation of Japanese stars? Perhaps not. Kotoshogiku celebrated his first top-level win Sunday at age 31, while Hakuho, with his 34 wins, is still only 30.
There are five more tournaments this year, and a nation of sumo fans will be hoping Kotoshogiku is not a one-hit wonder.